No Award for Ivory’s Inaccurate Atrazine Story

Monday, April 5, 2010
The Huffington Post Investigative Fund’s Danielle Ivory was a finalist for the Investigative Reporters and Editors investigative journalism award for an article she wrote on atrazine. Maybe she didn’t win because her story was inaccurate.

Sure, I crossed over to the “dark side” leaving newspaper journalism for public relations, but I still remember my news roots. Those roots go back to ink-scented offices at my college newspaper, then at the historic Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kan.  The pay wasn’t great, but I gained a fortune in news smarts from some amazing (and often grumpy) editors.  A lazily written story was always challenged with red ink. Notes to the side like “attribution?”, “source?” or “prove it!” were common even in the simplest of stories. Opinion was to be left on page four, and you had better interview sources from each side of a story. Lots of red pens must be sitting unused in today’s newsrooms.

An example is Danielle Ivory’s almost award-winning reporting on atrazine. While I took issue with many parts of the story, let’s simply look at the lead: “One of the nation's most widely-used herbicides has been found to exceed federal safety limits in drinking water in four states, but water customers have not been told and the Environmental Protection Agency has not published the results.”

The lead is a little long and, but it does portray the breathlessness with which the writer is reporting the story. Breathlessness aside, let’s look at the facts in the lead. Ivory states the herbicide has exceeded federal safety limits. This is incorrect. The federal safety limit for atrazine is three parts per billion based on an annual average. This is specified in the Safe Drinking Water Act’s standards for atrazine.  While test results showed atrazine levels well above 3 parts per billion in some cases, those were found in individual weekly tests that were part of a program designed to take a closer look at atrazine levels in certain areas. The EPA drinking water limits are based on an “annual average” and not individual readings. If the writer was not aware of this, her editors should have been. The atrazine levels in water in these areas fall well within the EPA’s drinking water standards. In fact, there have been no violations of the drinking water standards anywhere in the U.S. since 2005.

According to EPA:  “Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the atrazine Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) is intended to prevent longer-term, or chronic, health concerns from occurring even after years of exposure and is calculated against a running average from four quarterly samples. An occasional peak concentration above 3 ppb is, therefore, not cause for concern. Rather, a long-term, consistent value above a yearly average of 3 ppb would be of concern. The MCL is designed to protect all population subgroups.”

An editor once told me, if the lead is wrong, the entire story lacks credibility. He also told me that I couldn’t slant a story based on my personal agenda. Maybe these rules no longer stand.
The Huffington Post congratulated Ivory on being chosen a finalist for the IRE investigative journalism award, claiming that the story played a part in mobilizing Senator Barbara Boxer into pressuring EPA to open yet another evaluation of atrazine, and led  to a class action suit against the makers of atrazine.

I congratulate the IRE for not giving Danielle Ivory an award for her investigative article. I like to think an old editor who serves on the IRE board marked her copy with red ink.

Sue Schulte, Director of Communications
Kansas Corn Growers Association
Kansas Grain Sorghum Producers Association


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