Many if not most environmental stories have their roots in rural places. Those are the places where extractive industries do almost all their extracting, where America ultimately puts much of its solid waste, where farm fields get the fertilizers that create dead zones in the sea.

They are also places where journalists struggle to cover these and other environmental topics. Their obstacles include isolation; lack of resources and support systems; outside interference in the newsroom, and lack of skills and knowledge to tackle issues that can be complex, with few good sources close at hand.

Perhaps the most challenging and controversial player in rural environmental coverage is the coal industry, which tends to dominate regions such as Central Appalachia. But the region had never seen a conference for journalists to learn from industry leaders, opponents of mountaintop-removal mining, mine-safety advocates, state and federal regulators and other experts until 2005, when the Institute sponsored “Covering Coal” at the Marshall University Graduate Center in South Charleston, W.Va.

The conference led directly to another first-ever event, the Coal-Media Roundtable in Pikeville, Ky., at which journalists and industry representatives found some common ground as they sorted out their often-contentious relationship.

In 2007 the Institute hosted an intern from the Knight Community Journalism Fellows program at the University of Alabama, who earned her master’s degree partly by writing the first-ever story comparing the regulatory and lobbying situations in the four states with mountaintop-removal coal mining: West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.

The reporting of Mary Jo Shafer, later an assistant city editor at The Anniston Star, was published in Appalachian papers and correctly predicted that the mountaintop-removal battle would shift from the states to the federal level. (Shafer photo: Sam Gilbert of Eolia, Ky., in front of a mountaintop-removal mine neart his home.)
The Institute’s Rural Blog has continued to follow the issue closely, as the Obama administration has tightened regulation of the practice. It also closely follows the news on climate change and other coal-related issues, including electric utilities’ increasing use of natural gas, which poses a threat to the coal industry.

In 2008 the Institute and the Society of Environmental Journalists co-sponsored “Covering Climate Change and Our Energy Future in Rural America,” a one-day seminar that began the annual SEJ Conference in Roanoke. Institute Director Al Cross wrote an advance article for the society’s magazine about the difficulties rural journalists face covering environmental issues. The Institute helped plan the program and sponsored attendance of journalists from the coalfields, to promote more coverage of the coal industry.

Also at the conference, Cross moderated a reporters’ discussion on covering the environmental and health issues in agriculture, and moderated a similar discussion at the 2009 SEJ meeting in Madison, Wis.

In 2009 Cross was a major player in “Coal in Kentucky,” a conference followed by an hour-long documentary of the same name that premiered in 2010. He moderated and presented at a day-long forum, served on the documentary’s advisory board and finally was a consultant who appeared on camera several times as a neutral observer who framed the issues. He received good reviews from the industry and environmentalists.

The film was produced by the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments in the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering.

Also in 2009, Cross gained national attention with his story revealing that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack disagreed with the Environmental Protection Agency’s approach to estimating the carbon footprint of ethanol, and that his Department of Agriculture should oversee the allocation of carbon credits under the climate-change bill then nearing passage in the U.S. House.