The Mississippi River & Africa’s Congo Share a Lack of Context

Anjan Sundaram weaves a personal tale in his book, “Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo”.  In a recent New York Times article he sums up how “We’re Missing the Story”

 “The Western news media is in crisis and is turning its back on the world,” he writes.  The same is true, for the same reasons, for U.S. stories that don’t originate on the East or West Coasts. The Mississippi River is one vivid example. 

“Bureaus are in hub cities”, says Sundaram and “[ ] the 24-hour news cycles we watch rarely give us the stories essential to understanding the major events of our time. Reporters move like herds of sheep, flocking to the same places at the same times to tell us, more or less, the same stories.” 

You don’t have to go around the world to feel the effects of this trend.  When the Mississippi River floods, reporters and camera crews converge on the scene of destruction for approximately 24 hours to photograph and write about the event. We rarely see coverage of the context of the floods, or the drought or the pollution for that matter. In a nutshell, news is generated based on disasters and emergencies, with a few human interest stories thrown in for “balance”. 

To be fair, there hasn’t been anybody calling on the media to try to give them the context either. In the parlance of the Blogosphere, there isn’t much whole-river content.  The same “silo-based” and place-based understanding of the Mississippi that results in disjointed policy, also results in disjointed information. While we know we need whole-river and watershed-based approaches to the Mississippi River’s management, there are very few groups or individuals generating or offering whole-river or watershed-wide information.  There isn’t a source where this information is collected or made available. A watershed context awaits whole-river and watershed-based news and information. 

There are some notable exceptions. The Mississippi River Parkway Commission provides a context for Mississippi River history, geography and habitat. But to access it, you have to move –either by car or on the internet – from location to location, as their mission seeks to engage people as tourists where they are on the river. The same is true of Mississippi River Trails and their biking and hiking constituents. Exhibits like the Corps of Engineers’ National Great Rivers Museum at the Melvin Price Dam in Alton, Ill.Great rivers museum and in the Lower Mississippi River Museum in Vicksburg, and the Minnesota Science Museum in St. Paul, also tell the whole-river story. But, again, you have to visit to get the information. 

At America’s Waterway, we’re trying to fill this void of whole-river information. We’ve assembled a team of professionals including writers, producers and scientists in preparation for 90-second radio segments about the Mississippi River’s significance to America’s economy, ecology and social development. The team includes civic engagement software, too, to expand the information beyond immediate listeners. All we need is funding to put it together and get it to public and community radio stations near the river and its sub-basins. 

When funded, it won’t immediately fill the void, but it will provide a place for whole- Mississippi River public information. It will be distributed through both traditional and social media. The context for future events and disasters will build over time, as will new understandings as new science and monitoring builds up and reveals more about the river’s impacts on us and our impacts on the river. It promises a starting point for a body of whole-river knowledge that’s publically accessible. It’s the much-needed platform for whole-river context that’s missing with today’s crisis-driven reporting.


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