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Utah Public Radio starts the conversation on air pollution and public health

Filed by KOSU News in Public Insight Network.
April 4, 2013

Winter 2013 Inversion, Cache Valley, Utah. (Image courtesy of

A typical inversion – a winter weather phenomenon in which stagnant, cold air is trapped within the bowl of a valley, gathering pollution and held down by a layer of warm air on top — hovers over Utah’s Cache Valley during the winter of 2013. (Image courtesy of


Editor’s note: Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting the work being done in partner newsrooms that have received Public Insight Network engagement funding.

Last week, Utah Public Radio launched an engagement project about air pollution by sending out a PIN query to residents of Cache County, which has the most polluted air in the state.

The issue of clean air in Utah has become heavily politicized lately — but Utah Public Radio’s new investigative project aims to address the topic not through politics but through a lens of public health. The newsroom’s reporting team plans to host a discussion informed by the community’s questions and concerns that will also include an on-air piece for the wider Utah and national audience.

Jennifer Pemberton, Utah Public Radio

Jennifer Pemberton, Utah Public Radio

Jennifer Pemberton, the lead reporter and project manager on the series, answered a few questions about the project.

What’s your role in this project?
I’m the instigator. Our station simply didn’t have the resources to give this issue the coverage it deserves, so when I heard about the community engagement funds from PIN, I had to go for it. I’m also serving as the project manager, pulling bits and pieces of talent from a lot of people at Utah Public Radio and from our community to try and do an investigative report on this issue as a team.

Where did the idea for this topic come from?
It has been a long and dirty winter in Utah. We had record-breaking air pollution in January and February due to a number of factors, and it got to be un-ignorable. It also happened to get really bad during the Utah state legislative session, so what should have been a public health issue quickly turned political. The news coverage was all about what the legislators were trying to accomplish in Salt Lake City, and I really felt that the kind of human interest stories that public radio is famous for were missing from the conversation.

What communities or groups are you focused on engaging with? Why?
Air pollution is a problem in many communities in Utah – most visibly in Salt Lake City and the surrounding area, where the population is concentrated – but Utah Public Radio is based in the town of Logan, in northern Utah.

Utah Public RadioDue to the topography of our valley, our winter inversions – [a winter weather phenomenon in which stagnant, cold air is trapped within the bowl of a valley, gathering pollution and held down by a layer of warm air on top] – are denser and last longer than in other areas of the state, so we’re focusing on the health issues related to air pollution at home.

Utah Public Radio is a statewide news service, but for this project we are focusing solely on the issue as it relates to listeners in our own backyard, in Cache County.

How are you planning to engage with your audience around this topic? What do you think they’ll find compelling about these stories?
We’re asking residents to specifically talk to us about how air pollution is affecting them. Whether their health issues are diagnosed or undiagnosed, we want to understand the experience of living in this county, where the air quality is the poorest in the nation for the better part of the winter months. We’re looking for anecdotal evidence, and ultimately for stories.

We’re soliciting feedback through our newly created online sourcing page, through on-air announcements and by attending community events and talking about the project. And we are partnering with local groups like the health department to try and validate people’s experiences with facts about the health effects of air pollution.

What kind of impact do you hope this project will have?
As the weather gets warmer and the skies get bluer and the air clearer, people start to tune out the conversation about air pollution. We want to remind residents that air pollution is an issue that will plague our community for as long as we are surrounded by mountains and drive cars. The goal is to help our community to have a better understanding of the effects of air pollution on health so that we better understand our role in trying to improve our quality of life.

The Public Insight Network awarded engagement funding to 17 public media newsrooms across the country. We’ll continue to track the work of those newsrooms and others in this Partner Notes blog series.



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