Where’s the meat?

“New Washoe Garbage Recycling Center Could Raise Bills” was the Reno Gazette-Journal’s headline for Susan Voyle’s front-page story about two competing bids to build a recycling center in Washoe County.

This move is well overdue. Lockwood is the largest continuously operating landfill in North America, and Nevada municipalities have some of the lowest recycling rates in the country. Landfills generate methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2. What we do sort must be transported elsewhere for recycling—California or even China (for many plastics). Building a recycling plant, or “Materials Resource Facility (MRF)” is a critical step forward in our community’s ability to sustain itself.

So why would RG-J choose to emphasize the negative in its headline? The question is even more puzzling since nowhere does the article document a possible increase in fees. Indeed, the only information on potential costs was that there is no information— “Neither company could provide a customer cost for the new service.”

The real meat of the story was the fact that the community is faced with a decision between a “clean MRF”—where customers must pre-sort recyclables and a “dirty MRF” where workers at the facility do the sorting. The “dirty” MRF is reported to be more labor-intensive, as though this were a bad thing. Don’t we have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country right now? I’m thinking maybe putting some of our own selves to work cleaning up the planet might not be such a bad thing, but that’s me.

The lack of a local recycling facility and our sub-minimal recycling capacity generates real problems for our community. Our lack of commercial recycling means that businesses with national recycle mandates face logistical nightmares if they were to relocate here. National organizations are increasingly adopting guidelines to only hold conferences in areas with baseline sustainability practices, such as commercial recycling and municipal composting. Building either a clean or dirty MRF would be a huge step toward solving these problems, though Voyle chose not to write about any of that.

Back to the headline, though. This is a classic example of what I consider to be a real problem with our public discourse today. People get their information from soundbites, newsbites and headlines. Very few readers have the time or energy (or obsessive attention to detail) to check whether a headline is justified by the meat of the story. And, indeed, several of the online comments leapt on the headline, declaring opposition to paying more for this service and completely ignoring the rest of the article.

So now, an idea that is timely and of great benefit to our community is instantly spun as costly and “labor intensive,” despite the lack of any supporting evidence and despite the fact that citizens have repeatedly called for a dirty MRF in this area at recent Green Summits. (Voyle did report that.) Why? Well, for one thing it gets a response, and we journalists are junkies for reader response. “Could Raise Bills” is more attention-grabbing, I guess, than “bureaucrats weigh technicalities of proposed recycling plants.” But that is really no excuse for completely overthrowing substance for flash. Especially when doing so seems so obviously calculated to generate a negative backlash to the whole idea.

Maybe it isn’t as extreme as claiming that Obama’s health care plan creates government death squads, but I think this kind of journalistic sloppiness irresponsibly feeds into the reactive opposition to the very changes this community—and country—desperately need to move forward. We deserve better.