OPB’s ‘Silent Invasion’ doc/outreach project

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Katy June-Friesen talks with talks with Oregon Public Broadcasting producer Ed Jahn about the documentary Silent Invasion, which won a duPont-Columbia University Award last month. First, the preliminaries:


Scotch Broom, an invasive species featured on project siteSilent Invasion, a documentary from the producers of Oregon Field Guide, OPB’s weekly environmental TV program now in its 20th year. The program, which aired April 22, 2008, investigates the threat of invasive species such as the yellow star thistle, which destroys grasslands, a grass called spartina, which takes over coastlands, and tiny quagga mussels that are threatening to clog the turbines of Nevada’s Hoover Dam and could hitch a ride to Oregon on unwashed boats. Partners joined in a public awareness campaign, producing a guide to invasive plants, GardenSmart Oregon, and creating a hotline through which people can report invaders. A duPont Awards juror, NPR’s Cinny Kennard wrote: “The jury was struck by the boldness and courage of OPB to attack such issues and then to put resources against it. The work is educational [and] informative and the production exemplary.”

Who made

Ed JahnEd Jahn, producer and writer; Bruce Barrow, editor; Jack McGowan, narrator; Cal Scott, composer; Michael Bendixen, Greg Bond, Nick Fisher and Todd Sonflieth, videographers; Sarah Fox, associate producer; Jeff Douglas, executive producer and station manager; Steven M. Bass, CEO.

Who paid

Barbara Coit Yeager, the Coit Family Foundation, the Willard L. Eccles Charitable Foundation, John and Julie Dixon and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, among others. The website was developed with support from CPB.

Who partnered in campaign

SOLV volunteer organization, The Nature Conservancy, Oregon Invasive Species Council, the city of Portland, Portland State University, Oregon Sea Grant, Oregon State University and the Salem Statesman Journal, among others.

Why & how

Current: Why did you decide to make this program? Did something spur you?

Jahn: This is a topic that the reporters for [Oregon Field Guide] have been talking about for a long time. We started to see and hear more and more about invasive species in all of our stories. . . . We would do individual stories on invasive species, and finally we said, “We really should take a bigger look at this.”

Producer and camera operator shooting in creek for OPB doc

Hunting down a state’s most rapacious immigrants: Producer Ed Jahn and videographer Todd Sonflieth scout invasives in Oregon’s backcountry.

Was the topic being covered by other local media?

For the scale of the problem — as you’d hear it explained by scientists — it was amazing how little coverage this was getting, almost none. We thought, “We’re probably better suited than anyone in the state, because we’ve got multiple environmental reporters right here at our station.” Our preproduction for this show came very much from just doing the reporting for Oregon Field Guide.

You promoted the program as a “call to action” to help stop invasive species. How did you approach combining advocacy with “straight” investigative journalism?

We talked a lot about that before we started. . . . Our approach was, “We’re not going to just put out another depressing environmental documentary.” The public has really had a lot of that, and the [response] is “Oh, great, what do I do about that?” Especially because we were dealing with this on a local level, we felt a certain sense of responsibility to follow up and say … “Here’s what you can do, and we’re going to put some materials together to help you go do it, like the volunteer action campaign . . . like the website that allows you to report invasive species directly to scientists.” Honestly, we felt an obligation to do that, that we’d only be doing half a job if we just explained the issue.

Was there discussion among producers about whether you should be promoting certain points of view?

There was, and we started by [asking] “Should we address this as if invasive species are a problem?” Really, when you get into it, that’s like asking the question, “Is the Earth flat?” There’s really only one answer to that. But there are a lot of other questions we can get into that are more open-ended and we do address, like the appropriate use of pesticides and herbicides.

To illustrate how species get where they don’t belong, you visit shipping ports, Idaho ranches and China, among other places. How long did it take to make the program, and where did you travel?

This thing kind of grew on its own. At first we were talking about doing a half-hour Oregon Field Guide special, which would have been much more contained in its budget. Then we decided, “We’re going to go big on this.” As soon as we got the okay, I said, “I need to go to Las Vegas to cover these quagga mussels that invaded Lake Mead—this is a huge story.” … From there we had a little more freedom, once the funding started coming in, to go to China, Idaho, Washington and various parts of Oregon and Nevada, which were all places we felt gave Oregonians a sense of [how species were] coming in, so they also had some sense of how they could keep them out.

How long did you spend making this?

Probably a year and a half—I was also doing other work for Oregon Field Guide.

Is Silent Invasion all original footage, or is some of it from previous programs?

We had gone and done a spartina story about five years prior, about the invasion of this grass in a bay in Washington. It was an excellent story to follow up on, because when I made a call [people there said], “Things are really changing because we’re getting after it.” They’d started putting massive amounts of chemicals on this grass … and tracking where it was coming from, which was California. I said, “We need to go to California and talk about where these things are coming from and what’s being done.” In California, they’re not dumping the chemicals, and this grass is growing like crazy.

So you followed invasive species around the country?

You follow where they go. For star thistle, we started in Idaho to see landscapes that have been completely invaded.  . . . It’s literally slowly pushing over, like a wave, into Oregon.

Where did your funding come from?

We just saw the need to do it — to do it now because of certain invasive species problems like the quagga mussels — and we just started shooting it. As we started shooting it, we said, “Let’s start back-filling the money.” Like any good project, if we had known what it would take up front, there would have been a thousand reasons to say no. We started shooting it, and that activated people at our station to go start looking for money. They found people who had an interest in environmental journalism who literally opened their pocketbooks for us . . . check by check.

What role did the project’s partners play, such as the Oregon Invasive Species Council?

We were very aggressive in saying [to partners]. . . “We’d like it to be more than a documentary—what do you think about helping us with the things that are already part of your expertise?”, like the GardenSmart Oregon guide [to noninvasive plants] [29-page PDF]. We knew we wanted to get a book into peoples’ hands that said, “Here are good things to put in your garden, here are things you should take out and replace.” We don’t have the capacity to make a book like that [alone]. . . . The Oregon Invasive Species Council was our advising team. I went to them early on and said, “I need people I can call and consult with on a scientific level.” Also, I learned they had this invasive species hotline that was manned part-time by one person. We said, “What if we put a website together and build this thing to make it easier for people. Would you take it over after that?” They said “Sure.” We could not man a statewide volunteer campaign of any significance, but there was already a group called SOLV that had boots on the ground in every corner of the state.

Some pubcasters think stations need to focus more on these kinds of collaborative public-service campaigns to remain relevant.

You have to maintain the barriers of journalistic independence. I think if that is your one rule and nothing comes close to interfering with that, everything else is fair game. If no one else guides your story, no one else tells you what to shoot or what questions to ask . . . why not activate people that have skills better than you?

While working on Silent Invasion, what did you find that surprised you?

I think the biggest surprise really is that for an issue that gets almost no local media coverage, if you . . .  talk to cowboys and fishermen and people who do everyday jobs out there on the land, they’ve all been wrestling with this for years as an absolute crisis. And nobody had asked them what’s going on. There are people who have lost their ranches completely—ranches that have been in the family for hundreds of years—and nobody’s reporting on the fact that invasive species are causing this.

Talk about the response you got to the program.

People out there volunteering, ripping weeds out—50 to 60 people showing up to go do weed pulls. Probably the most gratifying thing was scientists saying, “People listen to us now, people have an understanding that when we’re ringing the alarm bells it’s very real. We don’t have to go through the whole explaining process anymore.” . . . On a political level, the governor called the first-ever invasive species summit. . . . Now there are quite a few pieces of legislation being submitted in this legislature to tackle things like quagga mussels.

What are some of the challenges of filming an outdoor program, and what was challenging about filming this documentary?

On Oregon Field Guide we’re used to dealing with weather, with all kinds of environmental natural hazards. But getting out in some of these landscapes that were most invaded, like Hells Canyon — well, Hells Canyon has no sidewalks, and it’s a bit difficult to get around. So we had to jump on horseback . . . in some pretty steep terrain. . . . The quagga mussels were a huge challenge—they’re probably the biggest invasive species threat to Oregon—to the West—but how do you show and explain something that’s smaller than the size of your thumbnail and 60 feet below the water? Talking about how the mussels impact Hoover Dam required us to get inside that dam and have someone show me where these mussels are going to cause a problem.

What was the approximate cost to produce this?

I think the total real costs were between $250,000 and $350,000. That’s everything—documentary, campaign, travel, staff time.

Oregon Field Guide is one of the most popular local programs in the public TV system. Why do people like it so much?

The show is very much a passion-fueled show. The people who work on it—we all think we have the greatest job in the world. I think that translates into some sense of fun, and it doesn’t feel like tired reporting. Part of it is that in Oregon, our station realized that there’s a place for environmental journalism and people just respond to it. I think in other places they just assume that people aren’t into environmental journalism, so they don’t even try it. You have to try it long enough to build an audience. . . . I’m surprised that more people don’t try it. I think they should have an environmental show like this in every state, because the local media has totally dropped the ball on environmental issues.

Click map to go to OPB's actual Google Maps widget for "Silent Invasion" project

Click map to go to actual Google Maps widget

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