CMI 2020 Annual Report


Learn more about the work of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University during 2019-2020. If you want to be the first to know what's happening at the CMI, sign up for our monthly email newsletters:

Doris O’Donnell Fellowship

Inaugural fellow investigates

Mississippi lead poisoning

By Erica Hensley

As an investigative reporter focused

on health and data analysis, I often find

myself asking: “But where is the data?” In

Mississippi, the answer is usually

somewhere between: It doesn’t exist, it’s

not stored in an easily accessible way, or

good luck getting it! Mississippi is not

unique in this way, and investigative

reporters across the nation are familiar

with the hunt. But, in southern, rural states

that are often over-simplified and the

butt of jokes for the rest of the nation, it’s

even more important to report deeply into

patterns and causes.

It’s not enough to say, “Mississippi is last

in X ranking, again.” As reporters who care

about this place, we are beholden to ask

why and what can be done about it. To

that end, living and reporting here has

been a crash course in DIY data-collecting

and database building.

Enter, Point Park University’s Center for

Media Innovation, who saw my vision for

a longform deep-dive into lead exposure

risk across the state, and invested in the

necessary time and energy (sometimes,

sweat and tears) that it takes to do this

kind of research and reporting in a state

that often lacks the resources and

bandwidth to do it themselves.

As many of the communities we report in

and on are not only under-served by the

state, but also growing local news deserts,

contextualized reporting that gives

citizens information and engagement

to effect change in their communities is

more important than ever.

While lead exposure has been a hot topic

since Flint, most reporting has not dug

into the various exposures and risk

Photo by Erica Hensley

pockets -- probably because those

variables and trends are really difficult to

identify, especially in face of lackluster data


But, because lead exposure is permanent

and cannot be reversed, the only way to

combat its longterm consequences is to

prevent it in the first place and mitigate

its compounding health effects. Because

Mississippi is a bit of a “data desert,” there

isn’t comprehensive data about where

children are most susceptible to lead. To

combat that, I’m extracting state and local

data where I can, overlapping datasets and

identifying that risk myself.

Lead exposure usually happens three ways:

water, paint or soil/dust. I’m tracking all

three exposures and layering the

information to map risk pockets. The goal?

Give communities in high-risk areas the

tools they need to make their homes and

families healthier. I’m lucky to work in a

newsroom that values and supports investigations

like this that strive to look at public

health problems through a social lens, and

ultimately empower readers to effect change.

Mississippi Today is a non-profit fully digital

state-wide newsroom that’s completely free

to readers. But with that, we have to rely

on diverse revenue streams. We don’t have

subscriptions or circulation, so we are funded

through fellowships, grants and donors,

which makes the investment by Point Park

pivotal to our work. As the only fully staffed

newsroom covering the whole state, the

deep-dive stories we tell would likely go

untold without our reporting, and by extension,

those who invest in it.

I am happy to note, however, that our model

is catching on. Since we launched, two

nonprofit news outlets have followed, which

is a huge step to combat our state’s

encroaching news deserts, and ultimately,

investing in Mississippi.

“ The Center for Media Innovation is

such a beautiful space and powerful

resource for students, reporters and

just the city itself, really. I’m honestly a

little jealous for younger Erica,

wishing I had had a resource like this in

college. It’s great to see students

embracing true multimedia

storytelling through multiple

platforms. It’s the only way news

media will survive as we know it.”

- Erica Hensley, Investigative Reporter,

Mississippi Today

Photo by Tyler Polk

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