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Point Park University to launch environmental journalism program

| Tuesday, March 8, 2016, 11:36 a.m.

A new environmental journalism degree program at Point Park University will train journalists to evaluate the validity of scientific studies and parse the competing and sometimes controversial claims that come with reporting on coal mining, air pollution, water contamination and other topics.

The university plans to blend classes about reporting, writing and data analysis techniques with courses in biology, ecology and environmental science.

“We need people who are smart about the things they are covering, and I think this will allow journalists to do that,” said Thom Baggerman, an associate professor and chairman of the School of Communication at Point Park.

Point Park's faculty assembly voted Monday to approve the degree program and is expected to make a formal announcement. The university will use a $150,000 grant from The Heinz Endowments to start the Bachelor of Arts program in the fall.

Baggerman said leadership at The Heinz Endowments approached the school about starting the program, telling him they thought environmental issues — ranging from lead contamination and sewage overflows to natural gas extraction — will become increasingly important in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania.

“The need is as critical as ever for skilled and authentic investigative and explanatory journalism. Helping to inform and safeguard the well-being of our citizens is integral to a healthy democracy, and environmental issues, especially, are at the forefront of concerns in many communities across our nation,” Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments, wrote in a statement.

Students in the program will work closely with the university's $2.5 million, state-of-the-art Center for Media Innovation at Wood Street and Third Avenue, Downtown, which is a collaboration of Point Park, the Tribune-Review and the Allegheny Foundation. The center is scheduled to open this year.

Point Park will kick off the program Tuesday with “From Flint to your Faucet,” a presentation by Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the American Civil Liberties Union who exposed the water crisis in Flint, Mich. In May, interested students will go to Williamson, W.Va., for field studies on environmental issues in the small, rural Appalachian coalfield town.

The program will pair students with experts in environmental journalism, including a professional journalist-in-residence that Point Park will host each year. The school will host public events concerning environmental issues and maintain a public online portal of data and research from the government and other sources.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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