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2014 Feature, Medium Newsroom finalist

Wild Horses In Crisis

 

Finalist(s)
Reporter/Producer Vince Patton; Videographers and video editors Todd Sonflieth, Nick Fisher, Michael Bendixen, Greg Bond, Lisa Suinn-Kallem, Vince Patton;  Audio - Bill Ward;  Website designer Jason Bernert; Still photographer Vince Patton; Web editors Rebecca Galloway, Julia Silverman, Courtney Sherwood, Ellen Lee; Additional radio reporter Aileen LeBlanc; Radio editor Eve Epstein; Oregon Field Guide Executive Producer Steve Amen; Vice President of TV Production Dave Davis; Senior Vice President and Chief Content Officer Morgan Holm

Organization
Oregon Public Broadcasting

Award
Feature, Medium Newsroom

Program
2014

Entry Links
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About the Project

A $76 million government bureaucracy captures, feeds and stockpiles more horses than any other in the nation. Federal law says all of the horses are supposed to be wild, protected on land in 10 western states.

Our report began with a simple story tip from a viewer for our TV news magazine Oregon Field Guide; Do a feature story about teenagers who gentle entirely wild mustangs, train them and then take them to competition, all within a span of just 98 days.

As soon as we asked why the Teens & Oregon Mustangs program existed we knew we’d opened a Pandora’s box.

What resulted was an 8-month examination of government policies which make the horse crisis worse. We also pried loose BLM documents never before released that show a surprisingly large number of horses die while in the relatively calm confines of the government’s Oregon corral.

While it started as a TV program, this project provided Oregon Public Broadcasting a chance to demonstrate how seamlessly our TV, radio and web reporting can meld across all the platforms where we present news.

Our project opened so many new angles, that we created an entire special website to present comprehensive coverage, produced a 30-minute television documentary and did numerous radio news features as both sidebars and follow-ups. We commissioned a radio story from Kansas to report on how captive horses live out the rest of their lives in captivity in the Midwest. The bulk of an episode of OPB Radio’s call-in program Think Out Loud was devoted to the topic, and we produced lighter sidebars for OPB’s Arts & Life website.

This 30-minute documentary went live online several days before it actually made its broadcast debut on OPB-TV.

It tackled many stories:
  • The tale of a teenager eye-to-eye with a wild mustang.
  • Nature’s breathtaking but brutal enforcement of the law of the herd.
  • The number of wild horses in captivity now outnumber those on the range.
  • Scientists who find the BLM makes things worse.
  • Ranchers who find horses do more damage to the land than cows
  • Activists who document inhumane treatment during government roundups.
  • A surprisingly high death rate for horses corralled in Oregon, gleaned from documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
  • The limitations of birth control.
  • Fierce debate over the suitability of slaughter.

The website presents 8 unique chapters on the issue written specifically for web readers, and fleshed out with additional details, interactive graphics, photos and web videos not included in the TV documentary.

We chose to make the Mustangs website non-linear. The stories can be read in any order and still make sense. Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of any page to see your options to jump off to any other chapter.

The very week this project aired, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited Portland. She made news (and stunned her aides) when answering our reporter by suggesting a big cash prize should motivate drug companies to make better fertility control for wild horses.

We followed up yet again a month later when an advocacy group provided OPB with an internal BLM memo. It recommended killing sick or dying mustangs on the range.

IMPACT & REACH

Few topics in the American West seem to hit an emotional chord quite like wild horses. Our website lit up with passionate debates by commenters and continued to for weeks. We structured our special Wild Horses website so that all comments would appear on a single page. We believe the online conversation benefitted from not being scattered across multiple pages.

To date, more than 131 comments have appeared, far exceeding typical engagement on opb.org.

The online presentations reached a total of 33,880 page views, including 8320 who watched the TV documentary online.

Ratings reports show that the television documentary was watched by another 84,500 people when it was broadcast in Oregon, Washington & Idaho.