In sweltering August heat, the sight of buses and cars idling on New York City street corners while drivers sit in their air-conditioned interiors isn't all that noteworthy. But a group of high school students, after watching a number of Brooklyn MTA buses idle well past the legal three-minute limit, turned the commonplace sight into an investigation and ultimately, a published investigative report.
The students, who are enrolled in Princeton's Summer Journalism Program, began taking note of the vehicles stopped around them and approached some of the drivers for comment, to little avail. "Do you know how hot it is outside?" one bus driver asked, and then said that he's "a human just like you." The students trekked to Times Square, where they found a number of drivers waiting in idling livery cabs (luxury cabs), one of which said he kept the AC running so that when his patron -- an editor of Glamour -- came out, the car would be cool, at her request. They then began to contact MTA officials, who said that while the MTA has "zero tolerance" for idling, drivers are usually given two warnings before given significant fines for idling violations.
The city's anti-idling laws were established in 1971 as a means of reducing carbon emissions from vehicles and improving air quality. And they're certainly warranted -- idling vehicles emit about 130,000 tons of carbon dioxide in New York City every year. The long-standing idling laws were brought back under the spotlight last year when Mayor Bloomberg, who fancies himself a leader in eco-friendly policy-making, was criticized for allowing his own official SUVs to idle for long periods of time.
In tackling such a simple but widely ignored issue, the high school students who wrote the report for the Princeton Summer Journal have exposed a large-scale failure on behalf of New York City to enforce a crucial environmental law. But what's nearly as exciting about the investigation is that the students proved that investigative journalism doesn't require huge budgets, a rolodex of exclusive sources and years of training: It can sometimes grow out of a sharp observation, a few simple, on-the-spot interview questions, and some persistence, and eventually garner the type of attention that can warrant stricter enforcement of essential laws.
The Princeton Summer Journalism Program is one successful example of educating students in media and journalism at a young age. Do you know of any programs that offer high school students the chance to conduct investigative reporting? Let us know!