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Monday, August 2, 2010
Education Toolbox

Environmental reporting: lessons learned

By Elissa Yancey

As the Deepwater Horizon oil spill refocused public attention on the environment this spring and summer, students in my environmental reporting class got real-time lessons in the critical importance of accurate reporting on the topic. They saw related issues that cut a broad swath through modern life, including politics, business, transportation, health, economics, energy policy and even national security.

We posted a widget with livestreaming underwater footage on our course wiki (environmentaljournalism3.pbworks.com). We analyzed media coverage and public reactions to it. What sources did journalists choose? What questions did, and did not, get answered? We watched examples from “60 Minutes,” read The New York Times and followed Twitter feeds of aggregated news using the #oilspill hashtag.

Despite the high-tech journalistic tools available, time and again we heard from the same sources — BP and government spokesmen and executives — with ever-changing, ever-growing estimates of the amount of oil spewing from the damaged well. With each increasing oil spill volume estimate, author and journalism educator Bob Wyss saw missed opportunities for journalists to tell better, more accurate stories.

“There is a scientific community that has expertise in that area,” said Wyss, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut and author of “Covering the Environment,” a text on teaching environmental journalism. In the days following the spill, he noticed an information gap. “When reporters did go to the science experts,” he said, “there was great skepticism that the numbers were low.”

Why the disconnect between scientific experts and reporters? “I think it’s endemic,” Wyss said. “Most journalists are not the most scientific savvy kind of people. It’s much easier and quicker to go to the government sources, the corporate sources. It’s much more difficult to go to the scientific community.”

Wyss says that building non-crises-oriented relationships with scientists who can explain complex topics in simple terms can lead to long-term environmental reporting success. “It’s really basic journalism,” he said.

To build connections between journalists and scientists, my students teamed with researchers at the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Environmental Genetics. Each student spent six weeks of the 10-week quarter learning about a single research team’s efforts, which ranged from studying air particulates to defining epigenetics. They visited labs, made weekly blog entries and wrote a final story about environmental health targeted to readers of the Great Lakes Echo.

While reporting and analyzing the work of other journalists, students confirmed these key environmental reporting lessons:

1. SMART SOURCING

Not all sources are created equal. Just because someone has an opposing point of view about a piece of science doesn’t mean that he is right. It is essential for reporters to check the backgrounds and potential biases of all of their sources, and disclose the information they find to their editors and, when called for, their readers.

2. NATURAL RESOURCES

The Society of Environmental Journalists (sej.org), local EPA offices, university science and medicine departments, local research hospitals and regional environmental health centers offer story ideas and sources.

3. SCIENTIFIC THINKING

Remember that scientists often don’t understand how journalists get their assignments, how the editing process works or what may happen after their stories are published. It’s important to explain the most relevant answers to sources up-front to avoid confusion later.

4. CONTEXT COUNTS

Learn background information about how studies are conducted — sample size, margins of error, potential bias and complicating factors, and the scope of conclusions. Soon you’ll be able to rate reliability rather than depend on others to do it for you.

5. CLARIFY, CLARIFY, CLARIFY

Some scientists are trained to evade journalists (see above for their rationale). That means you may have to give a little to gain the trust of reputable sources. If a scientist demands prior review of the story, consider offering to send him relevant quotes to ensure their accuracy. Make no promises, but use the interaction to explain the editing and publication process. If you can’t understand a concept or issue, ask your source to make an analogy that an elementary schoolchild would understand. A powerful analogy can serve as a kind of translation, and increase a story’s impact and relevance to your audience. For example, liken the oil spill to filling the Mall of America with oil thousands of time — suddenly, the reader has a mental image of the abstract spill and you didn’t have to use the word “barrel” to make your point.

6. FEARLESS FACT FINDING

Don’t be afraid to ask your sources to define words you don’t understand, or to re-explain a topic. Scientists want to be understood, so they will most always be willing to keep re-phrasing until you can explain the word or topic clearly without any assistance.

Elissa Yancey, MSEd, is the assistant director of the journalism program at the University of Cincinnati, where she serves as an assistant professor and the faculty adviser of the UC SPJ chapter. Follow her on Twitter @esonnenberg.

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