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How environmental journalists can tell more effective stories

How environmental journalists can tell more effective stories

Margaret Looney | November 04, 2015

The Associated Press recently changed its style guidelines when mentioning people who reject global warming as fact, citing that reporters must use “climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science” rather than “skeptics or deniers.”

This stance on the truth is one in which environmental and science reporters must hold strong, said Elissa Yancey, a longtime environmental journalist and currently a media and communications director at the University of Cincinnati.

“It’s up to us as journalists to tow that line about legitimacy,” Yancey said at a recent workshop at the Online News Association conference in Los Angeles. “Sometimes the truth is just the truth. If all we are are parrots as journalists, then we’re not doing our job. It’s up to us to take in that big realm of information, translate it, curate it, and present the best and only the best to our readers.”

Yancey listed many other tips for journalists covering a scientific beat. Here are a few key takeaways:

Think beyond the science

When covering environmental journalism, reporters can’t just think about the science.

Religion, politics and other disciplines play a huge role in how a reader will interpret a story and the type of impact it will have on them.

“There’s a very real connection between what people have been raised to believe and how to process information,” Yancey said. “There can be all kinds of triggers that we don’t know about that predispose [our readers] to doubt and be skeptical.”

Make your stories relevant for your readers

In a 2014 Gallup poll on Americans’ interest in national news topics, the quality of the environment and climate change were third and second to last on the list, respectively.

“You can get geeked out about the science...but then you forget to connect the dots to the consequence on your reader’s lives,” Yancey said. “How do you connect that with something that has relevance and meaning?”

How do you make these stories matter to readers? Tell stories that are relevant to the community - local government stories, zoning laws in new neighborhoods, conservation efforts in the local school district, etc. “The more you get to that personal level, the better,” she said.

Always look to the source of the study

Dive deep into your source’s background and intention, as scientific studies have to be funded by some person or company that could have a vested interest in the results.

“For every story and scientific study that you’re trying to explain to the public...be aware of other people and types of interest motivated to cast doubt upon those findings,” Yancey said. “Everyone’s got a motive for talking to us.”

And with minimal federal funding toward scientific studies available, more researchers are getting funding from different types of industry that could lead different news angles depending on the outlet and audience, Yancey explained.

Yancey listed off a few questions, which she covers in her NewsU course on environmental reporting, to ask of your intel and sources when writing about study findings:

  • Who did the study?
  • Who funded the study?
  • Who funds the journal in which the study appears, and who peer-reviewed it?
  • Who controlled the study?
  • How big was the sample size and who recruited them?
  • What other variables were findings adjusted for? Why?
  • Did the study confirm or deny your hypotheses. How and why?
  • What conclusions can people draw from your work?
  • Were the researchers surprised by the results? Is there other evidence that supports the study results? Is it the first study of its kind?

If you come across a nonprofit presenting information related to your study, first check where it gets its funding. This could be a front group for an industry. Check publicly available tax forms that list funders, like 990 forms for U.S. nonprofits.

You can also avoid using erroneous sources by building relationships early with researchers and groups that have been vetted and that you can trust.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Horia Varlan

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