By Pietro Lombardi

The number of enterprise stories covering climate change, illegal resource exploitation, food and water security and other environmental threats has increased in recent years. Deborah Nelson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and freelance investigative reporter for Reuters; Robert S. Eshelman, Environment Editor at VICE News; Andrew Revkin, Pace University, and Josh Meyer, Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, discussed the major challenges journalists face covering these issues.

These are the main points that emerged during the panel at the Investigative Reporters and Editors annual conference in Philadelphia.

  • Make the message resonate with the general audience. This is probably the main challenge for reporters covering these issues. Often people see melting glaciers, climate change and other environmental threats as problems that do not directly affect their lives. Deborah Nelson and her colleagues had to deal with this problem while working on a Reuters’ series on the rising sea levels. Anecdotal reporting, she explained, helped them involve people by showing how this problem affects their lives. They showed the economic, environmental and social consequences in various regions of the United States as federal and local governments spend millions of dollars for temporary solutions in places where the battle against rising sea levels have already been lost or almost lost.
  • New technologies and tools do not replace traditional reporting. Satellite images, data and drones can enrich the stories, Nelson said, but cannot replace old school reporting. “The ground reporting led us to the data,” Nelson said. “Then we used that data to inform our reporting on the ground.”
  • To persuade their editors, reporters need to frame their stories in original ways. Before thinking how to engage the audience, often journalists covering these issues have to convince their editors. “These kind of durable issues are very hard to sell in the newsrooms,” said Andrew Revkin, who examines efforts to balance human affairs with the planet’s limits in a blog for The New York Times. Sometimes, the panelists agreed that reporters just need to frame the issue in new ways. Most of the media coverage about rising sea levels has focused on predictions about the next 50 or 100 years. Frame it as a current problem: What has already happened along the coastline in your area? What ­­ political, economic and cultural forces are pushing against changes? Hold the people in charge of tackling the problem accountable.
  • These are slow-moving disasters. Take advantage of that. These phenomena, for example, involve predictable events, such as periodic flooding. “We were able to figure out the next flooding and get pictures for our story,” said Nelson.
  • Scour the Internet. Google Scholar, federal and local agencies, nonprofit and advocacy groups, to name but a few examples, share invaluable data, reports and information.

 

Pietro Lombardi is a graduate fellow at the Investigative Reporting Workshop. He is an Italian journalist, Fulbright grantee and graduate student in the journalism and public affairs program, with a concentration in the investigative track, at American University.