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Six tips for reporting on the environment

To celebrate Earth Day, we put together some tips for reporting on the environment. Journalists shared this guidance in past training sessions and interviews. Find more helpful resources at The IRE Resource Center.

1. Get visually creative

Climate reporting often means presenting issues or conflicts that may not have happened yet. When that’s the case, try to find ways to get visually creative. This can help make your journalism not just more visually appealing, but more accessible. That’s what Amal Ahmed and Ivan Armando Flores did to tell the story of oil and gas development along the Texas coast.

“It’s either pipes, steel, industry, nature or just this very barren, empty landscape where something will happen,” Flores told IRE. With the help of a drone pilot, he combined long-exposure photography and drones to paint the landscape with light.

—The IRE Journal Q1 2023, “Show your work" by Matt McCabe

2. Question the data

When an agency says it’s helping disadvantaged communities or addressing inequities, ask for the specifics. Scrutinize the data.

For example, in 2022, the White House released an environmental justice screening tool to figure out which communities are flagged as “disadvantaged." The tool used environmental, health, economic and other indicators, but Grist noted one major one missing — race.

Grist added race back in and then conducted its own analysis, concluding that the findings appeared to be the same.

"The tool appears to implicitly account for race in its selection of disadvantaged communities," Grist reporters Naveena Sadasivam and Clayton Aldern wrote. "That’s because many of the criteria that the tool uses — proximity to hazardous facilities, linguistic isolation, and proximity to traffic, among others — are effectively functioning as proxies for race."

—NICAR24 panel, “Data and Accountability on the climate beat” by Emily Zentner of The California Newsroom, Dillon Bergin of Muckrock, Savanna Strott of Public Health Watch, Clayton Aldern of Grist

3. Remember, gaining trust takes time

Tampa Bay Times’ “Poisoned” revealed how a Florida factory exposed hundreds of workers to dangerous levels of lead — and how the company kept polluting despite promises to change. The series won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

But it was a challenging reporting process. The factory was run by a private company, so tools like FOIA could not be used. And workers weren’t eager to speak out.

“When I started to break through, it was because there were a few folks who … began to believe in what we were doing, who spoke up on our behalf,” Corey Johnson told KALW-FM. “That built over time. It didn’t happen initially. But it built up.”

—KALW-FM 2022, “Media Roundtable: How Florida’s only lead factory poisoned its workers and polluted the community” by Rose Aguilar

4. Play the (FOIA) lottery

“FOIA is like the lottery,” E&E News’ Kevin Bogardus told IRE. “You gotta play to win. And it’s better than a lottery — there are things you can do to increase your odds.”

Bogardus recommends submitting FOIA requests for the calendars of your EPA regional administrator. (Ask for the “official record copy calendar,” not the public calendar). If a certain meeting seems newsworthy, say, with a major polluter, request any records that were “prepared for, created for, distributed at, or resulted from the meeting.” 

This technique revealed the EPA’s concern over actor Mark Ruffalo’s tweets criticizing the agency.

After you get a confirmation email of your request, forward that email to the
designated FOIA officer and say, “Hey, I just FOIA’d this — let me know if you need anything
else,” Bogardus added.

—The IRE Journal Q1 2023, “FOI Files” by David Cuillier.

5. Listen to readers

Sometimes, environmental reporting tries to answer complex, big picture questions. But other times, it can stem from what people are experiencing day-to-day. In Indianapolis, WTHR-TV decided to investigate when viewers asked: “Is my recycling actually getting recycled?”

WTHR’s Bob Segall placed tracking devices in curbside bins and followed trucks to show how items are taken to recycling facilities. 

“There’s just a lot of interest in recycling right now,” Segall said. “It’s something that’s going to connect with viewers and readers.”

—IRE Webinar 2024, “Anatomy of the investigation: Recycling … Digging into a system of secrets” by Rick Gevers of Rick Gevers & Associates, Cho Park of ABC News, Bob Segall of WTHR-TV and Tonya Simpson of ABC News.

6. Don’t be intimidated…

Flatwater Free Press’ Yanqi Xu reported on nitrate pollution in Nebraska’s water. But when she requested public emails for emails containing keywords, such as “nitrate,” the Nebraska  Department of Environment and Energy sent the newsroom a bill of more than $44,000.

“The department claimed that the fees were assessed to account for time NDEE employees needed to review which emails related to our request and which ones should remain confidential,” Xu explained. 

Flatwater Free Press sued the department and won. 

—The IRE Journal Q1 2023, “Nitrate pollution in Nebraska water” by Yanqi Xu

See more tipsheets, articles and webinars at The IRE Resource Center.

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