Environment writing

General outline for syllabus 

  1. Introduction
  2. Theoretical
    1. Critical thinking
    2. History &  context
    3. Ethics  &  law
  3. Practice
    1. research
      1. regional controversy (environmental history)
      2. NPDES permits in our region
      3. scientific research in our region
    2. reporting  /  professionalism, tactics, general strategy
    3. writing / approaching different  audiences
    4. media optimization
    5. social promotion
  4. Grading and expectations


1. Introduction

Thinking about  environmental journalism?   Whether you are taking a semester-long course or a short unit for a reporting class, this is intended to provide  some tips that may help.

* EJ textbooks and syllabi — SEJ has a list here.

* What are other classes doing? —  A story ideas and class projects page is under construction.

* Keep up — Probably the best way to ask questions or keep up with other instructors is through the email list, SEJ-EDU.  All education members can subscribe, and if you’re not an SEJ member, you can easily find a member to help with your question.

* Theory versus practice — Any journalistic enterprise, or any scientific or historical inquiry for that matter, has both a theoretical side and a practical side.  An instructor decides how to blend theory and practice depending on the students level of education, the instructor’s preferred methods and the available resources.  For simplicity, the rest of this backgrounder is divided into two parts:

  • History, context, research, ethics, critical thinking.
  • Environmental news reporting & writing

Both theoretical and practical issues will be constant elements in a journalism class, and instructors will ask about ethical or critical issues when students are working in practical areas, and will also ask about practical applications of theoretical insights.


2. The theoretical side — History, context, research, ethics critical thinking

  • Overview of Environmental Journalism: Slideshow by David Sachsman, JoAnn Valenti, James Simon.
  • History of environmental journalism — From Ben Franklin’s fight over Doc Creek to tomorrow’s Pulitizer Prize winners, journalists have covered public health and environmental issues routinely in US history. This history is found in some of the book listed here. Another potentially useful classroom resource is a slidshow on the history of environmental journalism to 1970.
  • Environmental literature —  Most universities have a class in environmental literature in the English department that focuses on fiction and poetry.  However, there is a rich body of non-fiction literary journalism about the environment from authors like John McPhee,  Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and, historically,  Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The “Guide to Green Literature” is helpful.
  • Environmental history groups – The American Society for Environmental History, the Forest History Society, the European Society for Environmental History, the Appalachian Studies Association and many more have relevant resources and books. Also see the Environmental History Timeline.


* Ethics

Generally, Society of Professional Journalists ethical standards apply across the board. Journalism of any kind poses ethical challenges, and environmental journalists will find they must consider ethical issues in dealing with victims, witnesses, interviews with children, FOIA questions and other issues.

One ethical issue for science and environmental journalists involves the duty to verify and contextualize complex scientific information and to avoid uncrically passing along suspect, biased or inaccurate information. An excellent example of an alternative to “simple balancing” is “Evidence – based journalism,” as described in this 2005 article by Sharon Dunwoody.


* Critical thinking

Environmental journalism instructors will want to find and share information about standards of logic, deceptive rhetoric, and how to recognize and debunk logical fallacies.

Specific critical thinking skills may also involve:

  • Reading behind the PR
  • How to read and understand original scientific sources -
  • Understanding peer review
  • The difference between coincidence, correlation and causation
  • Risk assessment
  • Understanding statistics

3. The practical side: Environmental news reporting & writing

  • * Data-gathering suggestions for exploring global issues through local science

You might want to set up a research session with your university librarian or conduct one yourself.   Two major resources — The Web of Science  and Lexis – Nexis — are difficult to use at first.

– Web of Science (formerly Science Citation Index)  – Extremely valuable for locating scientists and their work at universities near you. This is usually accessible only through a university library’s database collection.  Example: Open advanced search and use city or address to locate work going on at your university. For instance, these two search terms would locate scientists working at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA:
CI=(Blacksburg)  or AD=(Virginia Tech).  The following search would locate Tech’s climate science work:  CI=(Blacksburg) AND TS=(climate).

Lexis – Nexis (through university library database collection) gives a more comprehensive list of major published articles than a simple  Web search. It’s also easy to exclude blogs and commentary.

Facts on File is another library database resource for basic backgrounding of international names, dates and events in environmental issues.

* Open access information includes:

Environmental Health News – www.ehn.org – Great compilation of well-vetted international  environmental stories that can be searched by state and region.  Open access.

Toxic Resource Inventory reports (TRI) — EPA maintains a database of local hazardous and toxic waste sites and releases that can be a helpful starting point in doing an environmental audit of your community.    It’s helpful to develop a list of information sources for air, water, toxic waste and other kinds of pollutants and to introduce concepts of relative danger of various chemicals. TRI has reports on releases of over 600 toxic chemicals from thousands of U.S. facilities. You can have students search by your county or state, for example. But don’t expect students to understand it without explanation; TRI data is complicated and will require interpretation by expert sources. http://www.epa.gov/tri/

NPDES permits — Ask your state environment agency regional office for a list of all air and water quality permits. It might help to map them. For example: http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=205169610735346585126.00049c06485164…

Hearing schedules — There are often public hearings or local / state government committee meetings to be covered. Get a schedule of these meetings and post them on your class web site.

Recent studies or reports — These can be from environmental groups, state agencies, university programs or other sources. Sometimes a national report has information that can be used to localize a larger story. For instance, the American Lung Association has an annual “State of the Air” report with many local angles –http://www.stateoftheair.org/

* Reporting:

Environmental journalists cover a beat that is similar to others, in  that they need to identify  key people, upcoming  events and ongoing issues. A prepared instructor will understand and identify these people and events before the class starts.  Even in a large urban university, it may be helpful to have students begin with reporting local issues and local people rather than national level issues and hard-to-access sources.

Local resources  / Key people

Reporters — Find out who in local news organizations is covering the environment.  Call them up, take them out for coffee. Ask what big issues are on the horizon, how they cover the beat, and whether they would come by the class or be available via Skype for a Q & A session.

Agency staffers — Staff people in state and federal agencies are often happy to fill you in on local controversies but usually they do not want to be quoted themselves. They can help you locate recent or upcoming reports on key issues and track down other documentation.   Often the staffers in state environmental agencies can be found in divisions like air, water, solid waste, and geographically specialized divisions, such as coastal councils.

Political actors  – Identify the developers, environmental activists and state and local politicians who have been involved in recent issues.  Have students find background and contact information about them.

Tribal representatives — When environmental issues touch on reserved lands or have environmental impacts on traditional landscapes and resources that are associated with a particular tribe, the tribe will often have a distinct perspective that includes federally recognized treaty rights and sovereignty, delegated authority (treatment as a state) to regulate air and water quality, and often there is a traditional and cultural element to their understanding of the resource that does not translate into environmental impact criteria. Several regions have organized environmental regulatory authorities such as the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (http://www.glifwc.org/), which provides detailed records of Great Lakes water quality and fisheries data and has a cooperative agreement with federal agencies. Have students find local or regional tribal authorities and identify who they would contact if a particular resource development were to be located on the edge of the reservation or in ceded territory.

Scientists — All universities have scientists working on environmental issues.  They are not always easy to track down through the university public relations offices or local media coverage because publicity is not usually a plus for the scientists.  However, they can be located by checking the curriculum or Web of Science publications.  Students will want to read their papers and understand their work before approaching them.

University officials and leaders – Don’t overlook environmental topics at your own university, from simple feature stories on student-led initiatives to investigative stories on whether university buildings and programs are as “green” as they say.

Civic groups with  environmental, charity or business orientations are often the main actors in local controversies. They are among the best informed but also the most politically motivated, and most of their perspectives will need to put into context. To begin with, have students develop a list of environmental and business contacts for comments on environmental stories.

* Exercises

Sometimes classes take on common projects and start up  class blogs using WordPress, Blogger or other content management systems.  You can create pages for training exercises and class requirements, and then post student stories. Some of the larger environmental journalism programs have their own web publications.  (See  http://www.sej.org/teaching-story-ideas-and-class-projects )

Identify regional permit holders — Create a google map and give students responsibility for finding information about industries that have NPDES permits.  Link from the class blog.   This puts local pollution into proportion and leads to more questions about environmental issues.

Dollar bill exercise – Give each student a dollar and tells them to go out and spend that amount exactly — no more or less — and write a story about the experience or the people the student meets on the way.
Identify scientists at your university who are working on environmental issues.  Look them up through the Web of Science, the university’s public relations office, or the university’s speakers bureau.

Environmental history — Find out about the environmental history of your town or region by checking local library or historical society resources, along with news articles, and getting an idea of older industries, forestry, water pollution issues. You may also find retired environmental advocates who can talk about past controversies.

A skills practice, have students compare the mission statements and responsibilities of state/federal environmental protection or regulation agency, a large environmental protection non-profit group, a manufacturer of pollution control technology, and a tribal authority. What are the similarities and differences in the scope? What do each focus on (people, economics, habitats, spiritual, culture etc.)? How might this affect the kinds of information they receive?

A content analysis of environmental reporting. Find a complex major environmental issue (e.g. the Kalamazoo or Yellowstone spill, nuclear plant shutdown, major flooding, or other ongoing environmental event) and have students track the coverage of the story. Have them analyze over the course of the event what sources reporters used, how they used those sources and what kinds of information warranted updates and what kinds of information was carried forward each with each update. At what point does the reporting move from incident reporting to analysis? Did reporting include inaccurate information or speculation?

* Guest speakers
It’s often very useful to bring in an expert on a topic area. Some of us have been exchanging Skype guest lectures.  Bill Allen at the University of Missouri will sometimes  fed-Ex a computer set up for Skype for an interview during class time. It is even possible now to do group Skype sessions, with a number of participants Skyping in to a class session. One possibility with a guest speaker (or even better, a panel) is to set it up so that it is something like a press conference. Based on background reporting and what comes up during the session, students can be assigned to produce a story.

* Field Trips
Consider finding a research project underway and taking students across campus or out into the field for a day to observe environmental science in action. These field opportunities also can form the basis for story assignments.

Going with students to public hearings is also helpful.  Go along with students to the hearing, interview people afterwards and lead students through a writing exercise.

Higher level students might want to accompany scientists working on environmental monitoring and learn how to perform some of these tasks for themselves.  Macro-benthic surveys and conductivity studies to check for stream health are good possibilities for joint journalism – environmental science classes.

* Environmental sampling

More advanced water and air quality sampling techniques are being used by journalists and citizen activists to challenge industry or agency – reported results.

Examples include:

– Dina Cappiello, then with the Houston Chronicle, performed air quality surveys for a 2005 series of news articles.

– Appalachian Voices work with the TVA coal ash disaster of 2008: http://www.ilovemountains.org/tva-spill/

– Houston citizens group working on air pollution issues in 2011:  http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Citizens-take-own-sample…

– The Louisiana “Bucket Brigade” group tested emissions from refineries in the “chemical corridor” in the 1990s they and found they were being under-reported. http://labucketbrigade.org/section.php?id=157   Their work continues to be reported in the region’s media:
http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2011/11/report_tracks_accident…

The cost and complexity of  environmental sampling varies considerably depending on techniques used.  This is recommended for advanced classes with good planning and plenty of back-up.
* Variety of class structures

– Interdisciplinary science writing and journalism class — One interesting approach to teaching environmental journalism is to have both journalism and science students studying environmental journalism together. This  interdisciplinary work promotes understanding between students with different backgrounds.  While science students may need help to get up to speed in writing, the value for journalism students is the direct exposure to scientists.

– Project-oriented class — Sometimes an EJ class will focus as a whole on a single area.  University of Nebraska (Lincoln) has produced magazines on water in Nebraska and biofuels, for instance.  Western Kentucky University worked on a “Farm to Fork” project one semester.

– Collaborative university efforts — An example of public service journalism on a broader scale was theCarnegie-Knight News21 project in the fall of 2011, where students at five universities collaborated on an investigation of food safety.

Another kind of public journalism collaboration includes the non-profit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WisconsinWatch.org), housed in the University of Wisconsin Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. In alliance with public broadcasting and other state news outlets, students and  faculty of the journalism school, the center provides a training ground for students of investigative journalism, including environmental topics.

*Pitfalls

– Beware of highly complex stories that may be impossible to finish over the semester or term.  A

– Hard to reach national figures who won’t have time to return phone calls or email

– Over-emphasis on one approach to news, for example, hard news as opposed to feature stories or profiles.

4. Reference material:

* Regulation of pollutants

* Laws and regulatory processes


5. More EJ teaching resources:  

      Investigate West — How Reporters can cover the Clean Water Act

http://www.invw.org/post/how-reporters-can-cover-t-1325

News U — Science reporting: Covering the environment, technology and medicine  John Wihbeyhttps://www.newsu.org/node/336485

News U — Covering Water quality – https://www.newsu.org/courses/covering-water-quality-what-you-need-know

Views about Environmental Jouralism (World Wildlife Foundation)
http://www.panda.org/how_you_can_help/volunteer/volunteer/volunteer_stor…


6. Grading & expectations

      Grading will depend on your expectations and the students’ level of ability, but it is often useful to require a combination of warm-up exercises, short articles about meetings or events, and then one or two major portfolio pieces. These major stories would be due by the last week of class and presented to everyone for discussion.


Grading criteria / rubric  

The ideal news article is an accurate description of the facts and views surrounding a significant public event or issue explained in terms that are understandable to the average reader. The article should address all the relevant questions and report all significant and accessible points of view.   If comment is refused or a point of view is not available, that fact should be reported.

The lead should be short, compelling and very much to the point. Personal examples help make a story relevant to the reader.  Quotes should highlight color and opinion. The ideal story has no grammar or spelling mistakes and should be publishable without editing.

These days, it’s not enough to just write a story about a topic.  Stories should have multiple points of entry:  sidebars, illustrations, photos, video and  info-graphics and may be promoted or extended through social media.

Ethics are vital and major ethical lapses can result in severe grade penalties.   Private people should be treated ethically and with full respect for their privacy and ability to give informed consent to interviews. Refusals must be respected.  Also,  refrain from identifying witnesses to or victims of crime.  And children should never be interviewed without parental consent.  More information about reporting ethics is available through the Society of Professional Journalists.

Grading details

Scope of concept –  20%

      • Public interest – Is this something the affects everyone?
      • Reader interest – Is it important to, or interesting to,  your readers?
      • Balance / weight of evidence  – Are all parties and interests given a chance to speak?  Does the reporter avoid bias? Does the story go beyong “he-said, she-said” approaches?
      • Significance —  Does the story involve important questions, not things that are trivial or transitory or superfluous?  (EG Impact of budget cuts on students as opposed to coverage of beauty pageants).

Reporting  –  30 %

      • Accuracy in all names, dates, events; avoids major factual errors
      • Thorough reporting, all relevant questions asked
      • Effective translation of concept into reporting plan
      • Effective and ethical interviews
      • Inclusiveness in reporting – makes an effort to include people who are sometimes overlooked

Writing —  40%

      • AP style, proper grammar (spelling, verb tenses, punctuation, etc)
      • All work must be entirely original. No use of quotes from other news articles.
      • Solid lead, well organized, good structure,
      • Good writing style – smooth transitions, keyword repetitions,
      • S-V-O construction, uses active voice verbs
      • Appropriate attribution, color quotes etc
      • Follows standard submission guidelines (EG – name, date, slug:  1 – inside file, 2- on file name and 3- on subject line of email)

Effective use of media —  10%
(options include)

      • Sidebar for breaking out factual data
      • Photos taken, subjects identified, AP cutline style used
      • Video or audio included in story
      • Information for maps, charts and infographics obtained or (better) put into graphic format
      • Posting on appropriate blog or web site
      • Effective use of social media to recruit sources, explain, extend or promote your story

Extra credit for publication in professional or student media    – 10%