Covering the Environment Beat

A row of wind turbines against a purplish blue skies.
rui vale sousa/Shutterstock


Taking on the environment beat is like marrying into a big, colorful family. Environmental reporters need to keep abreast of news in many different niches, including climate change, ecology, ecosystem management, public policy, international relations, business, health, transportation, public lands, water, and energy. How can an environmental journalist keep tabs on all these facets of science and still have time to file daily stories or work on features or months-long investigations?

Through a series of group emails, TON picked the brains of four writers who cover the environment for magazines, newspaper, and online newsrooms. They told us which sources they call to check out their hunches, which databases they screen and which websites they prowl. They admitted to a tendency to over-report. And they made a case for why it can be worthwhile to force oneself to read to the end of government reports. Collectively, they offer a primer on how to cultivate an environmental beat.

The reporters participating in the discussion were:

Lisa Song, reporter at InsideClimate News, a nonprofit news organization that covers energy and climate change. Her beat is oil and gas drilling and environmental health.

Michael Hawthorne, environment reporter on the investigative team at the Chicago Tribune.

Jane Braxton Little, freelance writer for national magazines including Utne, Scientific American and Audubon.

Kate Sheppard, senior reporter and energy and environment editor at The Huffington Post.

Tina: With so many moving parts to every environmental story, how do you keep up with the beat?

Lisa: With difficulty. There’s always too much going on. I mostly rely on Twitter and aggregations like Environmental Health News “Above the Fold” emails, and InsideClimate’s “Today’s Climate” section. I try to spend some time every day getting caught up on the news, but it doesn’t always happen—especially when I have a story to finish that day. I don’t track specific journals, though Environmental Science & Technology often publishes relevant studies, and I read The Pump Handle blog for occupational and public health information.

Michael: I read a lot. My first read of the day typically is the Environmental Health News story list. I also read [Environment & Energy Publishing’s] Greenwire for updates on rules and congressional action in DC. Topping my list of scientific journals are Environmental Health Perspectives and Environmental Science & Technology. I delete most of the dozens of press releases and pitches sent my way every day, but collect string for possible stories in Outlook [email] folders. Twitter also is a great news feed for tips and string.

Kate: I should probably be more systematic in my reading. Most days I survey what’s been published on my beat at the big newspapers and I do a survey of the Hill papers, such as Politico, The Hill, and National Journal, and the environment-specific news websites. I also get a number of regular updates by email, such as The Daily Climate. And then I get research-focused regular updates—EurekAlert, Science, etc. My main source, though, is probably the large number of scientists, organizations, and other reporters that I follow on social media.

Jane: I start my day scanning several newspapers, checking a variety of environmental websites and reading emails. I work hard to corral the reading to less than an hour. I don’t have a timer, but I get antsy and hard on myself if I stray too far into the rest of the day. I have considered buying self-timing software such as RescueTime or Fanurio, but have so far not been willing to shell out the $50 or so.

When I come across a scientific study or article I want to access, I save it as a PDF in one of many Dropbox folders. Some are topics as broad as “wind” or “mining,” others more specific. I’m experimenting with more sophisticated data software but this system is reliable and works for now.

Kate: I am curious how long the fellow panelists spend on most of their stories. I probably do 1-3 shorter pieces a day and I aim to do one feature piece a month, but it really depends on what’s happening.

Michael: I typically work on a mix of short-, medium- and long-term stories that can take anywhere from two weeks to a month to a year. Even when I’m working on a longer-term project I like to have other stories in the paper.

Jane: I’ve spent much of the last 18 months focused on the effects of radiation on forest ecosystems near the Fukushima and Chernobyl [nuclear disaster] sites. The work took me to Ukraine and resulted in a series of stories, co-written with a partner in Japan, that appeared in Environmental Health Perspectives, The Daily Climate and more.

Tina: What are some of your “secret weapons” for sources and story ideas? Kate, you said social media was a big one for you.

Kate: Twitter has been a surprisingly useful way for people with interesting stories to reach out to me, especially during the BP oil spill. Another useful source for me has been reading through full government reports and court cases when I can. There are often interesting tidbits buried in there that you will miss if you only read the executive summary.

Lisa: Most of my “secret weapons” are scientists. I call them occasionally to get their impressions of new research that’s coming out. They also contact me with news of upcoming research or government reports. It’s particularly helpful when they send me updates that fly under the radar—conference presentations and review papers, for example, that get little media attention, but which analyze important trends.

Jane: I scrutinize trending issues for an unusual angle: a profile, say, or exploration of an aspect others are treating as minor. My penchant for rural settings often produces stories that are fresh and bring new characters to the fore.

My secret stock includes a handful of scientists, fellow journalists and, believe it or not, a couple of agency public information officers.  When something comes up in, say, managing the forests of the West, I make a few off-the-record calls. I have developed these relationships over years. They are built on mutual trust and rarely disappoint.

Michael: There are several scientists and lawyers I’ve gotten to know over the years whose insights and judgments I trust. I tend to bounce ideas off them. I usually follow up by asking them if my premise is off or I’m on a wild goose chase. Some of my favorite stories over the years have come from sources who suggested other lines of reporting. Others have burbled up from readers.

For instance, after writing about toxic diesel emissions on commuter rail stations, I kept getting emails from readers who complained about noxious fumes in Chicago’s commuter rail stations. I called an air pollution consultant who had been a helpful source and asked if he could help me figure out how bad the pollution was. He suggested I test the air myself with a then-new, handheld version of a pollution monitor that researchers frequently use. My testing found that diesel pollution was significantly higher inside the stations than on a downtown Chicago street. To my surprise, the testing found that diesel pollution was even higher inside the commuter train cars.

I’m a fan of databases, government reports, court records and industry financial documents. There is a lot of information out there. We just need to find it.

Lisa: Do you have any favorite databases? I like EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, which compiles industry data about chemical pollution and its management, and the related point source emission databases in individual states. I’ve also used the DOT’s pipeline spills database.

Michael: My favorite is EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory and Risk Screening Environmental Indicators database. Also, the Energy Information Administration’s electric generation data, the EPA’s acid rain database (for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen and carbon dioxide emissions from power plants) and National Emissions Inventory.

I also frequently use campaign finance and lobbying disclosure databases, of which the easiest to access are maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics. Corporate filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also can be very helpful.

Tina: Covering the environment can get political. It seems like some of you stick to science and avoid getting sucked into the politics, while others openly embrace it. How do you strike that balance?

Kate: I often say that I’m a political reporter who happens to cover environment. I don’t think you can avoid politics. Covering them is critical to understanding how and why decisions are made, and who makes them. In terms of how to cover the issues, people can have equally valid political views on how something should be addressed, but I try to be clear about the state of the science, who or what might be influencing where someone stands on an issue, and what the implications are for that stance.

Lisa: Most of my stories are about science, so I let the facts guide the work. If I’m writing about methane emissions from shale gas extraction and what it means for climate change, I wouldn’t interview climate change skeptics. The opposing sides I’d interview are scientists whose research projects show different rates of methane leaks into the atmosphere. But if I’m writing a story on how climate skeptics influence policy or lobbying, then of course I would interview both the skeptics and the environmentalists pushing for climate action.

Michael: I covered state government and politics for about a decade before becoming an environment reporter. Everything has a political angle and the old political adage is still true: Follow the money. Environmental regulations always balance costs to businesses with health benefits generated or workplace safety improved. In contrast to the typical “he-said, she-said” construction of political stories, there is a weight of evidence situation with many environment stories. Just because somebody says something outrageous doesn’t mean a reporter should give that equal weight with peer-reviewed science.

Tina: How do you find the human stories hiding amid research projects or a political issue?

Jane: When I was in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, the 1,000-square mile patch of land uninhabited since the 1986 disaster, I wanted to visit a nearby fire station because I am generally interested in forest fires. I interviewed a shy but charming man at the quaint station, which was equipped with equally quaint firefighting apparatus. Later, when writing about a scientific study predicting the radioactive danger posed by a fire in the zone, I led with this man: what he does on a routine day and how he might suffer during a fire in the exclusion zone.

Michael: It depends. I think it is irresponsible to find somebody who has cancer or a particular health ailment and weave their situation into a story about research suggesting that toxic chemicals are linked to various health problems. With very rare exceptions, you just can’t prove that a certain toxic substance caused that person’s health problems. But in other situations it helps to attend public hearings, comb through EPA complaint logs and save emails from readers expressing concern about specific issues.

Lisa: There’s no substitute for meeting sources in person. When I went to Mayflower, Arkansas last year to cover the Exxon oil pipeline spill, I interviewed people at a local church to get a sense of how the community was coping with the disaster. These people had no political agenda—they simply wanted answers about how the spill would impact their lives. When I have to rely on phone interviews, I use environmental groups as a starting point for local contacts. But I also look for other organizations like farmers’ unions and academic institutions for diverse viewpoints.

Tina Casagrand
Tina Casagrand

Tina Casagrand is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is a freelance journalist and recent graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where she studied magazine writing and publishing, anthropology, biology, and art. Her dream is to start an independent publication covering environmental health and social justice in the lower Midwest and Ozarks. Follow Tina on Twitter @Gasconader and at her blog.

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