Susan White peered through her Skype hookup in Brooklyn at the journalists and scientists gathered on the other end of the connection in West Michigan.
“Can I first say hello to Steve?” the executive editor of InsideClimate News asked. “Steve, we’ve never met, but I feel like I know you.”
Stephen Hamilton, a scientist at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, Mich., had just finished explaining the environmental fallout from a pipeline that had ruptured in 2010, polluting the nearby Kalamazoo River and its wetlands with Canadian tar sands oil.
His acknowledgement of the greeting was brief. But the exchange spoke volumes. Hamilton, an ecosystems ecologist and biogeochemist, had the expertise, local knowledge and independence to be a valuable source on the story that InsideClimate News had dubbed “the biggest oil spill you’ve never heard of.”
In some ways he had spent his career preparing for such an event, Hamilton said.
White directed and edited that coverage that broadened into reporting on pipeline safety and the looming environmental threats of diluted bitumen. It is the coverage that won the five-year-old nonprofit publication this year’s Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
There was no better example for a recent two-and-a-half-day workshop on how scientists and journalists could work together to better explain climate change and energy issues to the public.
Eleven pairs of scientists and journalists from across the nation gathered on the shores of Gull Lake to hash out that relationship. It was the third of three similar workshops organized by MSU’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism and the Society of Environmental Journalists.
The first one was a one-day workshop at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Science Center. This one and another multi-day workshop last year were at the Kellogg Biological Station. Education and outreach specialist Julie Doll at Kellogg’s Longterm Ecological Research Program recruited scientist participants and provided organizational support.
The effort is supported by a National Science Foundation grant that the Knight Center received for improving non-formal climate change education of the public.
For this year’s program 11 scientists working on climate change were recruited from other Longterm Ecological Research Network programs nationwide. These National Science Foundation programs research environmental trends over long periods and large areas.
The scientists were paired with 11 journalists from the same regions and who are reporting on environment, climate, weather or energy. The idea was to jump-start regionally productive relationships that continued after the workshop – a concept that SEJ conference coordinator Jay Letto hit on after the success of the first two workshops. He and SEJ’s Dale Willman recruited journalists.
Some of the work started before the workshop began. Organizers assigned pre-workshop homework, asking each pair to collaborate on a critique of a climate change news report and to present it to the entire group after many met for the first time in Michigan.
Other presentations were given on hurdles facing journalists, how to improve understanding of difficult concepts, creative ways of reaching the public, the moral questions surrounding how climate change is reported, where the cultures of journalism and science clash – and where they mesh.
Public support of climate change reporting was discussed and videos – some produced by scientists, journalists, bloggers, advocates – were critiqued.
Kellogg scientists took the participants into the field and presented some of their climate change-related research. Later, the participants brainstormed ways of explaining what they heard, and how that research related to what was going on in their own regions.
They practiced communication techniques and learned the science of creating understanding through physiological changes in the brain. Scientists gave story pitches based on their own work. The journalists critiqued them, suggesting how to better catch the attention of busy reporters looking for a good story.
Conversations persisted through meals and late into the night.
“We had time, not only to digest the research, but to develop informal relationships that will support us going forward,” said Nancy Gaarder, who reports on weather for the Omaha World Herald. “Equally important, we spent time learning about how people absorb knowledge. I’ve already begun using information from that session to guide how I write stories.”
Video materials from the previous two workshops are in the portfolio of online environmental journalism lessons provided by the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. More from the most recent session will be posted soon.
Some of this year’s participants will spread the information gleaned from the workshop at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference in Chattanooga, Tenn., Oct. 2-6. As part of the NSF grant, last year’s SEJ conference featured a plenary session moderated by Knight Center Associate Director David Poulson called Is communicating climate change a lost cause?
The exchanges continued online well after the workshop with scientists and journalists swapping climate change similes and metaphors, offering story ideas and providing additional resources and links to data and research discussed during the workshop.
“I was invigorated by just about every discussion we had as a group and those I had with each of you individually,” Bill Lascher, a Portland-based freelance journalist wrote to the group. “I’m enthusiastic to see the stories we’re able to tell as a result of the conference and to see how the scientists’ research proceeds. Though we were tasked with critiquing your pitches, I was struck by how fascinating all of them were, and I know you’ll be able to get coverage.”
David Hasemyer, a workshop participant and a member of the InsideClimate News Pulitzer team of pipeline reporters, gained a fresh perspective on that story. When asked if he was going to the farewell dinner on the last day of the workshop, Hasemyer said he was canoeing the Kalamazoo River instead.
Workshop participants and their affiliations:
- Marcy Litvak, Sevilleta (SEV), New Mexico
- Staci Matlock, Santa Fe New Mexican
- Megan Woltz, Kellogg Biological Station (KBS), Michigan
- Emanuele Berry, WKAR Public Radio, Michigan
- Kimberly LaPierre, Konza Prairie (KNZ)
- Nancy Gaarder, Omaha World Herald
- Mark Williams, Niwot Ridge (NWT), Colorado
- Bruce Finley, Denver Post
- Sharon Stammerjohn, Palmer Station, Antarctica
- Jennifer Bogo, Popular Science
- Emma Rosi-Marshall, Baltimore Ecosystem (BES)
- Molly Murray, Delaware News Journal
- Michael Nelson, Andrews Forest (AND), Oregon
- Bill Lascher, freelance, Portland
- Matei Georgescu, Central Arizona – Phoenix Urban
- Debra Krol, freelance
- Merryl Alber, Georgia Coastal Ecosystems (GCE)
- Mary Landers, Savannah Morning News
- Jim Morris, Plum Island Ecosystem, Massachusetts
- Dan Grossman, freelance
- Jeff Andresen, Kellogg Biological Station (KBS), Michigan
- David Hasemyer, freelance, InsideClimate News