Special Year-End Member Spotlight: Interview with David Biello

David Biello is an award-winning associate editor. He joined ScientificAmerican.com in November 2005 and has written on subjects ranging from astronomy to zoology for both the Web site and magazine. Biello has been reporting on the environment and energy since 1999. He is the host of the 60-Second Earth podcast, a contributor to the Instant Egghead video series and author of a children's book on bullet trains. He also is host of the PBS documentary series Beyond the Light Switch, which won a Silver Baton 2012 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award.

Congratulations to David on his new book deal with Scribner's: an exploration of the Anthropocene, this putative new era in the Earth's history caused by human impacts like climate change, ocean changes, geologic changes, etc.

In autumn of 2012, David Biello participated in the inaugural round of member interviews, an SEJ initiative to help the public understand more about its services for journalists. Please enjoy reading David's comments about the state of environmental journalism and the value of SEJ to its member-journalists. Many thanks go to SEJ volunteer Lisa Bracken who scheduled, conducted and provided transcripts of three interviews.

1. Why did you become an environmental journalist?

I have always been fascinated by environmental issues, perhaps because I grew up playing amidst the oil-rich runoff from a nearby interstate that took shape as a creek in my front yard. That, and the fact that the alien-like takeover of Times Beach due to dioxin contamination took place when I was at a young and impressionable age. I became an environmental journalist to get at the truth of stories like these. What are the actual health effects of dioxin contamination and should Times Beach have been completely abandoned? What are the impacts of ever-rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and what, if anything, can be done about it?


2. Has your vision for your future been met or muddled and how?

I certainly never expected environmental journalism to make me rich but I did expect that there would always be a demand for — and therefore a job for me in — reporting these vital stories. That has not proven to be the case. That's not because people don't want to read these stories or learn more; it's because of the breakdown of traditional publishing. That said, I have high hopes for the future of digital journalism (but I may be naive).


3. What influences do you feel have come to negatively as well as positively alter the landscape of environmental journalism since you first embarked on the field?

I could write the same story today about climate change that I wrote back in 1999 when I became a professional journalist. There has been little to no change on that front, thanks to politics. Political positions have become much more hardened (and harden much more quickly). In essence, facts are pre-judged. Breaking through that barrier remains a huge challenge in the U.S. and, I suspect, everywhere in the world. But then again, it's always been the case that if it's in someone's economic self-interest not to accept a fact, they won't.


4. What are your greatest concerns and/or uncertainties as you face the future of environmental journalism? 

My greatest fear is that we will lose this great weapon of accountability. Who will hold environmentalists to account for their donors if not journalists? Who will hold corporations to account for the impacts of their business plans? Who will ensure that the federal government spends its money wisely, is not unduly influenced by big money, and/or makes decent legislative sausage? Those are all the functions of journalism today and we don't have many other folks out there doing the same job.


5. How do you feel SEJ is uniquely poised to successfully address these issues?

SEJ has been a huge help in navigating this time of transition, both in terms of carrying the torch for the best practices of the past and enabling the successful strategies of the future. Without slipping into advocacy, SEJ ensures that journalists can do the best possible work. And when journalists do their best I think (and I'm admittedly biased) the world can be a better place. Where would we be without Rachel Carson? Or Ida Tarbell? Or, more recently, Elizabeth Kolbert?


6. How do you feel SEJ could fortify its resources or revise its approach to better address these issues?

SEJ needs the funds to help more journalists make the digital transition, through education, training and the like. For someone who started in a traditional newsroom, the cacophony of Twitter, Facebook or other new social networks can be frightening (as well as eerily recognizable). For someone who could once engage with a thoughtful letter to the editor, it can be overwhelming to deal with a flood of online comments on an article. And how does one go about vetting an online resource? Or combining the talents of a TV producer, newspaper reporter and radio rookie in one person?


7. How has SEJ contributed to your personal success as an environmental journalist? 

As a novice reporter I once had to quickly churn out a piece on the quasi-religious subject of nuclear power. For those not in the know, there are few with moderate views on fission. Either you are a zealous partisan for or against the power source. And it is a technically complex subject, with a long history of obfuscation. Fortunately, SEJ has old hands like Roger Witherspoon or Tom Henry to help those new to the field, and SEJ-talk [SEJ's members-only listserv] has proven a rich resource for many reporters beyond me wading into nuclear waters. More recently, I had the opportunity to attend the SEJ conference in Madison, Wisconsin. During a tour, we visited a biofuels research lab. That visit morphed many years later into a full-fledged feature for my magazine employer. Whether it's helping with a quick primer on a given environmental topic or sowing the seeds of a future idea, SEJ has been an immeasurable help to me. And that's not even to talk about the SEJ-TipSheet which has been the source of many a story idea...


8. How has SEJ specifically supported the environmental sector of journalism? 

The biggest help that SEJ offers is the sense of a community of environmental journalists struggling with many of the same issues, whether that be jobs or PR flaks. And SEJ as an organization has been right there to help with all of them, whether it be job-availability postings for freelancers, or quick feedback on a confusing pitch.


9. What aspects of your SEJ membership do you most appreciate?

Like I said, it's the community. I could give you a long list of names of folks that I've become friendly with over the years of my SEJ membership. And SEJ stands out as one of the few organizations that actually gives you a reason to pay your membership dues, other than a vague sense that you ought to.


10. If you could wish for three things relative to SEJ’s organization, membership requirements, conference schedules, etc., what would you ask for? Be bold — your wishes just might be granted!

This is a tough one. I wish SEJ had more money so that it could help folks attend the wonderful conferences and the like. But that may be because I seriously need to get back to the annual conference one of these years...

David Biello
Associate Editor, Environment & Energy
Scientific American
Twitter: @dbiello
Blog: http://davidbiello.com/about/

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