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|One of the short video capsules came from Angela Chen, above, part of a team at California's KESQ that won over newsroom leaders to gain more air time to tell the story of the region's Salton Sea. Image: Society of Environmental Journalists.|
Inside Story: Winning Over Editors and Others with Award Winners’ Multimedia Nuggets
By Emilia Askari
If you’re starting the new year by planning ambitious stories, or developing exciting ways to educate people about the work of environmental journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists has a relatively new resource that you may find useful from its 2022 Reporting on the Environment contest: this series of three-minute videos of first-place award winners talking about how and why they created environmental journalism that made a difference.
As journalists, we understand how short nuggets of visual and audio storytelling can quickly engage people who may not have time to dig into the full prize-winning stories, along with comments from judges and links to other award-winning work.
So here are some ideas on how we all might build on the insights that SEJ’s top 2022 award winners generously share in these videos to:
- Convince newsroom powerbrokers to give us more time and support for ambitious stories.
- Show scientists and potential whistleblowers the kind of journalism we aspire to produce with their trust and their insider knowledge.
- Teach environmental journalism students — or others new to this work — why environmental journalism is important, how to get started on a story, how to make a story relatable to a wide audience and how to be open to learning from all sides.
- Demonstrate to people who feel left out of news stories that many environmental journalists care about serving marginalized communities through journalism.
- Motivate ourselves for the sometimes-lonely job of following through on a big story idea.
Videos for bosses
Here are the best videos to show editors/producers to encourage them to give you more time and budget to produce a story:
- KESQ’s Angela Chen, part of a team from a Palm Springs, California, television station that won the award for Outstanding Explanatory Reporting, Small, for a series of segments titled Troubled Waters: The Salton Sea Project. Chen talks about challenging a newsroom culture that expects every story to be told in less than three minutes. By breaking her story into a series of short segments, Chen wound up with a rare seven minutes to tell the story of troubles with the Salton Sea, a large lake that is critical to the region’s ecology. Chen praises her newsroom’s leaders for investing in important work that caught listeners’ attention.
- ProPublica’s Al Shaw, leading a team that won the 2022 Kevin Carmody Award for Investigative Reporting, Large, for a package titled Sacrifice Zones: Mapping Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution. Shaw and some of his colleagues speak in this video about the ambition of this project: to create data-rich maps of pollution hotspots in neighborhoods across the country. This project shows newsroom leaders the value of investing in data mapping — and graciously points to follow-up stories for any local news outlet.
- The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner, who won the award for Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small, for a series of stories, including this one, based on information shared by whistleblowers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Lerner speaks about how she built trust with EPA staffers over a five-year period, and how she strove to never oversimplify scientifically nuanced stories. She credits her editors’ tolerance for that slow process and their respect for readers’ interest in parsing scientific complexity.
Videos for students
Here are the best videos to show students or others learning to practice environmental journalism:
- Duke University’s Cameron Oglesby, who won the award for Outstanding Student Reporting for Hogwash, published by Grist. Oglesby’s surprise and glee at the attention her story has attracted are beautiful to watch in this video. She speaks about how her coursework led to her reporting, which led to her award and to ongoing related research. By showing what is possible, and how she feels about this success, Oglesby’s video is a motivator for other novice journalists.
- The Guardian’s Fiona Harvey, who won the award for Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large, for a package of stories including this one analyzing takeaways from COP26. Harvey’s statement about the importance of environmental journalism — and the climate story specifically — is beautifully convincing. Speaking as a representative of one of the largest and most influential English-language news outlets in the world, she also talks about how to connect wonky policy conferences to the lives of ordinary people.
- Al Jazeera America’s Jeremy Raff, part of a team that won the award for a 26-minute piece called Climate Change Is Exposing the Racism Behind an Oregon Water War. Raff has some very interesting things to say about how the story of water wars in Oregon had attracted a lot of attention over the years from journalists — yet Raff and his team still found underreported angles, by talking with people who felt they had not yet been heard by other journalists. Many student journalists will find themselves faced with a similar task, looking for new angles on stories that have already been in the news.
- The (Charleston) Post and Courier’s Tony Bartelme, who won the award for Outstanding Explanatory Reporting, Large, for a series called The Greenland Connection. Bartelme does a great job — both in his stories and in this video — describing how climate change in Greenland is impacting the South Carolina lowlands. He has strong advice about how to connect big stories to local communities. Plus, he challenges journalists to respectfully ask about the personal lives of scientists when possible, seeking experts who can work as “characters” in news stories — such as the government scientist he interviewed who also is an Elvis impersonator.
- Book author Emma Marris, who won the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award for "Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World," published by Bloomsbury Publishing. Marris speaks about how her favorite stories are the ones that involve “two good guys” in conflict over some environmental issue. Students sometimes enter a reporting project with too much confidence that they already know how it will turn out — who will be the good guys and who will be the bad guys. It would be interesting for those students to be open to the possibility that some environmental stories involve Marris’ “two good guys” who are at odds.
Videos for sources
Here are the best videos to show potential sources in science or government:
- The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner’s second video, about her investigation The Department of Yes: How Pesticide Companies Corrupted the EPA and Poisoned America, which won the Kevin Carmody Award for Investigative Reporting, Small. In this video about her PFAS investigation, Lerner points out that much was known about the harms of PFAS and related chemicals for many years, before the chemical was so widely spread. Her message — “It could have been stopped, but it wasn’t” — is a clear call for civic-minded people with damning inside information to step forward and share sooner rather than later.
- Freelancer Jimmy Tobias, writing for The Nation, who won the award for Outstanding Feature Story, Small, for The Collapse of Wild Red Wolves Is a Warning That Should Worry Us All. Tobias points out that government authorities changed their policy protecting red wolves “quietly,” without notice from much of the public until the red wolf population crashed. His discussion of the stealthy way that the policy changed is effective inspiration for revealing other policy changes or species trends in a more timely manner.
- Bartelme’s thoughts about how experts can talk in ways — sometimes humorous — that other people will understand, also might be useful listening for scientists.
Videos for people in marginalized communities
Here are the best videos to show people who feel marginalized by journalists, and journalism institutions that traditionally have paid too much attention to the powerful and not enough attention to others:
- Raff, who talks about how he and his team tried to develop stories that were useful for tribal people and others who felt slighted in earlier coverage of Oregon’s water wars — not just about them.
- Shaw and colleagues, who talk about trying to raise the voices of people living near toxic hotspots who may not have been aware of the dangers in their neighborhoods.
- Oglesby, who talks about being motivated to address environmental injustices.
- Chen, who talks about how the Salton Sea isn’t as glamorous or as well-covered as lovely Lake Tahoe to the north but is a story that impacts many.
Videos for you
Here are the best videos for a succinct jolt of self-motivation while working on long projects:
- Marris, because even if your project just feels like a book, listening to Marris may make you feel like you’re not alone in tackling an ambitious project.
- Lerner, because she makes it sound like five years of source-building just slipped by and before she knew it people were trusting her with jaw-dropping revelations.
- Shaw and colleagues, because they do such a nice job talking about the organization of their collaboration.
- Tobias, because his work on his award-winning piece appears to have been a mostly solitary journey that was well worth making.
Keep an eye out for Inside Story columns in the coming month from other 2022 SEJ award winners going deeper into obstacles faced during the reporting of stories.
Emilia Askari teaches environmental journalism at the University of Michigan, and recently completed a Ph.D. in educational technology. She was a founding member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, serving as the organization’s second president. A former reporter for the Detroit Free Press, the Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Askari has won many journalism prizes and fellowships. She co-chaired two SEJ annual conferences, including the 2018 conference in Flint, Michigan. Askari, who has served as Inside Story co-editor since 2020, recently shifted roles at SEJournal and now will serve as co-editor of EJ Academy with Bob Wyss.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 2. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.