Closing the gap between climate change and local reporting

In a week where a new United Nations report warned that time is running out to stave off the worst effects of climate change worldwide, environmental journalists from all over the world converged in Flint, Michigan, for the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference. Our environmental reporting fellows Pien Huang and Samantha Fields attended the event and covered it on social media — including a takeover of our GroundTruth channels. Here are some of their highlights:

How to communicate effectively on the effects of climate change was one of the topics of the conference. Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, argued that journalists should understand the public and how they react to environmental coverage. On this topic, he said, there are “Six Americas.”

Others like Paul Gross, Meteorologist at WDIV-TV in Detroit, highlighted the importance of contextualizing the effects of climate change to help people understand its local impact:

“The public has a huge appetite for unbiased communication about climate change,” said Gross.

When providing context, reporters have to be careful to not fall into the trap of false equivalences. For example, the supposed “disagreement” among scientists on climate change is minimal, argued Susan Hassol, director of the science and outreach non-profit Climate Communication.

Hassol also warned against using jargon that can mislead readers unfamiliar with scientific terms:

An on-the-ground look at Flint

Our fellows also had the opportunity to visit the communities affected by the ongoing water crisis in Flint and spoke with some of its residents about how they have coped with the lack of a reliable water supply and the high prices of the utility.

For local experts, it was an opportunity to highlight Flint’s struggles with the water crisis for a national group of journalists:

The role of lead regulation was another aspect discussed in the conference’s panels. The crisis in Flint is not an isolated incident. Many other communities across the country have similar troubles.

The EPA’s role

Policy changes are transforming the landscape of environmental journalism. The EPA’s diminished role in the Trump administration is creating new challenges for environmentalists, but also story opportunities for reporters, both at the national and local levels, according to Eric Lipton, investigative reporter for the New York Times.

Lipton reminded the attendants to keep their focus on the local effects of policy to help readers understand the effects of Washington’s decisions.