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CNN's Peter Dykstra Touts New Technology's Ability to Improve How Environmental Stories Are Told

Pictures will be more important than words at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference when CNN Executive Producer Peter Dykstra leads a session called "The Big Picture."

"The concept behind it is that we are getting this really extensive use at CNN and many other places of satellite imagery and high-altitude aerial photography, the kind of stuff that Google Earth is sort of the standard-bearer for," Mr. Dykstra explained. "There’s been a real explosion in the use of this, and it’s available publicly."

For CNN, Mr. Dykstra oversees the network’s coverage of science, technology, environment, space and weather. He believes the new technology is changing the way environmental stories, among others, are told.

"One of the most remarkable things is that if you turn the clock back 10 or 20 years, not only was the technology not as far advanced, but back then we would take these same images and you could go to jail for possessing them," he said. "We used to call them spy photographs, and they were spy satellites, and along the way there were some privacy questions that have understandably been raised. But there have also been some tremendous uses, particularly in the realm of science and environmental reporting."

Mr. Dykstra’s session is one of the most highly anticipated at the 17th annual SEJ conference at Stanford University. "The guests on the panel are Michael Jones, [chief technology officer] of Google Earth, and Luke Blair, an engineer from the U.S. Geological Survey, which is one of the federal agencies that have done the most to integrate all of their data and make it available to journalists and to the general public about things like floods and earthquakes," said Mr. Dykstra. "The third guest is a former ABC News producer named Mark Brender, who is now vice president for marketing and communications, GeoEye, and they are one of the vendors of satellite pictures. They provide some really remarkable pictures down to 1-meter or less than 1-meter resolution. That’s small enough that you can pick out individual people on the ground."

Worth 1,000 Words

There are many advantages to this kind of photography, especially in the television business. "In TV, a picture is worth a thousand words. You can’t underestimate the value of some of these pictures. We will use them in anything from crime stories to news," Mr. Dykstra said.

"On the environment beat, we used some of the stock images that are available on Google Earth and then we used some recent NASA photography of an area in Nevada where there have been several large wildfires. You know those old ads for weight loss, before and after? We took the old stock photos and showed what the land looked like before the fires, and then edited the pictures into a dissolve where suddenly you see the burn scars. It’s a very striking image."

During recent flooding in the Midwest, CNN employed environmental technology to report the news. "The USGS has tremendous data online to show in real time where areas are flooding," Mr. Dykstra said. "They have a system of 7,000 flood gauges on rivers and streams around the country where you can tell instantaneously, in real time, whether the floodwaters are going up, going down. That is a tremendous reporting tool that we use in news coverage of flood situations, and we also use it in day-to-day weather reporting."

Images such as those seen on Google Earth are readily available for broadcasters, and there are a variety of uses for them. "The entire Earth is covered by either satellite photography or high-altitude aerial photography, and we work very closely with Google Earth," said Mr. Dykstra. "This technology is also nearly instantaneous. You can have those ‘after’ pictures in 24 hours. We used them for Mount St. Helens, in an environmental context, to look at the possible changes in glaciers and ice cover that may be related to global warming. We’ve used it for beach erosion. We used it recently for Cancun before Hurricane Dean hit. I remember some of the first pictures we used at CNN in this context were when we were covering the Mississippi floods. We showed a river that was supposed to be a mile wide when it was 5 miles wide because of the flooding."

Feeling the Impact

In his role at CNN, Mr. Dykstra has covered many kinds of stories, but none has had a greater impact on him than Hurricane Katrina. "There was such a strong ‘I told you so’ aspect to it. We knew that this story was coming. We knew that New Orleans was poorly prepared," he said. "The story for CNN hasn’t ended. There’s a New Orleans bureau that was established so we can continue to follow up, to see the progress or lack thereof on cleaning up and rebuilding New Orleans and the Mississippi coast.

"It was the kind of disaster that is not unprecedented around the world, but rightly or wrongly, Americans have a tendency to think it’s never going to happen here. Not only did it happen here, but also we knew it was going to happen, given the way New Orleans was ill-prepared. I think a lot of the reporting that the CNN folks did—whether in the weather department or Anderson Cooper on the ground—we did ourselves proud. But there’s always a moment when you’re caught up in the story but you wish the story never happened."

Mr. Dykstra is looking forward to the SEJ conference, and not just because of his session. "I’m not quite an original member, but I’m pretty close. I chaired the conference in 1998 in Chattanooga and Ted Turner was one of our guest speakers," he said.

"SEJ is really a tremendous resource. Some of the things that I hear from newcomers and outsiders is that this is a beat where you deal with some very abstract issues that are hard to decipher and hard to translate to the general public, but SEJ can provide a lot of the tools to its members to do that successfully. It’s reporters helping other reporters. There’s a lot of mentoring going on among the newcomers. Amongst journalism organizations, SEJ in particular has a very strong reputation for being well-run."

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