In Depth

NBC News' Thompson Stays Green

Personal Connection Is Key to Getting Viewers Interested in Issues

When news reporter Anne Thompson was named NBC News’ chief environmental affairs correspondent in April, some observers thought it was a stretch for the veteran broadcast journalist. After all, she had spent two years as NBC News’ financial and business correspondent—a beat whose connection with environmental issues isn’t immediately evident. But she has found the transition relatively seamless.

"I’ve been surprised by how many contacts I had in my financial and business world translate to my new beat, environmental reporting," she said. "In a large part it’s because many people in the business and financial world realize that going ‘green’ will make them green, for lack of a better term.

"In that sense, as opposed to being a complete left turn in my career, it’s been more of a successful shift. I love it. It excites me because every day I learn something. It’s like going to school every day and it is something that people are fascinated by and curious and want to know more about. I have been stunned at the interest from our viewers and management, as well as my friends and family. I’m having a blast."

Ms. Thompson has been assigned to cover all types of environmental stories for NBC, including issues as diverse as alternative fuels, global warming, land usage and new technologies. "The environment affects every part of our lives. There are so many different ways to cover it, so many different kinds of stories to do," she said.

The environmental beat has emerged as one of the most important areas of focus for news producers and managers, who see environmental journalism as a hot topic. But Ms. Thompson is wary of the connection between environmental awareness and the bottom line—not just among news professionals but also for consumers.

"Part of me worries that green is the new black," she said. "The way I look at it, the reason people are so interested ... starts with $3 a gallon for gas. When gasoline hit $3 a gallon in the wake of [Hurricane] Katrina, I think people sat up and went, ‘Whoa, do we really want to pay this much for gasoline?’ Also, if you look at the situation in Iraq and the Middle East, it’s another thing where people are asking, ‘Do we really want to be so dependent as we are on foreign oil?’ That has gotten people thinking about alternative fuels, and that gets them thinking about the impact on the environment."

But the public’s interest in the environment, she said, is driven by more than pure finances. "As you see baby boomers age, these are the people who started Earth Day 30-some years ago," Ms. Thompson said. "They have a natural interest in the environment, and you can see that there is an appreciation that some of the world’s resources are finite, so we need to think again about how we use them and how we best use them."

While reporting for NBC News after Hurricane Katrina, Ms. Thompson saw firsthand how much environmental issues matter. "Among the many things that Katrina pointed out is that we cannot harness nature; we have to be respectful of nature and understand the power of nature," she said. "How do you rebuild the city? Do you respect what nature created? Do you rebuild in areas that you can’t protect? All of those issues were brought up by Katrina and they still linger with us today."

Given her new beat, Ms. Thompson has high expectations for her first Society of Environmental Journalists conference.

"Yes, I’m a rookie," she said. "This will be my first SEJ conference, but Jeff Burnside of WTVJ in Miami called and invited me to be on a panel, so I’m very excited to be going. ... I cannot wait to get out to Stanford University and be part of the conference. I think it’s great that they are bringing scientists and reporters together and that you’ll have access to people, not only sources but other reporters, so you can network and learn from your colleagues."

Since Ms. Thompson began her NBC News reports in April, viewers have been very responsive to her stories. "We went to Australia and did a story about the drought, and while we were there we went to the Great Barrier Reef," she said. "The response we got from our affiliates and our viewers was great. People were absolutely fascinated by the impact of the climate change at the Great Barrier Reef. Part of that, I think, is just that it’s so exotic and beautiful. It’s a picture-rich story, and that always works for us.

"We also got great response to the story I did about New York City’s advertising campaign to drink tap water—the whole issue of the environmental footprint that bottled water leaves that people don’t think about," said Ms. Thompson. "I think people are very curious about what they can do to help the environment. You know, like simple things, whether it’s telling people to change five light bulbs ... or use one less paper napkin a day. All of those little things add up in many ways. ... Those are the things that resonate with our viewers because they want to know what they can do. As we get into the presidential election year, the larger question of what should the country do about the environment will come into focus."

The consensus among reporters and experts is that the environmental story of 2007 is climate change. The next big story, said Ms. Thompson, will be water.

"It’s a huge issue in our future," she said. "When you look at what’s going on now, with what’s happening in California, the problems they’re having in the Southwest, not to mention what is going on in the rest of the world—water is something that we so take for granted in this country that we are going to have to start to look at how we use water."

Will changing the way people use water be another way of going green? "‘Sacrifice’ doesn’t seem to be a word that politicians or anybody else likes to use," Ms. Thompson said. "What strikes me about this whole fascination with going green is that there is some part of this that’s not being considered. Nobody is willing to say to Americans that you can’t have it all. You might have to make a sacrifice here and there. But we have limited resources and we’re going to have to make sacrifices."

As the presidential race heats up, every candidate will address the big environmental questions. "The environment will be a very important issue, but there won’t be any issue more important than Iraq," Ms. Thompson said.

Despite the war, she said, "There won’t be a presidential candidate who will be out there without a policy on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. I think you’ll hear a big discussion about what are we going to do as a country. We need an energy policy. These are things that are being driven not by politicians or Washington; they’re being driven by business and consumers on a grassroots level, and they’re going to reach the politicians in Washington."

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