News

SEJ Panel Aims to Get Scientists, Journalists Working Together

From Fireworks to Friendship

This week’s 17th annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference at Stanford University boasts an agenda stacked with plenary sessions, guest speakers and topical events. One session generating a lot of early buzz is a breakfast panel called “Can This Marriage Be Saved? Why Journalists and Scientists Just Don’t Communicate.” The panel is moderated by SEJ board member Jeff Burnside, a reporter for NBC owned-and-operated WTVJ-TV in Miami; and Nancy Baron, lead communications trainer for the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program.

TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman talked with Mr. Burnside about the session, the conference and the challenge of covering the environment.

TelevisionWeek: What are your expectations for the upcoming SEJ conference?
Jeff Burnside: I think the topic of the environment and all of its niches is suddenly the hot topic among news managers, trying to force the environmental issues onto the assignment list. That’s something that SEJ has been fighting for, not just now, but for years. Finally the pendulum has swung, and it’s swung quickly, so now we’re back on the priority list.

TVWeek: How helpful is SEJ when you’re working on an environmental story?
Mr. Burnside:
SEJ is incredibly helpful in a variety of ways, not the least of which is to have your finger on the pulse of the nation’s media knowing exactly which environmental stories are breaking. Which environmental stories are coming next? There’s a tip sheet that is incredibly invaluable with stories to watch for in the coming days and weeks. So anybody can benefit.

The thing is, SEJ is made up of people who cover the environment, some full-time, some only part-time, and there’s a growing number of journalists who don’t consider themselves to be environmental journalists but cover environmental topics, whether it’s drought, weather anomalies, lead in paint, clean-up sites, growth and sprawl, traffic congestion—all those are environmental issues. So even if someone covers environmental issues from time to time, SEJ can be a valuable asset for them, too.

TVWeek: Do you cover just environmental stories on your beat or do you mix it up?
Mr. Burnside: Like most reporters, I cover a lot of environmental issues, but it’s not my sole focus. I also do a lot of investigative work here and some daily news. Environmental issues, though, are my passion. Well, journalism is my passion, but environmental journalism really tugs at my heartstrings. I feel most proud of those stories.

TVWeek: Is there a particular speaker or session that you’re most looking forward to seeing at the SEJ conference?
Mr. Burnside: Yes, mine! There are going to be so many fireworks that it takes two moderators, me and Nancy Baron. We are addressing the always fiery topic of scientists interacting with journalists, and we’ve compiled what I think is a stunning lineup of panelists: Stanford’s Pam Matson, feisty climatologist Steve Schneider and UC Davis’ Pat Conrad to face off with the L.A. Times’ Ken Weiss, NBC News’ Anne Thompson, and freelancer and comedian Tom Hayden.

It’s the age-old problem: Journalists need it right away; scientists need time. Journalists need overviews; scientists need details. Journalists need commitments; scientists need caveats. We’re asking people to not bring any caffeinated coffee, only decaf, because this session is going to be so unscripted and wild. It’s a breakfast panel, so that means there are no competing panels. The bad news is that it’s at breakfast time, but we have guaranteed that people can start the day with fireworks by coming to our panel on Friday morning.

TVWeek: It has been a couple of years since Hurricane Katrina. What was the big environmental story from the past year or so that has captured the attention of news producers and managers?
Mr. Burnside: I think the biggest issue, without a doubt, is climate change. After all, it’s the biggest issue in the history of mankind. I think Katrina, whether or not the science backs it up, really helped to put the issue of climate change onto people’s minds on Main Street. That is what has prompted and that is what has propelled environmental issues of all kinds—not just climate change—to be back on the priority list with news managers and news consumers. So clearly, this past year has been a groundbreaking year in that regard.

TVWeek: What has been the influence of Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” on the broadcasting industry?
Mr. Burnside:
The movie has had a huge, huge impact. News managers, unfortunately in many cases, still have groupthink. Not enough of them are willing to be the first, or among the first, to cover a particular issue. So when Al Gore’s movie came out, it forced the issue onto Main Street, onto the masses. It really circumvented the mainstream news media and forced it onto the nation’s priority list and into the national dialogue. Then, in addition to “An Inconvenient Truth,” having the issue of climate change appear on the cover of a whole variety of magazines—from Business Week to U.S. News & World Report and even Vogue and the New Yorker—that really solidified the place for the issue of climate change on the national agenda. At that point, news managers had no choice but to start covering the issue in a more appropriate way, and by that I mean more frequently and in more detail.
For example, we’re a local station serving South Florida and we’re running a one-hour climate change special. That’s an extremely rare thing for any local station to undertake. It’s been done very few times, if at all, across the country. But the issue is so important to really every city in America that our news manager felt it was compelling enough to do an hour special. That’s an incredible development.

TVWeek: Has new media affected the way you cover environmental stories and how you tell them? Have the new methods of communicating been an asset?
Mr. Burnside: Yes, it’s an asset to the news business, because any means of responsibly reaching the public is good for news. What these alternative ways of conveying news have done is get more stories to the public, and then those stories have a greater chance of working their way to mainstream press as well. I think that’s what happens, and it’s great for reporters because we get a chance to convey our stories on multiple platforms as well. We love that. We love being able to do a two-and-a-half-minute story on TV and say for the full report, read it online. Then when you go online, you can see excerpts from our interviews, you can see raw video, you can read our blogs, you can read the raw data, you can read official reports, conflicting reports, letters, everything that we used to compile and prepare our story. You can see it all, too.

TVWeek: Does it seem that the role of the reporter has become more complicated now that you have multiple platforms?
Mr. Burnside: It’s called feeding the monster. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s trying at times to be pulled in five different directions, but at the same time it’s giving us exactly what we want, which is more avenues to communicate our information to the public. It’s curious: I’ve written some articles about how newspaper reporters now are being asked to do what comes close to television news, that being writing to video on the Web. And television reporters are being asked to do what is tantamount to print reporting, that is, putting text versions of our stories on the Web. So this is the great convergence, an overused catchphrase. It’s finally happened.

TVWeek: What do you think about the SEJ conference being held at Stanford University in California?
Mr. Burnside: California is the perfect location for our conference, especially Stanford, because they’ve done so much research on climate-change issues. And, of course, California is clearly the most progressive state in the union when it comes to an environmental perspective. I can’t think of a better place for this time to have an SEJ conference. California leads other states, so it does more than just lead the people of California. Ultimately, California leads America and that in turn leads the world. It’s really that important.

TVWeek: America’s image in the world has taken a hit because we haven’t participated in many of the international conferences on environmental issues. How do you see it evolving in the next five years or so?
Mr. Burnside: I think journalists who cover the issue of climate change, in particular, do believe that whichever political party wins the next election, whichever administration moves into the White House, the United States will take a much stronger leadership position on climate change. I think even many of the Republican presidential candidates are espousing a very progressive position on climate change, especially Sen. John McCain. For Pete’s sake, John McCain was on the cover of several magazines because of his positions on climate change. He’s even more progressive than some Democrats. So in the next five years, you’ll see a sea-change with regard to the position of the United States government on the issue of climate change, no matter who takes office.

TVWeek: You look at the national map and see this summer’s high temperatures from coast to coast and it looks like a science-fiction movie, doesn’t it?
Mr. Burnside: That’s an interesting thing, because if you ask the experts, they’ll always caution you against attaching some climate-change link to any given individual daytime high temperatures. It’s only patterns you should pay attention to, long-term patterns. But the public often incorrectly believes that a one-day high temperature is a result of climate change, when in fact it most often is not. However, it gets them talking, right or wrong. So when we see extreme weather events, individually they are rarely attributable to climate change, but collectively and over time, they most clearly can be.

TVWeek: Are we at a point now in environmental journalism where people are interested as much in solutions to problems as they are in knowing that the problems exist?
Mr. Burnside: You asked me, what’s been the big issue, and I told you climate change. But climate change encompasses so many things, from consumerism to what kind of cars we drive, how much we throw away, what we recycle. It really goes to so many different things.

My standard rule is to always provide solutions and answers in my stories. If we leave viewers depressed and feeling hopeless, especially when there are options, then we’ve done them a disservice. I always try to tell viewers what they can do to fix the problem. And on the issue of climate change, there are things we can do globally, nationally, statewide and individually.

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