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SEJ Gathering Helps Journalists Grapple With Covering Complex Issues

The price at the pump remains near $4 a gallon. The power grid is vulnerable and aging. According to all the experts, an American future that includes dependence on foreign oil is a recipe for economic disaster.

In short, energy is one of the most important issues of the day. It is also the focus of the 18th annual Society of Environmental Journalists Conference.

More than 500 reporters, broadcasters, new-media and freelance news professionals will convene for the event this week in Roanoke, Va., headquartered at the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center with Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg acting as conference host. They will listen to experts, explore complex issues, honor environmental leaders and hone their skills in sessions designed specifically for the environmental beat.

“It’s the best place for getting recharged and for keeping your fingers on the pulse of changing issues,” said Jeff Burnside, environmental reporter for WTVJ news in Miami and an SEJ board member. The 2007 conference in Palo Alto was a record setter, drawing more than 900 media pros.

“SEJ is there for the general-assignment reporter who is doing that story and needs to know which source is credible and which one is not,” said Beth Parke, SEJ’s executive director. “The environment is a very broad beat. When you talk in terms of environment-related issues, that’s pretty much everything. These issues can be highly complex, and that’s where a group like SEJ can help. Our members teach and help each other sort through the complexities to make their reporting better.”

Good Ideas

A reporter who attends the SEJ conference gets more than just a chance to hear speakers, attend panels and enjoy field trips. “I always come back with a stack of ideas that I flop on my desk, and I wade through them over the ensuing days and weeks after the conference,” said Mr. Burnside. “The conference not only gives you ideas on how to cover new and developing issues better, but it also reminds you that there are others out there doing great work.”

This year’s conference will commence Oct. 15 with two governors, Virginia’s Tim Kaine and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, greeting attendees at the Hotel Roanoke. Also, Grammy Award-winning country singer Kathy Mattea, a West Virginia native whose new album, “Coal,” has an environmental hook—it’s all traditional mining songs—will perform for SEJ attendees.

Another highlight of the SEJ conference will be the appearance of Philippe and Alexandra Cousteau, ocean explorers and grandchildren of Jacques Cousteau. They will co-host the SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment ceremony. “The Cousteaus are special guests. They are the new generation of Cousteaus in many respects, and yet carry on the vision and the mission of their father, uncle and grandfather,” said Mr. Burnside. “Their father is Philippe Cousteau Sr., who was killed tragically in a plane crash while on one of his documentary trips. Their uncle is Jean Cousteau, and he’s around and still doing great work.”

Among the nominees this year in the TV reporting category are “Dan Rather Reports: Toxic Trailers” about the FEMA trailers given to Hurricane Katrina victims that were actually poisoning those living in them, and “Frontline: Hot Politics,” which looks at the past 20 years of climate change from a political point of view.

“Quite frankly, these are the most important and most thorough environmental reporting awards in the country, if not the world, and the ceremony this year will better reflect that importance. It’ll be fun,” said Mr. Burnside.

After holding its conference in northern California last year, SEJ chose to accept Virginia Tech’s invitation, even though the university’s Blacksburg campus still bears the scars of the April 2007 shooting rampage. “Even though this is an environmental journalists conference, we’re still journalists. I think it would be wholly appropriate to honor and remember the events that happened on that campus,” said Mr. Burnside.

Presidential politics will be on the agenda at the Saturday lunch session, with both candidates invited to attend or to send their top environmental advisers. In addition, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) will speak about America’s future environmental policy. “We’re going to look directly at that whole issue, how the environment is playing out in the political campaign,” said Tim Wheeler, environmental reporter for the Baltimore Sun and president of the SEJ board of directors. “Offshore drilling, endangered species, drilling in [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge], they’ll come up in a couple of dozen panel discussions planned through the two-day session.”

The field trips that are on tap this year have a strong regional flavor, including exploring Kayford Mountain coal mining, getting up close to the southern Appalachian forestry industry, inspecting modern farming techniques in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, driving through the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains, canoeing on the New River, hiking the Appalachian Trail to McAfee Knob overlooking the Catawba Valley, bird-watching along the Roanoke River Greenway and mountaintop removal flyovers.

“The SEJ conferences are famous for their field trips. It’s a rare opportunity for working journalists to get in the field and bring their notepads with them,” said Mr. Burnside. “The field trips are a key part of SEJ, more than any other journalism conferences. You’re not only surrounded by wildlife, you’re surrounded by experts who can give you a running narrative of what it is you’re seeing and experiencing.”

For five days, SEJ will be the place to be. Whether a journalist is covering the environment for a Web site or a TV station, writing for a magazine or working as a freelancer, the knowledge and expertise gained from the conference can be invaluable.

“We believe in localizing the issues: How would someone cover this story for their audience?” said Ms. Parke. “We feel if you’re doing an accurate job on the story, that’s where you start—what is the story? What are the facts? SEJ is here to help the journalist do his or her job.”