In Depth

Humor Scores Serious Points

By Elizabeth Jensen

So why did the chicken cross the road? To get viewers and readers to pay attention to gloom-and-doom environmental stories, of course.

Melting icebergs and dying polar bears are sad and scary stories; eyes glaze over when clean coal technology is dissected; and a few scientists just take themselves a bit too seriously. For some journalists, clear and concise writing isn’t enough, so they are using humor to get media consumers to tune in to complicated, oftentimes, grim subjects.

Humor “helps audiences connect with the story by letting them see the humanity in it. Everyone somewhere in their bones laughs,” said Debra Schwartz, chief executive of Dash on Deadline, a free-lance writing service specializing in science, environment and education journalism. She added, “When we can help each other laugh at ourselves, then there’s an emotional connection to the story that doesn’t exist when you’re hammering someone over the head. I don’t think laying a guilt trip on somebody is a way to make them productive.”

Schwartz, the Beloit, Wis.-based author of “Writing Green: Advocacy & Investigative Reporting About the Environment in the Early 21st Century,” will lead a Friday Society of Environmental Journalists conference panel on how, why and when to use humor in environmental writing.

A lot of science, energy and environmental material “is very dry and drab,” said Tom Henry, a writer and columnist for the Toledo Blade in Ohio, who has been covering the environmental beat since 1993 and will be on the panel. Journalists, he said, “have the power to inflame a community needlessly or put them to sleep” when they should be paying close attention. Humor can be one way to bring nuance to a story as well as to whet readers’ appetites for more details, he added.

Grist.org, which calls itself “a beacon in the smog,” has been using a humorous approach to its environmental posts since 1999. Newsweek called the Seattle-based site — which reaches about 750,000 users a month and features a “Things That Are Funny” category and a “Clarity-O-Meter” alongside serious policy coverage — “the ‘Daily Show’ of the green space.”

In a tip sheet for the SEJ panel, Grist senior editor Katharine Wroth offers examples of ways to use humor, from incorporating rhymes and wordplay and “writing for yourself” and what you think is funny, to a suggestion to “Butcher your sacred cows.” No topic, she writes, is so important that it can’t be tweaked: “Methane in the atmosphere? Not so funny. Bovine burps as a source of said methane? Now we’re talking.”

She also suggests going “for the unexpected,” citing a recent Grist slideshow of famous environmentalists’ mustaches, which the site used as “a chance to highlight key thinkers doing important work on sustainability — in a way that caught people completely off guard.”

Another good tool, she says, is to ask “WWJSD” (What Would Jon Stewart Do?), suggesting that journalists “Imagine Jon Stewart or some other comedian you admire delivering your story. How would he or she spice things up? What unexpected, unserious angle would he or she focus in on?”

But not all humorous approaches have to be pure stand-up comedy routines, say Henry and Schwartz. “You don’t have to be an entertainer to write in a sequence of threes,” said Schwartz, referring to one technique of using “Small, bigger, bigger” or “Big, smaller, smaller” formulas.

“What you’re really trying to do is lighten up your writing a bit,” says Henry. He wrote a story once about efforts to eradicate emerald ash borers by peeling back the bark on some trees and releasing pheromones, “but I don’t say the trees are sluts, or anything like that,” he noted.

Deciding when humor isn’t appropriate is also key, he said, noting that “Humor usually doesn’t fly when you’ve got someone being prosecuted in court,” or there’s a spill or disaster. “You don’t want to be accused of being flippant. That’s always the danger.”

“It is possible to offend somebody unintentionally,” said Schwartz. “Sensitivity is the order of the day. Sometimes humor can have a hard edge that turns people off.” She occasionally uses a bit of humor at the top of a story to engage her readers before getting to the nitty-gritty details of her topic.
And not everyone gets it. She once wrote a story about textiles created from spun petroleum with a lead along the lines of “Save oil, go naked.” An editor didn’t understand, and the story was rejected, but Schwartz still thinks it was a good approach to a materials science story, “which can be really boring.”