Ferreting Out the Environmental Angle

Sep 8, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Scott Miller spent 16 years covering the environmental beat at Belo-owned NBC affiliate KING-TV in Seattle and was one of the longest-tenured environmental reporters on local TV when he left in November 2002 to join the local branch of a nonprofit organization.

Now he offers a roadmap for TV reporters who are covering or want to cover the environment.

Environmental stories have traditionally been tough to push through the editorial process because they don’t tend to involve breaking news. “They tend to be stories that play out over an extended period of time,” said Mr. Miller, the co-director of Seattle’s Resource Media, which provides communications and media outreach to improve coverage of the environment.

That’s why he maintained a working list of 150 to 200 ideas at any given time that could turn into stories. Most were never done, but one can expect a failure rate of at least 70 percent with editors, he said. “You can’t get too hung up on the great story that they just won’t go for,” he said.

He urges environmental reporters to use big breaking news as an opportunity to pitch environmental stories that otherwise wouldn’t be pitched to an editor.

For instance, Washington was expecting a bad year for fires in the late ’90s, he said. “Knowing it would be a big fire year in the West, I was able to [sell] my editors on going out and traveling around the region and doing a story on forest health,” Mr. Miller said. “If I tried to pitch that in a vacuum, they would say, `What are you talking about?”’

Since the feature story was timely, he was given the go-ahead for a three-part series that included coverage of prescribed burns in Idaho, efforts to thin overgrown Oregon forest, and the way in which Yellowstone had bounced back after its devastating fire.

“When we got back, the fires from Washington were erupting, so it was a great way to add value to our coverage,” Mr. Miller said. “That’s what I always liked to do when there was a big topical story-if there was an environmental angle, to try to flesh that out. TV stations love team coverage and the illusion that they are in 30 different places covering the story of the day. When you are able to offer up your piece of an environmental story as part of team coverage of a big breaking story, they love that.”

Another example comes from his coverage of a spate of whale beachings that occurred in Seattle about three to four years ago. The event offered a chance to carry more in-depth stories on the decline of the whale population in the Northwest, he said.

Catching the wave on developing stories is more than just getting lucky. “Part of it is being able to know what stories are likely to happen,” Mr. Miller said. “You have to identify what stories are happening over a two-month period and say, `This is a topical story right now and I’m going to get ready to do this.’ And then they can run it when it’s ready or run it right away and it still seems like it has a current edge to it.”

Taking It to the Street

Environmental coverage likely will increase during the next year as the political campaign season shifts into high gear, he said. His advice to TV reporters is to find people in the community to tell the story, rather than just environmental or political spokespeople.

“Don’t just wait for someone to touch you with a media story,” he said. “You need to pay attention to the fundamental storytelling techniques. You need to make sure the editor doesn’t see it as dull or nonvisual, and if you do that, over time you will be successful at getting some of these stories on the air. If you don’t do that, you won’t get them on the air.”