SEJ Picks Right Environment to Meet

Sep 2, 2007  •  Post A Comment

“It’s going to be one of our best — but we say that every year because it seems to get better and better,” said Tim Wheeler, Baltimore Sun reporter. He was referring to the Society of Environmental Journalists conference that takes place this week. As he’s the organization’s president, his enthusiasm is no surprise. However, when one peruses the conference agenda, one quickly understands the reasons for his excitement. It all starts with the conference venue: California’s Stanford University.
“We’re excited to have Stanford University as our host. It’s a world-renowned center for research and thinking, and it’s in a great location,” said Mr. Wheeler. “This is our second [conference] in California, the first one in the Bay Area. From a news standpoint and from a news industry standpoint, it’s the place where you want to be. It’s a leadership state in terms of tackling environmental issues. They are attempting to deal with things like air pollution and global warming.
“They also represent the nexus of environmental issues that we have in this country, whether it’s endangered species or sprawl or energy,” he continued. “From a news industry standpoint, we’ll be in Silicon Valley with the whole growth of the Internet and new media. They are transforming our industry. The SEJ conference can take advantage of both of those elements.”
The conference begins Wednesday, Sept. 5. “The opening day is chockablock with some really great stuff. That’s when we’re giving out our awards for environmental reporting in broadcasting, online and print. That’s always inspiring,” Mr. Wheeler said. “This year we’re adding student journalism, and I’m really excited to see what kind of work students are doing. They’re really the future.
“After that we have a special plenary [session] involving some great thinkers to talk about our energy future and how that’s going to fit in with all the other concerns we have.”
The 2005 tsunami in Asia and Hurricane Katrina were the major environmental stories of the past two years, but today most journalists agree that global warming and climate change are the hot-button issues. “Since then there has been an intergovernmental panel on climate change and another series of reports updating the research that continues to accumulate saying that climate change is happening,” Mr. Wheeler said. “It’s a top story and it reaches into virtually every aspect of our lives. One can’t say those particular events are a product of global warming, but the scientists who believe there’s a connection said that these are certainly the kinds of extreme weather events that one could expect to see from the modeling projections.”
Also on Wednesday, there will be a one-day forum for editors and news managers about how to cover climate change. Twenty top news and editorial managers for newspapers, broadcast outlets and online news organizations have been invited to meet with leading climate and energy scientists and thinkers to review the latest on the issue and share thoughts on covering it.
Members of SEJ count on the organization’s help in covering complicated, important subjects such as climate change. “I’ve been a member since SEJ was founded and it’s been a wonderful resource and an inspiration as well as a great community of seekers after quality environmental reporting,” Mr. Wheeler said. “It’s helped my reporting immensely. They have regular online tip sheets giving you background on stories of interest, and alerts to announcements that are pending. There’s also the online listserv for members that is sort of a great instant feedback forum, where you can ask a question about a story and you’ll get responses within minutes.”
Scientists and journalists are interested in climate change in part because the public cares. “There is poll data that shows that a growing percentage of the public believes that climate change is real and it may be happening now,” said Mr. Wheeler. “That’s either the product of the drumbeat of publicity or good journalism or both. Something is getting through to the public.
“What was truly compelling about Katrina was to see the human impact,” he added. “A lot of times when we’ve talked about climate change and sea levels rising, it was something that was going to happen far into the future. But in this case, New Orleans is somewhere very familiar, part of the fabric of America. To see the pain and suffering of so many people was a real wake-up call. It was evidence that where one lives matters; we can be at the mercy of nature. Katrina put a face on some of these issues to a large degree.”
For SEJ members, the interest among the public as well as news managers in topics such as energy, weather, food quality and all the other subjects under the environmental umbrella represents a welcome change in attitude. “We’re all wondering, how long is that going to last?” said Mr. Wheeler. “It’s a teachable moment, if you will, and there are signs that it is something that is here to stay. As someone who’s covered this issue for many years, I felt that there were some reckonings coming. There’s a flowering of environmental news and reporting on the environment, whether it’s stimulated by the public’s awakening through things like Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ or the flurry of scientific reports about climate change that is happening now.”
Business also is involved. “Corporate America has really taken the whole notion of environmental sustainability into its core operations. There are those who still wonder how real that is and how lasting it will be,” said Mr. Wheeler. “There certainly seems to be a recognition by corporate America that the public is hungry for more sustainable products and more sustainable ways of living, whether it’s organic foods or reduced packaging and reduced carbon outputs and carbon offsets and all that. There has been a lot of news generated about that, and that’s not the way it’s been in the past.
“The lineup of tours is one of the things I’m really looking forward to — fully a day and a half out in the field as opposed to sitting around talking in a conference center,” he said. “The tours are real gems and it’s hard to choose which one of them to go on. … I’m trying to figure out how I can do all of them.”
The off-conference tours include kayaking on Elkhorn Slough north of Monterey to observe sea otters, harbor seals and sea birds in one of California’s largest remaining tidal estuaries; a hike to the biggest wetland restoration project on the West Coast, some 15,000 acres of ponds once diked for salt production and now ready to return to tidal marsh; and an urban adventure in San Francisco that includes stops at the “living roof” under construction at the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park and the nation’s largest solar-roof installations at the Moscone Convention Center.
Two more field trips are certain to be big draws: one to wine country and the other to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The former leads SEJ members to the Livermore Valley, where the topic of the day is not only wine but also wind power. The tour starts at the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, the site of ongoing research into the issue of avian deaths, then proceeds to a lunch and exploration of the wine country.


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