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Energizing Journalism

Oct 12, 2008  •  Post A Comment

The Society of Environmental Journalists convenes its 18th conference this week in Roanoke, Va., the heart of coal-mining country and an apt location for a conference focused on energy issues.
Hosted by Virginia Tech, which is also the conference’s primary sponsor, SEJ 2008 runs Oct. 15-19 and will feature more than 30 panel sessions on the reporter’s craft and on environmental issues such as coal, energy, climate, water and land.
The conference will present 17 field trips and dozens of exhibitors, with welcome addresses by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. Philippe and Alexandra Cousteau, ocean explorers and grandchildren of Jacques Cousteau, will co-host the SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment.
Issues pertaining to energy will take center stage. A key event for reporters hoping to hone their scientific knowledge of energy issues is an all-day workshop on Wednesday, “Covering Climate Change and Our Energy Future in Rural America.” Moderated by Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, the workshop will focus on the past, present and future of coal in Appalachia and the southeastern United States. Mountaintop removal strip-mining, carbon capture and sequestration and the satellite perspective on changing land patterns are among the issues to be discussed by a high-level scientific and academic panel including Amory Lovins, co-founder, chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute; Jim Dooley, senior scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute, and Jacob Sewall, assistant professor of Geosciences at Virginia Tech’s College of Science.
Reporting on energy topics is fraught with pitfalls for journalists who grapple with transforming complex scientific information into easy-to-understand, TV-sized stories. But journalists who cover energy are energized by its importance to the nation as a whole.
“Look at what we have to figure out as a country,” said NBC News’ chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson. “Coal is our cheapest source of energy—electricity certainly—yet it produces the greatest amount of carbon dioxide. How do we continue to provide energy at a low cost and not add to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Do we go to wind energy? Solar energy? Can these sources of clean energy be on-demand energy sources?”
Those are just some of the questions that journalists who cover environmental issues have to understand and report to viewers and readers. For local station journalists, energy issues specific to their region are also of paramount importance. “[The Tennessee Valley Authority] is certainly a big story for us, with rates, excessive spending, its mission versus reality and profits,” said reporter Demetria Kalodimos of WSMV-TV in Nashville. “Nuclear power is also coming back as a bigger part of our news menu, with TVA’s efforts to restart long-shuttered plants in the region and wanting to take over security.”
At WTVJ-TV, an NBC O&O in Miami, reporter Jeff Burnside covers a variety of local-interest energy stories. “The lifting of the ban on offshore oil drilling in Florida is particularly topical and heated,” he said. “We’re now seeing vocal and organized opposition from a variety of sectors, not just environmentalists but also the tourism industry, which is the business industry and embraces both political parties.”
Ken Ward Jr., a reporter at the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, also reports heavily on local environmental issues. “As an environmental reporter in West Virginia, I write a lot about the coal industry, metal issues and, increasingly, more stories about the health and safety of the workforce in that industry,” he said. “I also cover the chemical industry in the Kanawha Valley, and we’ve done a lot over the last decade on mountaintop removal coal mining, which is a big issue here. We’ve been trying to do more stories on exactly how the various proposals dealing with climate change would impact the coal industry.”
It can be a challenge for journalists covering energy topics to gain the support of local station management. “I wish there was broad support at the station, but it’s continually a fight to cover energy,” said Mr. Burnside. “But as the pendulum [of public interest] has swung, we have jumped on the bandwagon. We were out front, but we could have been more out front. Of course, I’m like every reporter: I always wish we could do more.”
Finding compelling representatives of the scientific and academic arenas is another challenge. “As journalists, we’re constantly looking for experts who are relatable,” said Ms. Kalodimos. “Once you find a scientist who can speak on a relatable level, cultivate and care for that scientist. It’s the best resource you have as a journalist in trying to tell your story.”
Wednesday’s workshop will expose journalists to some of the leading scientific experts in the field, but Mr. Ward cautions that many energy experts are hesitant to speak on camera.
“A lot of scientists make the point that they don’t get tenure for speaking with the news media,” he said. “Scientists say with disdain, ‘I don’t want to become the next Carl Sagan.’ There’s a stigma still in some areas, from their peers, that they’re publicity hounds. The concern of scientists is that they’re going to get burned, and a lot of them won’t take the calls of reporters because they’re afraid they’ll be misquoted or that the reporter is looking for a zinger.”
Ben Stout, professor of biology at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, W.Va., who will be on the panel for the session “Mountaintop Removal in Context,” agreed with this assessment. “My colleagues and I aren’t trained in outreach and debate,” he said. “The way the system works, you have a laboratory and outdoor research, but you do that with and among your peers and the peer review process. None of it involves the general public.
“I just want to do my science and have the media leave me alone,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is, who will be unbiased and give an objective opinion of what’s going on out in the field? A lot of my colleagues have shied away from that for years, but for something as egregious as mountaintop removal, somebody has to say those provocative kinds of things. It needs to be brought out in the limelight so there can be debate. I want to tell my part of the story because I’ve been invited to do so and I feel obligated to do so. I hope more of my colleagues do the same.”
As energy issues continue to grow in importance, evolving from niche coverage to headline news, journalists who cover the topics will be under increasing pressure to get the story and get it right.
“Energy is the lifeblood of our economy and it’s what makes our country move,” said Ms. Thompson. “Everyone is impacted by energy and its cost, whether you’re the biggest business or an individual. The issue isn’t going to go away.”

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