Story by Becky Hoag
Photos by Brandon Taylor
There have been times when I felt the fight against climate change was too big to handle. I avoided the talk of climate change and environmentalism. I was scared. Global climate change is arguably the largest threat to humanity, as Climate Central points out, and with the new administration, the situation only seems to get bleaker, especially since the United States is the second largest carbon emitter in the world.
As a double major in marine biology and journalism, I would love to just focus on magazine design or discovering new organisms around hydrothermal vents. Yet I can’t stop being a part of the fight; it’s in my bones. That’s why I decided to add an environmental studies minor too.
On the other hand, passion for the topic can sometimes go too far. Because it’s difficult to balance personal activism with unbiased journalism, most newsrooms don’t allow their writers to mix the two. Unfortunately, environmentalists also carry a stereotype of accepting only the truths that go with their feelings, a reputation that is poisonous in a newsroom.
I’ve already been a part of many climate change rallies. And I recognize the need to reel myself back so that I can be a better journalist.
These were some of the challenges I knew I would face going into both my fields of study. Luckily, I was able to meet like-minded individuals during the Oregon Territory Society of Professional Journalists’ Build a Better Journalist conference.
I was there for the environmental panel, “Environmental Reporting: Uncovering Dirty Secrets, Dealing with State Agencies & Working with Native Tribes.” By the end of the conference, my hands were shaking with both anxiety and exhilaration.
During the panel, I wanted to know if the panelists also felt that climate change can be very depressing, and if so, what they did to stay upbeat. When I asked, the panelists let out an anxious laugh; they could relate to how I felt. My favorite answer came from The Revelator’s editor, John Platt. He said environmentalists must be “professional optimists.” It is the only way we survive in this beat. To keep the conversation alive, we need to balance out the horror stories with some success stories. Find the heroes.
Soon after, Peter Sessum, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) media relations specialist who was in the audience, asked how journalists can avoid ignoring information that doesn’t match the story direction they had created in their head. While it is impossible to be completely unbiased, journalists need to be open to different perspectives and article storyline direction changes.
It was a question I could relate to. Because I have a scientific background, I am able to use some of the knowledge I have learned over the years to tell in-depth stories about scientific and environmental topics. But this can lead me to expect a story’s fruition, rather than being open to where the story might take me. It is important for journalists like me to back themselves up with knowledge beyond their own, to recognize their audience doesn’t understand the beat’s jargon and to remain open-minded.
Of course, getting a whole story can be more difficult if sources don’t want to talk. Something I learned during the panel that surprised me is that sources are growing silent. This is the opposite of what I would expect. I expected scientists and environmental businesses to become more vocal with their jobs at stake. But they have been told not to talk if they want to keep their jobs. This creates a problem for journalists because it is becoming more difficult to know whom to trust.
As Portland Tribune environmental writer Paul Koberstein said, “If I had the choice between five sources and one document, I would choose the document.”
One of the primary ways to keep audiences interested in an environmental story is to connect it with what is happening locally. Climate change effects can be seen in the fisheries, local coastlines, human health and storm patterns. We can see environmental pollution near elementary schools, in public parks, and in the air and water.
After this panel, I decided I need to cover activist events as a journalist, rather than engage as a protestor. Journalists need to draw a line between how active they will let themselves be so that they can remain a trustworthy source. If they don’t draw a strict line, their news organizations will.
I have decided to refrain from being a spokesperson for activist movements. Initially, this seems counterintuitive, given my goal of fighting climate change. However, I would rather build trust between the public and me. I want them to look at my writing and feel assured that I am giving them the whole picture. After all, one way to change the world is to embolden the minds of the public.
Becky Hoag is a sophomore double-majoring in journalism and marine biology, with an environmental studies minor. This is her first term interning for the SOJC Communications Office. She also writes for UO’s environmental publication, Envision Magazine, and interns at Willamette Resources and Educational Network (WREN), a Lane County wetlands nonprofit. She is interested in being a research scientist and freelance environmental and scientific journalist. This summer, she will be attending the Oregon Institute for Marine Biology (OIMB) while working with the climate change-focused journalism project Science in Memory with other members of the SOJC. You can view her work at beckyhoag.com.