Environmental reporters must ‘learn on the go’

“You don’t have to be an environmental journalist to cover the environment.”

This was the first piece of advice Mark Schleifstein, the environmental writer for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, gave zealous students during the environmental panel at this year’s annual SEJC convention, summing up the whole panel before it even really started.        

The environmental panel focused on a major news story of 2010: the BP oil spill. The panel included Scheifstein; Brian Schwaner, Associated Press bureau chief in New Orleans; Debbie Elliot, NPR News; and was moderated by Mike Maher, Ph.D., head of the UL Lafayette communication department. The three panelists shared their adventures on covering such a momentous story to the room of around 60 young college students and their professors.

All three testified to having to learn on the go about what it takes to cover the environment. Not only that, but the BP oil spill was a disaster that had no equal since no other spill has released such a large amount of oil.

“Early on, this was such a reporting adventure,” said Elliot. “It was this horrible tragedy, this explosion, something that we were used to, but then all of a sudden there was more to it.”

Schwaner described the oil spill as not only being an environmental issue, but also a political and economic issue as well. The implications of this disaster continued to grow and grow. Elliot wrote a total of 136 stories on this one subject.

Looking back, Schwaner said he asked, “How could this not be a story that was going to go on for a decade? This is a continuing people story.”

After living through something so tremendous in their careers, the panelists offered advice on how to find proper sources, understand what your story is, find different angles of a story (the oil spill had several) and how the decline of the number of journalists makes each new case a learning experience. The panelists agreed they became a something resembling oil experts only after the spill occurred. Most of those who worked with them on the stories now work at a different organization covering different topics.

“That’s one of the key problems for the industry as a whole, is recognizing there will be changes and understanding some of this stuff, even as you’re moving into this new world of trying to get faster, shorter stories, that there have to be people who have the knowledge and the ability of understanding how to do the wilder kind of work as well,” said Schleifstein.

Around half of the 75-minute discussion revolved around student questions about the best way to write an environmental story. Students gained advice on uncovering sources’ intentions and how to seek out the right people to ask. They were told the importance of discovering what exactly their story is about and conducting the necessary research to write that story.

“People want to be around the big story,” said Schwaner. “It’s like a magnet. Even when you’ve taken hits on resources, the folks who still want to be there will do everything they can to get it. And that’s exactly what happened.”

And it isn’t just the national stories that matter. The panelists advised students to go out into their own communities to discover what environmental issues are important.

The panel ended with a high note, with advice that every journalist needs to know. The final topic of the morning was keeping stories fresh after covering them for extensive amounts of time.

“Fabulous storytelling,” said Elliot. “Talk about real human people who are living with the effect. Go out on the water with the scientist and discover how they go about finding out what they find out. That could be said for any subject. You find the right subject, the right material and you tell a great story.”