J-school educates next generation of environmental journalists
By Jason D.B. Kauffman
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the relationship between journalists and scientists is often strained. All have professional standards peculiar to their fields. At the same time, each must often rely on the other.
For scientists there’s the desire to expose one’s research to an audience broader than the limited readership of the scholarly journals in which they publish their findings. Science journalists cannot do their jobs properly without the help of scientists who are willing to take the time to explain the results of their research. Just as important, scientists can help journalists understand why their work actually matters, which is ultimately the information readers seek.
This is what makes relationships between the two so important. No matter their beat, journalists always seek to develop trust with sources who they can return to again and again. Science journalism is no exception.
Gaining a better grasp of this important relationship between scientist and journalist is one of the chief aims of UM’s new Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism master’s program. This fall, the program welcomed its first seven graduate students, each hailing from different walks of life and professional backgrounds.
Henriette Lowisch, the program’s director, says science coverage is only one component. Students accepted into the program also will learn how politics, law and other complexities come into play during the course of environmental journalism.
“As far as science goes, we are educating students who will become literate in science,” Lowisch says.
The program aims to accomplish this in several ways. First, students will gain expertise in a particular area of science. Having this level of expertise in one area, graduates then will be able to demonstrate to scientists that they understand how science works and how complex it is – “the uncertainties that come with it,” Lowisch explains.
That’s music to the ears of many scientists, including UM’s own Scott Mills, professor of wildlife population ecology in the College of Forestry and Conservation.
Over the years, Mills has had both good and bad experiences working with journalists. He says one of the biggest challenges for journalists covering science is how to deal with uncertainty.
“I always tell my students it’s OK to embrace uncertainty,” he says, “that even if you have an estimate of abundance for some rare cat species of 50, but the confidence interval range is from 10 to 90, that that’s actually OK. That’s a truthful embracing of the real uncertainty that’s in nature.”
But uncertainty can be a hard thing for journalists to accept, let alone explain to their editors. In Mills’ experience, uncertainty often is interpreted as “bad science” by journalists. He says they’ll often turn around and seek out another scientist who will give them a more definitive answer, even though that scientist may not know as much about the particular topic.
“Embracing that uncertainty is in our world the sign of a good scientist – a true scientist,” Mills says.
In reality, there are degrees of uncertainty in science, Mills explains. A perfect example of the challenges of uncertainty, and one that ultimately became a national headline in Newsweek, had to do with a snowshoe hare study Mills spearheads in the Seeley Lake area northeast of Missoula. There, Mills and several of his students investigate how climate change may or may not impact these forest-dwelling critters.
Because of warming trends in Montana’s climate, snowshoe hares are turning pure white before there’s snow on the ground. Mills can’t yet say for sure what the impacts of these bright white “flash bulbs” against the brown forest floor will be. Nevertheless, Newsweek ran with a headline proclaiming this to be “The case of the disappearing rabbit.” Not only was this incorrect from a species standpoint – hares aren’t rabbits – but it also overstated what Mills’ research can say with confidence.
“We don’t know what the cost of the mismatch is for the hares,” he says. “Right now we’re collecting the data. That’s a level of uncertainty that I just don’t know yet.”
In the end, successful relationships between scientists and journalists hinge on trust. Reluctant scientists will go that extra mile with a journalist to help them understand a particularly challenging aspect of their research if they feel the journalist is giving the topic the time and respect it deserves. That’s something UM’s new environmental journalism program hopes to instill in its graduate students.
“It’s totally about a trust thing and also a matter of respect,” Lowisch says. “There’s a mutual respect that needs to be there. You increase that respect if you show that you explored and grasped one area of science.”
The arrival of such a specialized program to the UM campus couldn’t have been better timed. Just six weeks after the first batch of environmental journalism recruits sat down for their first class this autumn semester, the Society of Environmental Journalists held its 20th annual conference on the UM campus. While in Missoula, SEJ members from around the country and world were exposed to important environmental and natural resource topics – many of them with a Montana twist.
The conference was a remarkable opportunity for UM’s environmental journalism students. From sitting in on panel discussions to taking daylong outings to explore environmental stories, students were introduced to many of their future colleagues and the full range of work they produce.
“You see all these possibilities,” Lowisch says. “You can basically touch them. It’s different than sitting in a (professor’s) seminar.”
Longtime SEJ member and environmental journalist Mark Schleifstein, a reporter with the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans, attended the conference. During his 26 years at the newspaper, Schleifstein has gained recognition beyond the Gulf Coast region for his excellent environmental science coverage. His work during and after Hurricane Katrina helped his newspaper win Pulitzer Prizes for public service and breaking news reporting.
While environmental stories are not always so high-profile, they are about important topics that require a patient approach by journalists, Schleifstein says. One challenging story that he and former Times-Picayune reporter John McQuaid tackled together was the invasion of non-native Formosan termites in New Orleans. After a full year of investigation and information-gathering, the duo’s work was published in a lengthy series titled “Home Wreckers: How the Formosan termite is devastating New Orleans.”
“We’ve been dealing with these termites for quite a while. Everybody knew about it,” Schleifstein says. “But nobody had done an in-depth look at what these termites are doing – what effects they’re having on people and why they’re such a problem.”
The project required Schleifstein to do some serious brushing up on entomology, the study of insects. What he learned was that pest control operators were having an increasingly difficult time treating for this destructive insect. Some pesticides were no longer effective, and others had simply been taken off the market.
Approaching scientists for the story wasn’t easy either. “Entomologists were not necessarily interested in talking to reporters,” he says. “Most of their research was tied financially to chemical companies.”
But after a lot of hard work to better understand the science, the entomologists were pleased with the reporting. Even New Orleans’ pest control operators appreciated the journalists’ diligence.
“I got a standing ovation from the Pest Control Operators Association,” Schleifstein says with a laugh.
Most important, his readers knew a lot more about an invisible but very important topic affecting their lives.
Schleifstein’s advice to budding science reporters: Make sure to understand the limits of what scientists can say, and make sure they understand the limits of what journalists can do.
“Scientists basically do not understand the deadlines that reporters are under,” he says. “Reporters generally don’t understand the restrictions that scientists have, especially in terms of the peer review process.”
Having that basic background in science is key, and it’s what will put UM’s environmental journalism students on the road to success, says SEJ member Jennifer Weeks, a freelance science and environmental writer.
“It’s a lot like going to another country,” she says. “It really helps if you’ve learned at least a few phrases in the local language. I really find that most scientists are willing to explain things.”
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Translating Hard Science
J-school educates next generation of environmental journalists.