Five ways to improve environmental reporting

Cecil the Lion in Hwange National Park

In the weeks following the death of Cecil the Lion, a 13-year-old African lion killed during a trophy hunt, media outlets big and small wondered what would now become of the lions still living in Africa. Scientific American interviewed the researcher tracking Cecil, who said the hunt had served as a catalyst for millions of people to “express their enthusiasm for the value of nature.” The New York Times questioned if all the rage directed at hunter Walter Palmer might in fact undermine efforts to save the lions, reinvigorating an old discussion of the value of trophy hunting toward conservation. Zimbabweans wondered if we had all lost our minds.

Taken collectively, the stories of his death show that media coverage of the natural world has enormous power to influence it–or, at least, how much we believe it does. New campaigns like last week’s World Elephant Day and World Lion Day, created in 2012 and 2013 respectively, make it even easier for news outlets to draw attention to conservationists’ efforts, providing prepackaged information, a flurry of press releases, and a convenient news peg for generating stories.

With all this in mind, CJR talked with some of the leading experts in wildlife and conservation coverage to put together this (not comprehensive) guide for journalists tackling these subjects.

 

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1. Look behind the curtain

Saving the polar bear might seem like a no-brainer, and it presents an easy scaffolding upon which to build a story. But conservation is rarely that simple, and stories about it shouldn’t be, either. “There’s a lot of unquestioned assumptions,” Jon Mooallem, author of the book Wild Ones and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, says about the field of conservation. “People I’ve dealt with are not necessarily used to reporters really thinking through what they’re doing.”

Not all conservation efforts are what they seem, says Christine Dell’Amore, the online natural history editor at National Geographic and founder of the blog Weird and Wild. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, there’s a new park created in the middle of Indonesia,’ ” Dell’Amore says. “But how is it going to be enforced? How will the species be protected?” Even the best-intentioned plans can go awry, which means reporters need to think critically even if it might seem counterintuitive to do so. Mooallem’s feature “Who Would Kill a Monk Seal?” for example, documents how the federal government’s plan to grow the endangered monk seal population in Hawaii ultimately led to some of the seals being killed. “There’s a lack of just actual journalism sometimes” related to these issues, Mooallem says.

 

2. Get on the ground, or at least act like you did

As with all beats, reporting from the field makes for the best stories, and not only because you can describe what the elephant smelled like. It can also help provide important cultural context that can be lost amid persistent messages to save a species at any cost. If you need to report a story in two days from a desk, remember that nonprofits are not the only knowledgeable sources. By talking to sources stationed on different sides of the aisle, so to speak, you might discover an unknown conflict or add drama; you will almost certainly provide more nuance and make the story more honest (not to mention a better read). “A lot of people will reach out to big conservation groups, and they’re always willing to give you a quote because that’s their advocacy,” Dell’Amore says. “But it takes more reporting to dig deeper and get a more nuanced and thorough view of the issue.” Reaching out to people who live near an endangered species’ protected habitat, corporations who have a business interest in the land, or independent scientists from nearby universities and research institutions can be a good place to start.

 

3. Watch your language

One of journalism’s grand intents is to lend a public voice to those who don’t have one. When it comes to stories on wildlife, then, writers speak for the truly voiceless. “Often I am with someone who is speaking for a phenomenon—they’re speaking for this animal, they’re speaking for this fungus, whatever the hell they’re speaking for—some person usually has to serve that function,” Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction and a staff writer at The New Yorker, said in an interview with Edge Effects. “Whether that’s actually fair to the phenomenon or not, I will let others be the judge.”

Environmental journalists can sometimes feel like an entire species’ well-being hangs on the right word choice. In 2013, for example, a professional organization representing shark  scientists asked Reuters and the Associated Press to change their style standards and replace the use of the phrase “shark attack.” Using the term “in a sensationalizing manner by the media,” they wrote, “can reinforce misleading stereotypes of shark behavior and may undermine public support for shark conservation.” (No pressure.) Editors deciding whether to use a term like this still have to consider their own causes, Dell’Amore says, and using a less well-known phrase may attract fewer readers–who will then miss out on an opportunity to read about shark conservation from, say, National Geographic. “You don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot,” Dell’Amore says.

 

4. Africa isn’t the only place with wildlife

“Most people don’t even know there’s actually a species of Asian lion,” Dell’Amore says, lamenting a lack of pitches on lesser-known species and stories told from less well-trodden places. By focusing only on the so-called “charismatic megafauna” that tend to dominate the public conversation of conservation–your panda bears, your elephants and tigers–journalists can also fuel a dangerous feedback loop that prioritizes attractive species over more humble workhorses of an ecosystem, like ants. When Dell’Amore explored how conservationists decide which species to save first, she discovered that they often make the choice based on which species can generate the most public interest, and thus, donations. Where there’s little public interest, there’s little money, little research, and therefore little news generated that might spur public interest. Seeking out unfolding stories in unknown areas could help interrupt the cycle–and make a bored editor’s day.

 

5. Keep your story open ended

Some of the best environmental stories don’t have clear answers. Even within the conservation community and related fields, questions are brewing about what it means to protect nature in a modern world. Reporting in this murky area can provide a wealth of new ideas, as long as a journalist is ready to deal with the discomfort of the unknown. “There’s so many rich stories out there that are kind of underreported in a weird way,” Mooallem says. “You have to pull everything apart and then try to figure out what to do with it as a writer. I think that’s definitely pretty scary to do.”

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Laura Dattaro is a freelance reporter in New York with a focus on the environment and an interest in all things science.