Juggling Beats, Localizing Climate

Conference offers valuable lessons on modern reporting

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Reporters at local papers around the country know how to juggle beats. They have to. Steve Bennish of the Daily News in Dayton, Ohio covers crime as well as the environment. “When people aren’t getting filled full of holes, then I can do some environmental reporting,” he said. “It’s a balancing act at my paper.”

So when it comes to tackling a big issue like climate change, reporters like Bennish have their hands full getting a grip on the science and the policy options. To get help, he joined twenty-seven other print, television, and Web journalists from a variety of beats and backgrounds who were invited to a three-day conference this week aimed at arming them with the tools for writing about climate change in a meaningful way.

For many of the reporters who came to Ohio State University’s John Glenn School of Public Affairs, where the event was held, that means figuring out how to localize global issues in a way that makes sense for their papers (and editors), as well as readers. “We’re hyper-local in coverage. Everything has to be seen through the local lens,” said twenty-seven-year-old Phoebe Sweet, who writes about water, environment, and energy for the Las Vegas Sun. “I want to take the hyper-local and blow it out to the national-level debate. I’m looking for how to do that better.”

For her, the threat that global warming poses to the water supply in western states is a good handle. She asked UCLA geography professor Laurence Smith, an expert on the potential impact of northern climate change, about the “value judgments between domestic use and agriculture.” Smith responded that, in the past, agriculture has gobbled up roughly 85 percent of local water supplies for irrigation. But in the future, “cities will trump agriculture every time. Farmers are going to lose some water, and there will be a contraction of agriculture in marginal areas.”

Jennifer Cunningham, a staff writer for The Herald News in West Paterson, New Jersey, listened to Ohio State scientists talk about the potential impact of “business as usual” greenhouse-gas emissions on shrinking polar ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. While there is still a lot of uncertainty, “a one meter (roughly three feet) sea-level rise by the end of the current century is not outside the range of possibility,” said Ellen Mosley-Thompson, whose ice studies with colleague (and husband) Lonnie Thompson are world-renowned. The twenty-five-year-old Cunningham, who has already written about flooding along the over-developed Passaic River, plans to localize glacial melting as a future threat to valuable real estate on the Jersey shore—an old story to some, but one that makes sense for her readers. “We can harp on climate change, but at the end of the day, it’s, ‘So what, how’s it going to affect me?’” she said. “The trick is creating a local angle.”

K Kaufmann, a reporter at The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California, tackles energy, higher education, and medical marijuana while covering the nearby city of Palm Desert. The paper used to have a dedicated environmental reporter, but no more. She got into energy issues when Palm Desert started an ambitious five-year campaign to cut energy use by thirty percent. “It isn’t so much climate change as energy here. Energy is the focus,” said Kaufmann, who made a mid-career switch into print journalism. She’s looking at how folks can cut their energy bills and how alternative energy sources like wind, geothermal and solar, in a sun-drenched area, might ultimately help.

Deborah McDermott, a reporter at the Portsmouth Herald in New Hampshire, is the paper’s Maine bureau chief but squeezes in a regional “sustainability” column. After hearing about the potential public health impact of climate change, at the Ohio State conference, including the risk of increased spread of diseases like West Nile Virus in warming areas, McDermott planned to explore climate in her new “Earth Matters” column. “I had not made the connection. That’s something I definitely intend to look into,” she said.

For some reporters at the conference, the immensity of the problem and the complexity of the science and policies of climate change seem at times overwhelming. “As a reporter, I sometimes feel hopeless,” admitted Sweet.

But rising climate-change concerns have pushed some scientists and policy experts out of their comfort zone, into stepped-up efforts to communicate with the press and the public. “What is it going to take?” asked scientist Lonnie Thompson, who is concerned about not only the polar glaciers, but also the “dying” tropical mountain glaciers that are crucial to water supplies from Peru to China. “We respond only to crises…when our backs are to the wall and we have no other choices,” he said. Thompson took the conference journalists on a chilly tour—30 degrees below zero—of the Byrd Polar Research Center’s unique storage center which houses frozen ice cores from around the world that can provide an invaluable history of climates past and present. A nearby poster shows the melting globe in an ice cream cone and a quotation from Thompson: “The world is warming and it’s foolish to pretend that it’s not.”

The conference was funded under a journalism program grant from the Chicago-based McCormick Foundation to Ohio State’s Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism, which specializes in digital journalism. So the meeting had a decidedly techie side. Organizers set up a Ning social network site, which includes PowerPoint presentations, resources (including a recent CJR article, “Climate Change, Now What?”) and video from the meeting. Also available is a Twitter thread by Amanda Zamora, a WashingtonPost.com editor, which provides a running commentary and lots of Web links.

(By the way, all this Twittering and Ninging convinced me you can teach old dogs new tricks. Using a brand new iPhone, this reporter joined Twitter during the conference and discovered her first “TwitPic” — a photo posted of me meeting eighty-seven-year-old former Sen. John Glenn, an astronaut hero of my childhood who, in 1962, became the first American to orbit the Earth. And yes, he is very concerned about climate change—the view from space gives a special sense of just how fragile the earth’s atmosphere is. Now if I can just figure out how to download that photo…)

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.