QUEST’s quest for sustainability journalism

Telling local stories with a national vision is the secret to engaging an audience on a topic poisoned by buzzwords

Since its 2007 launch, QUEST, a public radio and television program airing on northern California’s KQED, has been quietly producing some of the most interesting and innovative science coverage in the country—an unusual role for a local affiliate. But as QUEST has proved time and again, northern California is a place replete with environmental issues of national consequence, as the show’s stories—on everything from basic ecology to the politically charged restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta project—have shown.

Backed by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, QUEST’s latest project, which debuts tonight, has unusually lofty aims. It is the first stab at what the station hopes will become a model for producing nationally relevant projects with local roots.

This time, QUEST has partnered with five affiliate stations— in Nebraska, North Carolina, Seattle, Ohio, and Wisconsin—which will both provide stories for Quest producers to include in the show and air the final product, in a quasi-collective mentality. Besides five half-hour television episodes, the series will air 20 radio segments and special Web features. And it’s all devoted to a notoriously treacherous topic: sustainability.

By definition, sustainability should be engaging—what could be more important than the endurance of the natural resources that allow for our very existence? But in journalism, as in life, the idea of sustainability has been besieged with misinformation; it’s an idea that’s just one eco-friendly lightbulb away from becoming a meaningless word used to greenwash buildings and products—along the lines of “all natural,” or “organic.”

To comply with their NSF grant, the series organized focus groups in the partner station cities to test story ideas and the public’s preconceptions of “sustainability.” QUEST executive producer Jason Black was surprised to find that it wasn’t the idea of sustainability that was played out, so much as the actual word.

“Water, food, energy, concerns about depleted resources—these are all very much of interest to people,” says Black. “But across the board, the term sustainability had some political ramifications; politicians have commandeered it. It’s not that they’re not interested, it’s that it’s a difficult word to trust.”

Black hopes that, as a public network, QUEST can depoliticize the term—“to take the topic of sustainability science and make it personal; to bring it down to reality, to what people see and experience every day in their own lives.”

Sustainability is also, by definition, a way of telling stories about solutions—which series host, journalist and writer Simran Sethi believes enhances viewer participation in the program. “We’re not just leaving people with this heavy problem that’s far away,” says Sethi. “It’s about making the problems personal and then highlighting the people who are part of the solution. When the solution is ‘write your elected official,’ I don’t ever feel really great about it. This is: ‘There has to be something more and here are the people really doing it. And that person could be you.’”

The national expansion will also breed an expansion of the public-private partnership model that’s provided many of QUEST’s past stories. The series has local science institutions—including UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Laboratories and the California Academy of Sciences—which serve as a kind of unofficial advisory board, siphoning out their latest research to the program. As the program expands, so does the institutional affiliate model, which Black says will develop alongside each of their local partners.

Though the solutions to problems of sustainable development will most likely be found on a national scale, QUEST’s stories, like its model, are local—water depletion from fracking in Ohio, a scalable model for energy-efficient home design in Missouri, the challenges of maintaining the biodiversity of California’s Lake Tahoe.

But according to Black, this connection makes the local stories more powerful. “You see a story about the largest solar farm in the world in California next to a piece about Ohio, which is struggling with groundwater issues from fracking, and you put them next to each other, and you realize the environment, and all the elements that sustain life, is not just a local problem. It’s a collaborative problem that we all need to address together.”

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , , ,