New site aims for ‘brutally honest’ environmental news

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Climate change and the environment more broadly have garnered new interest in the wake of natural disasters including hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Responding to a lack of climate-focused narratives and deep-dive environmental reporting in mainstream media, Gizmodo Media Group last week launched Earther, which aims to highlight both the destruction humans have caused and scientific advancements that signal hope for the future.

Managing Editor Maddie Stone, in a welcome post on the site, writes of humanity’s impact on Earth: “For those of us living 93 million miles from the Sun in the early 21st century, the age of humans has already arrived. We’re launching Earther because it’s time to confront that reality head-on and explore what it means for our future.”

CJR spoke with Stone about the goals of the new site, how it fits into the larger Gizmodo network that is home to sites such as Deadspin and The Root, and how she plans to deal with the political debate around climate change. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

 

Can you give us some background on the idea for Earther, what it is about, and what readers can expect?

My background is in environmental science, and I’ve been covering policies and other environmental issues for Gizmodo for several years. We’re part of this larger Gizmodo Media network that encompasses a broad array of sites, each with its own themes and interests, many of which touch on environmental issues in some way. But there wasn’t really a destination site within the network for environmental science. So it felt like a salient and important time to create a destination for environmental news where folks can go to read up on the latest studies, but also hear the latest news about how natural disasters are affecting people, the big important environmental policies being raised around the world, and some of the biggest conservation stories.

Maddie Stone. Courtesy photo.

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You mentioned you have an environmental background. How will that inform your role on this site?

I received a PhD in environmental science from the University of Pennsylvania. I was on track to become an environmental scientist before I decided my real passion was science communications and made the transition to science journalism. As a science journalist, I have covered a wide array of topics, not just environmental sciences. That has always been my passion, expertise, and something I’ve tried to keep a close eye on as both a science writer and a science editor at Gizmodo. In terms of how it’s going to inform Earther, I think one thing that has been really important for me is to be rigorous with the science, not to take bold claims made in papers or elsewhere in the media at face value, but to always approach new discoveries and insights with a degree of skepticism. Always running studies by any outside sources, carefully vetting them, reading the sources, and just having a degree of skepticism that you don’t necessarily see out there in other science reporting.

 

What is your critique of current environmental coverage, and what narratives do you feel are missing?

The Trump administration, for better or worse, has really elevated the discussion around climate change and environmental issues in the public consciousness. The administration has taken action across the board to start rolling back environmental regulations and has a dismissive attitude toward climate change and climate science that is really impacting international policies like the Paris Climate Agreement. I think those things are unfortunate, but have also really galvanized these grassroots movements for change. So out of the Trump administration’s announcements that they were pulling out of the Paris Climate agreement, we saw this emerging US climate alliance, and now we have a variety of mayors and governors pushing for climate action and hoping to rejoin Paris. Adjacent to that are these grassroot movements for environmental justice springing up over the last few years and garnering national and international attention. The Dakota Access Pipeline is a really great example. Another area where I think Earther is going to be able to uplift voices is [on] how pollution issues and climate change impact poor and marginalized communities the most. We are hoping to bring on writers from all walks of life and all backgrounds who can speak to some of these justice issues from a point of lived experience.

 

How does Earther fit under the larger umbrellas of Gizmodo Media Group and Fusion? Who is your audience, and what is the goal or message you hope to get across to that audience?

We cast a wide net, I believe it is 100 million unique visitors a month. I think what is interesting about this network is we have all of these sites that cater to different audiences—people who are science and technology nerds, people who are into sports and videogames—and now we are going to have a destination site for folks who are interested in environmental issues. I think what’s really exciting about starting a site like this within such a broad network is that we get to leverage the audience and bring in readers who might not traditionally be inclined to focus on climate science and environmental issues. One of my longterm goals for the site is to broaden the audience beyond the crunchy eco-activist type who you would associate with an environmental site. I think we have a real opportunity here to write stories that touch on a variety of different aspects of human culture and life and share those stories on some of the other sites in the network. The audience is fairly young, tech savvy, internet connected, and quite diverse.

 

You talked a bit about your plans for Earther to expand on missing narratives, but how is this project different from other outlets that focus on environmental reporting?

The balance between writing about environmental challenges and optimism is how we differ. We are going focus on environmental solutions, things that are working, and how we can use examples of what’s working to build a better future for life on Earth. I think a lot of what we see out there in the mainstream media is a tendency to associate environmental reporting with another study on climate change and how the world is ending. I think that does a disservice to the science, and I think unfortunately turns a lot of people off who would otherwise potentially be really interested in a new study about how Arctic ice sheets are changing. I think having this somewhat optimistic tone and this focus on how we can learn from some of the really scary terrifying things that are happening on our planet right now is going to set us apart.

 

Environmental topics like climate change have become hot-button political issues under the Trump administration. One example is the backlash over The Weather Channel’s decision to feature a homepage all about climate change. How do you plan to tackle these issues, and how do you think it may impact your coverage?

We are going to be channeling the ethos of Gizmodo media and the former Gawker, which really goes back to brutal honesty. I think some of these issues have become politicized, and we’re just going to have to cut through that. Climate change is real. It is happening. It is having an impact on all of us right now, and I don’t think there is any way to skirt that fact. I think the way to not necessarily turn off a more conservative audience who might be put off because of the way this discussion has been politicized is to turn back to our tone and voice—being friendly and more inclusive. We want to bring news about the changing environment from a place of excitement and wonder. Not that I’m saying it is great that climate change is happening, but there is a lot of groundbreaking science coming from the changes happening, and that is inherently interesting. We are going to be brutally honest about what the facts say and deliver them without condescension or snark. Hopefully we will bring more people into the conversation that way.

 

What skills do you feel are necessary for reporters interested in covering the environment?

A big one for environmental reporting is having a thick skin. A lot of these topics have become pretty politicized, and a lot of environmental reporters unfortunately face attacks for their work. To really cut through all of that and bring people the truth takes a certain amount of integrity. In terms of covering environmental science and climate science, these are really tricky and complicated topics, so just having strong science reporter chops. Approach everything with a critical eye. Always ask outside experts about the gaps in our knowledge, what are the uncertainties, and what are you talking about at science conferences that maybe isn’t making it into mainstream coverage. For me personally, I’ve found that often acknowledging the uncertainties and the limits of our knowledge builds trust with your audience. It’s clear that humanity is changing the world in some really profound ways, and there are some things that we know for certain, but there is also a lot of uncertainty.

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Carlett Spike is a freelance writer and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike.