The Media Today

Q&A: Angus M. Thuermer Jr. on covering climate in a polarized state 

December 6, 2023
WyoFile reporter Angus Thuermer paddles Heeshma down the Green River below Squaretop Mountain. (Leine Stikkel)

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. has been a reporter, photographer, and editor in Wyoming for forty-five years—a career, he says, that feels as if it began around “the first thrust of the Tetons” from the earth’s crust ten million years ago. He describes himself as a “citizen, reporter, photographer, skier, angler, paddler, climber, hunter,” in order of responsibility and commitment. (“It’s fun to be an engaged citizen,” he said.)

The son of a CIA station chief in Berlin and New Delhi and an Associated Press editor, Thuermer moved to Jackson Hole after graduating from Yale in 1974, to climb in the Tetons. When an assistant pressman position at the Jackson Hole News opened in 1978, he decided it sounded better than the intermittent work he did as a roughneck on oil rigs. He would go on to lead the paper. After decades running a newsroom, Thuermer returned to the field in 2014 as the “natural resource” reporter for WyoFile, a nonprofit news outlet. (Jem Bartholomew and Dhrumil Mehta wrote about WyoFile recently for CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.) Thuermer covers a wide variety of stories related to land use, mining, and water rights—subjects that are affected by climate change in a state reliant on its land and ecology. 

Covering climate at the local level can be difficult, especially in red or purple states; as Harvest Public Media reported last week, climate specialists and meteorologists across the Midwest have received threats and experienced burnout. And Wyoming itself is a polarized place. Its economy is based on mineral extraction as well as conservation, with the influence of outdoor tourism and agriculture at stark odds with the coal, natural gas, and metal mining that employs most of the state’s population. People’s politics tend toward the “leave me alone” variety of libertarianism (the state’s motto is “Equal Rights”), but it consistently votes conservative, electing a far-right legislature that toes an authoritarian line. For those who live in Wyoming, natural resources touch most aspects of day-to-day life—whether you work for a mining company, commute through a national forest, or just have a moose on your porch—yet the opposing forces and ideologies around them are nearly impossible to reconcile. 

Through it all, Thuermer and his colleagues at WyoFile continue to report factual, well-researched news. Recently, I spoke with Thuermer about citizenship, navigating conflicts of interest while reporting on the climate, and the necessity of giving all perspectives good-faith consideration. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

KL: CJR and the Tow Center recently published a report on the state of Wyoming media and referenced WyoFile as a counterbalance to the conservative bent of Cowboy State Daily, a news site funded by a wealthy Republican donor. Do you agree that the declining numbers of local newsrooms and the influence of mega-donor dollars in Wyoming media are, to quote the article, “an alarm bell for the rest of America”?

AT: There just aren’t as many reporters covering local governments as there used to be. With that decline, something is going to fill the news void. The question, though, is one of information literacy and whether citizens have the desire to search for—to find, discuss, consider—opposing views, or whether it’s easier to say, You’re wrong, I don’t want to listen to you. I think there are too many people who think that way. It’s easier to adopt that attitude than it is to face the realities that surround us. The population is growing. Everybody’s fishing hole is getting crowded, and the new people act differently from the ones who used to live across the fence on the other ranch. The change has totally disrupted my profession. There’s hardly a newsroom anymore with the scanner going off, and the photographer rushing out to chase the ambulance, and the deadline looming.

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As referenced, there was one news outlet that was started by a gubernatorial candidate because he wanted a megaphone. In some instances, outlets are seeking to spread a particular message or point of view; that may be more important than objective reporting. In those instances, it’s easy to create outrage and dress up clickbait as news coverage. I got a note from a reporter at a paper who said, Thank you for writing about this water pollution issue. My editor told me I can no longer write about it. It was a case of a community’s water supply being threatened by oil field pollution. Oil and gas are a major part of the economy of many counties in Wyoming, and the publisher didn’t want to upset the apple cart.

Can you explain your beat as a natural-resources reporter?

I wrote the job description for my job as I wanted to cover wildlife, public lands, open lands, oil and gas development, water development, federal lands, national forests, wilderness areas, the Bureau of Land Management, grazing wild horses—things like that. But I didn’t want to call the position “environmental reporter.” That would have been starting out on the left foot, I think.

How does your beat differ from that of journalists who cover the climate crisis, or are explicitly climate change reporters?

I could write a story about an international climate panel declaring that this, that, and the other is a threat to the planet. But that’s information that people can get from a variety of other sources; me spending my time writing about that is not going to change anybody’s mind. And I think I tell smaller stories that are part of the larger picture.

The problem is that the issue of climate change is aligned with the burning of fossil fuels, which is the major revenue source of Wyoming and the basis for a very low tax rate and no state income tax. The Clean Air Act, an environmental regulation, made Wyoming’s low-sulfur coal advantageous to power companies, and then the industry blossomed. The state has been mainlining this revenue source for decades. Naturally, it is reluctant to be deprived of it. If a politician runs for office and says I’m a miner or I’m a driller or We’ve got to keep this industry strong, well, she’s going to get elected.

As you identified, fossil fuel influence in Wyoming is significant, and yet the state is full of people who ardently support conservation efforts. How do those ideologies coexist?

In some cases, they can compromise, but in a lot of cases, the dialogue gets polarized. Sometimes the dialogue takes place in court; frequently it does. I saw a list of thirty-seven instances where the state of Wyoming was engaged in all sorts of lawsuits on natural resources and environmental land use. But the energy folks would say that they’re conservationists as well. I toured one coal mine that had been reclaimed and there were forty elk out on it. The bulldozer guys who put the land back together left a couple of ponds that attracted the elk. In the final restoration, they’re not going to be allowed to let those ponds stay, but for now, they’re very proud of the elk herd that roams that property. It’s private, which means hunters can’t go there. And so elk are seeking refuge on a reclaimed mine in southwest Wyoming.

How do you make sure to cover conservation debates, or the implication of certain land-use decisions, while addressing that subset of your readers who are climate change deniers or dismissive of conservation efforts?

You have to present their arguments; you have to understand what they are and treat them in good faith. There can come a time when some of the arguments stop making sense, and at that point it’s a reporter’s job to figure out what does make sense, what the science does say, and point to those particular pieces of information and ensure that the source is a legitimate one: the peer-reviewed article as opposed to an industry white paper, for example.

Everybody in Wyoming supports wildlife and wants it to flourish. There is interest in reading about these things because it has an effect on their hunting season, their cattle herd, their fishing, their irrigation, or their cattle pasture. They want to find out about it, and they’re not afraid of talking about their point of view.

Understanding the costs of the climate crisis, is it still important to give a good, healthy level of consideration to people who are climate change deniers?

I think you should go ahead and talk to them. But it’s essential to put their answers in perspective and fact-check them. There are some people who will simply not be convinced. I’ll give you two examples about people who adopted positions that they know nothing about: one was a state representative who believed that federal land should be managed by the state because the federal government wasn’t taking care of the forests. In her estimation, there was so much deadfall [a tangled mass of fallen trees and branches] that the elk wouldn’t go into the forests because they would break their legs. Well, if you’ve ever hunted elk, you’ll find them retreating to the densest, darkest places where there’s the most deadfall—the place where it is most likely that a hunter would break his or her leg. I tried to talk to this representative, and it was impossible. It was like beating my head against a stone wall. I could not have a logical conversation with this person.

In another instance, a US representative said that you can see the antelope resting in the shade of the drilling rig—as if to say that the disruption of the landscape doesn’t bother the wildlife. Antelope stay out in the sun; they stay as far away from shade as they possibly can, because anything shaded can hide a predator. The fact of the matter is that they tend to avoid developed areas. Disruption of habitat is a cause for worry. At the same time, the successful conservationists and environmentalists are the ones who engage ranchers, are out walking in the irrigation ditch and talking with them. Ranchers, by the way, are also conservationists in their own right.

With such staunchly opposed perspectives in your community, how do you prevent alienating a wide swath of readers while also dutifully reporting facts?

Certain elements of society are alienated. They bad-mouth WyoFile, and there might be little hope of changing those minds. [But] one of our reporters attended a Trump rally, and he asked somebody for his opinion, and the gentleman gave him a quote, which the reporter dutifully copied and printed in the story. And the guy who was quoted wrote a comment and said, Gee, this guy asked me for my opinion, and I gave it to him and he wrote it down and he got it right—I’m surprised. What a great victory that was. Reporters have to keep doing that. Democracy and literacy are hard work.

After forty-five years as a journalist, what would be your advice to other reporters and editors covering polarizing topics in a divided nation and a divided world?  

I think you have to earn readers one at a time. There are some people who just can’t be convinced—they’re certain that elk will break their legs in the forest and antelope bask in the shade of drilling rigs. But there is a way, I believe, to tell the story that the people who are genuinely interested in seeing their communities advance will take on the challenges they’re facing. There are people who are definitely willing to read news stories and reports that are even-handed, explaining relevant topics. Perhaps even just a small bite at a time.

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Kevin Lind is a CJR fellow.