Meet the Press

Minnesota's top environmental reporters go on the record with Momentum.

“Mainstream environmental journalists in the 21st century are, for the most part, journalists who cover the environment, rather than environmentalists who practice journalism,” writes Mark Neuzil in his latest book, The Environment and the Press: From Adventure Writing to Advocacy. While that may be true, today’s energy and environment reporters still need to negotiate the tension between unbiased journalism and well-informed activism on a daily basis. Add in the pressures of staff and budget cuts to newsrooms nationwide, and the future of environmental news is nothing short of nebulous. But with the challenges and uncertainties comes a wealth of opportunities.

During E3 2008, an annual conference hosted by the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, Neuzil and other Minnesota media veterans examined the role the press plays—or doesn’t play—in informing and influencing society’s views on environmental issues. Here, we’ve pulled together some compelling quotes from the Nov. 18 panel discussion, along with a few bonus bites.

E3 2008: Media Roundtable

During an E3 2008: Media Roundtable, Don Shelby, H.J. Cummins and Mark Neuzil provide further observations on the state of environmental reporting.

Breaking into the "Green Beat"

Don Shelby, WCCO-TV
I went into a [station] managers’ meeting and I presented an idea called “Project Energy”—that we would do 400 stories in the next year just on this subject. And three people in the meeting fell asleep while I was talking. Finally the news director said, “OK, let the old man do it because he’s only got a couple more years left ... but we’ll put it outside of a ratings period.” So we did one week on explaining energy from the bottom up. And it aggregated a 31: That meant that 31 percent of the people in the market were watching. It was an incredible ratings success. The next day, the people who had been asleep came down and said, “We are the energy station. We are all about energy.”
H.J. Cummins, Star Tribune
I started about a year ago when we had layoffs of 20 percent of the newsroom and they said, “Here’s a new subject for you to cover and it will be energy.” It’s fascinating, it’s timely, it’s crucial right now and so I feel very lucky. It’s been a learning curve, but everybody in the industry is very good and needs to be good at explaining the technical pieces to newcomers like me and average people. We all think about [energy] as how it comes into our homes and what we pay for it and how we gas up our cars. That’s been the new emphasis I’ve tried to bring to it.
Mark Neuzil, MinnPost.com
I began to look at issues involving the environment by starting out working with a magazine, writing about fishing and fisheries issues … what kind of fish were in the river, how were they reproducing, how were they surviving and so on. More from the traditional outdoor adventure writing perspective, but what used to be a common way to get into the environmental reporting business. Or at least, one of the ways to get into it was to start out in the Teddy Roosevelt mold and then expand your beat to include energy, science and other kinds of issues.
Stephanie Hemphill, MN Public Radio
I was a general assignment reporter in northeastern Minnesota, and of course I was reporting on a lot of environment-related issues like forestry and Lake Superior. When the company cut the Duluth position, they offered me the environment beat, working out of St. Paul. I jumped at it because I think it’s the most important thing we have to report on. But I lament the fact that I’ve increased my carbon footprint several times over, because I still really live in Duluth.

Objectivity versus Advocacy

Don Shelby, WCCO-TV
We like to hold on to this notion of objectivity, and we’ve heard it discussed ad nauseam in journalism classes, [where] we ascribe to an approximation of objectivity through fairness, accuracy and balance. If we can hit those three things then we’re as close to objective as we can possibly be. But by choosing what story is going to be on the front page … that’s not objective. Who do we interview in the story and how much do we play them? How many column inches do we give them? And in television, do they sound more intelligent? We choose who to interview and what things to say. I think hidden in there is our bias.
H.J. Cummins, Star Tribune
I still work at a newsroom where the rule is complete objectivity. I try to represent all points of view, you know, except craziness. [The environment] is an example of a subject that might explain why journalism is gravitating more toward opinion and personality. People will gravitate toward the point of view that they agree with because it makes sense to them. I think with the “on the one hand, on the other hand” kind of stuff, which I still mostly do, it’s hard to get to the nugget of a lot of these subjects. [The audience] wants to be able to trust that someone who knows what they’re doing is telling them what they need to know.
Mark Neuzil, MinnPost.com
One of the biggest struggles for me in adapting to … online journalism has been the idea that your content can include more of your personality, or perhaps even your personal opinion, than would ever have been allowed … when I worked for the Associated Press. ... One of the difficult things to adapt to is the fact that the editors can say, “Go ahead and write what you think a little bit more.” I’m afraid to say that people like me … who were trained in a certain way are going to be few and far between as the years go along.
Stephanie Hemphill, MN Public Radio
I certainly strive for accuracy, balance and fairness. But I also start with the assumption that everyone cares about the earth. Or everyone says they do. I think journalists held on for far too long to the idea that they had to provide time to the climate change skeptics. It allowed our audience to stay in denial.

Public Response

Don Shelby, WCCO-TV
An Inconvenient Truth was an important piece of filmmaking that came at the right time, [but] I think it was a terrible piece of mismanagement that Al Gore was the “force celeb” in this case, because it immediately divided the country along political lines. So the extreme right is who I hear from the most when I do stories about the science of global warming. And you write back to them [about] the science, and they don’t write you back. … Everybody reads into your journalism what you don’t maybe intend for them to read into it. But I like [the fact that] it gets them talking.
H.J. Cummins, Star Tribune
It’s hard to cover a 100,000-year in advance, slow-going story in daily bites. It still surprises me how every time I write an energy story, I get a whole lot of people saying, “It’s a lie, it’s not true.” So there is a huge chunk of people still out there. … I [also] get a lot of really good e-mails from people, smart e-mails and thoughtful e-mails.
Mark Neuzil, MinnPost.com
The beauty of an online publication like MinnPost is there is instantaneous feedback that can tell you exactly how many people have read your stories within that day. … They can tell you down to the last man Jack who has read it and how long they spent on that page—and did they really read it or were they just blipping on their way through to the latest story about the Twins. ... Because they can do those precise measurements of online stories and what people are interested in, we’re able to tailor the coverage. 
Stephanie Hemphill, MN Public Radio
I’ll occasionally get an e-mail pointing out an error in detail in one of my stories. But most of our listeners seem to understand the basics of climate change. I agree with Don that many people seem to see the issue in political terms, but I just don’t understand why. Perhaps Al Gore’s leadership is part of it. I wish it weren’t so.  

Framing Science

Don Shelby, WCCO-TV
The story is not just what you see at the pump and not just people complaining about the high prices, but talking to economists and saying what happens when it reaches $4 a gallon for gasoline. Everything is related in this business of energy and environment. … It’s just a continuing thick, fat story and you have to keep it all in your head. … Instead of talking about how it’s done, talking about the science, you’re talking about people’s lives.
H.J. Cummins, Star Tribune
There is a trick to explaining something complicated, and that is: Picture your mother and what would you say to her first and second and third. ... That’s a kind of “reporterly” thing to do. I do worry a little bit that, because science advances so gradually, that the energy stories [are] going to become like the last election. You know, two years of interminable news and we’re going to lose people. So I’m not quite sure what to do with that yet.
Mark Neuzil, MinnPost.com
Too often in my experience scientists are so cautious about communicating to the public, in part because they may have been burned by a reporter in the past or misquoted … but also partly because they realize the slow nature of the process they’re involved in. ... I do think that communicating as often as you can with journalists and with the public directly is really only going to be to your advantage rather than to your disadvantage.  In some cases you might have to move outside your comfort level, and perhaps go out on a limb a little bit, but that might be the price to pay.
Stephanie Hemphill, MN Public Radio
Most scientists I’ve talked to are extremely generous about helping me understand their work, and then it’s my job to make it understandable and interesting for listeners. It’s true that most scientists are careful, conservative and non-dramatic. But they’re also passionate, so I can focus on that. In an ideal world, a scientist who is nervous about talking to the media could sit down with a reporter and get acquainted without the pressure of a story. But in my experience we’re all too busy for that. You can always lay out ground rules and directly express your concerns.