What we do to the earth and what it does back to us: Lessons from a summer at The Guardian

Smoke spreads from a factory to surrounding landscape.

(Photorama/Pixabay)

When I came to GW, I figured I’d end up doing something related to politics – a thought typical of many students flocking to the District for their degrees. I took my freshman year science classes expecting to keep my head down, but by the end of the year I had 40 volunteer hours working in a biology research lab on campus on my resume. 

I stumbled into science reporting, so I thought Lisa Palmer’s Science Reporting class would be a good way to dive in.

In class, we learned how essential science reporters are for the public’s knowledge of what goes on around them, and it became even more apparent as coronavirus news dominated discussions in class. My mentor for my environment reporting internship at The Guardian, Emily Holden, simply puts it in her Twitter bio, “I report what people do to the environment and what it does back to them.” 2020 is a banner year for science reporting – news sources are our lifelines for coronavirus information and interpreting the effects of climate change, which are only getting worse. As simple as it is, I came back to Emily’s twitter bio often throughout my internship.

My first and second stories were studies that Emily picked up from alerts – a new study showed that 1,000 metric tons of microplastics rain down on our protected parks each year and the other linked air pollution to an increased risk of childhood obesity. They were both short write-ups but came with plenty of lessons about fact-checking and connecting that science to the audience, which we talked a lot about in Professor Palmer’s class. Science reporters are interpreters. It’s hard for scientists to communicate with the general public. Their studies are filled with complex figures and niche terms that are lost on the public, and interviewing them means being willing to ask dumb questions to get to the meat of their research. 

I became very, very comfortable with asking those dumb questions. In an interview for the article "60% of fish species could be unable to survive in current areas by 2100 – study," one of the scientists even laughed at one of my questions. It was a blow to my ego, but it ended up being an important part of the article. I learned to fact check every single line because if you get something wrong, readers will let you know, and sometimes they’re not so nice about it. About 15 minutes after I published the story "Rare shark attack in Maine may be linked to marine protection efforts", I received an email from a shark scientist accusing me of spreading false alarmist messaging about shark attacks. After a phone call with her, I tweaked the headline and some of the descriptions of shark migration and walked away with the important lesson to always fact check your sources – even if they’re trusted scientists.

Then I learned to always relate the science to the readers. Microplastics are raining down on protected parks, but so what? That’s where I learned to dig deep and do that extra research to make that human link, like finding health concerns, inequities, or what our political leaders are doing (or not doing) about it. It was challenging to find that connection for some articles, especially "Alarm as pesticides spur rapid decline of US bird species," but also in some other articles like "Coronavirus pandemic prompts record drop in global emissions, study finds." But scientists can help you find that connection too, and I learned to always ask a version of “so what” in my interviews.

In the article "Congress approves billions for US national parks in rare bipartisan push," I had to make that connection to science through policy, which required I brush up on some civics. After reporting mostly studies, this article was a nice break – the policy led me to the science, and usually it’s the opposite. I learned to use people and the money to explain the impact this bill would have on the environment, which was a good reminder to always look at the bigger picture of science in the community.

I struggled with this the most on a feature story I worked on for the entirety of the internship. It was an analysis of trees in America’s big cities, which seems like a trivial topic but once I started looking into it, many cities were bad at planting trees in lower-income and black neighborhoods, taking away their shade in one of the hottest summers on record. It was a frustrating article – I always needed more information, another interview, something else to pull the story together, and then digesting those weeks of reporting into 800 words took a lot of trial and error. But I always came back to what I learned in Professor Palmer’s class and asked myself, what information do people care about? What science matters in this story? And am I interpreting those facts? Looking back, this article was a culmination of all the fact-checking and science communication skills I’d developed in class and throughout the internship. After weeks of analyzing city policy, reading climate plans, and talking to community members, I finally published: "US cities are spending millions on trees to fight heat – but are their plans equitable?"

The most important realization I walked away from this internship with is that science reporting is crucial for the time we’re living in. Our feeds are clogged with misinformation and opinions, not facts, about science, and science reporters are on the frontlines of fighting those false narratives. Every article I wrote was a piece to a puzzle showing the big picture of climate change. Looking back, it’s scary. My articles tell a story of climate change disproportionately affecting minorities, causing major health issues, killing thousands of species, ruining our land. But they all put us one step closer towards understanding the science behind what we do to the Earth and what it does back to us.

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