10 things I learned from #SEJ2017

Pittsburgh skyline

The Society of Environmental Journalists met in Pittsburgh over the weekend to discuss successful journalism practices (Photo by Matilda Kreider).

Environmental journalists, scientists, policy-makers and advocates met in Pittsburgh this weekend to network and learn how to report and write on issues from climate change to environmental justice.

Here are 10 things I learned at the Society of Environmental Journalists 2017 conference.

1. Some issues don’t have sides.

Not everything is up for debate. When 97 percent of scientists have reached a consensus that supports the existence of climate change, less credence should be given to those who, without factual evidence, continue to disagree.

2. Avoid equating environmentalism with liberalism when communicating outside of the echo chamber.

Most environmental issues are not as partisan as it may seem; air, water, health, and land access are basics that many people care about. Avoid making assumptions about the audience, and be careful about sticking the blanket “environmental” label on every story.

3. Know when to put away your notebook or camera and just listen.

The best way to build trust is to physically be on the ground in communities and report from thereLook for community organizations that can get you in the door. When reporting on environmental justice issues, be compassionate and human, but avoid showing pity or giving false hope.

4. Don’t let a story drop.

Showing up in a community for an environmental justice story and then disappearing is exploitive and will not help you build trust with sources. Track the aftermath that continues after other reporters leave, and check up every few months with sources to see how their situations are progressing.

5. Environmental crime is the fourth largest crime sector, according to UNEP, yet it lacks coverage in the United States.

It occurs in different forms such as illegal trade of natural resources and wildlife trafficking and can be hard to track because of its international nature. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) makes it easier to prosecute some crimes.

6. The threats we’re currently seeing to public lands are unprecedented.

From the Federal Land Freedom Act to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s land review, there are myriad threats to American public lands right now. The federal government is attempting to pass some lands over to the states, and from there to privatization and industrial development.

7. Eliminate false balance when one side is not backed by facts.

A basic tenet of journalism is including both sides of a story, but sometimes there is limited valid evidence to back one group’s views. In these instances, use stock lines like, “These views do not reflect scientific consensus.”

8. Environmental activism is viewed as a luxury activity in developed countries, but it’s a matter of life and death in many other places.

Environmentalism is sometimes perceived as a hobby of the rich, but activists in poorly regulated and policed areas and industries risk their lives because they often have no other choice. For example, over the last 10 years, 1,000 wildlife rangers have been killed on the job.

9. Collaboration is key when there aren’t enough reporters on an issue.

Many environmental issues, like climate change or natural disasters, get plenty of coverage. Others, like conservation, can get passed over because they have less perceived shock value or readership potential. Journalists can solve this through collaboration and combining beats.

10. There is still great power in good news stories, according to Jane Goodall.

In a personalized video message to the conference, Goodall reminded attendees that stories of hope and progress can still inspire action, even when the future appears dim. And who can ignore words of wisdom from a legend like Jane Goodall?

Next year's SEJ conference will be held in Flint, Michigan. 

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