An Illuminating Lecture on Environmental Journalism from Andrew Revkin, of the NY Times
“We live in a time of unparalleled communicability. So we better get busy.”
Andrew Revkin is an old school journalist from the New York Times, who has embraced new media and become an authority on climate change and the environment. He spoke at the University of Oregon, Wednesday night about the accomplishments and pitfalls of environmental journalism.
The author of the Dot Earth blog, and a fifteen year veteran of the Gray Lady, he helped decode some of its trappings, and shared experiences from an career’s worth of award-winning work. He had many valuable insights and some good knee-slappers too.
(Revkin addressed a very attentive audience in the Lillis Hall auditorium, at the University of Oregon. Photo: Johnny Kilroy.)
A Quarter Century of the Know-How, AND the Elbow Grease
Revkin identifies himself primarily as a print journalist, a reporter. Like every U.S. Marine is a rifleman first, every journalist is a writer at the core. Back in the old days, Revkin carried pen, pad, and raw intellect.
He’s still got those old implements, to be sure, but he also embraces new media as a necessary means for a necessary means to achieve in the modern field of journalism. In the “migration from the front page to the home page,” he says, is an immense opportunity for creative and effective deliver.
“If we’re not thinking outside the traditional world of words and even photographs, we’re missing out,” he said as I furiously scribbled in my notebook, and then paused to snap a photo.
He told of his own expeditions to Copenhagen, the North Pole, and South America, where he’d covered complicated issues, used mutli-media, and had to meet multiple deadlines in 50-60 hour workweeks.
(Photo: New York Times.)
Telling a Proper Story
Earthy issues, especially climate change, are a bit of a hat trick to discuss effectually.
Our nation and world are rife with deniers, skeptics, pundits, and general nay-sayers. The so-called “Climategate” scandal (which Revkin said turned out to be a big “nothing-burger”) clamped many minds shut on the topic. It’s over, solved.
Pollution used to be “an easy story to tell,” back when you could actually see it lingering over the buildings of Los Angeles, and feel it burning in your throat. It’s the same deal with the ongoing BP oil spill; iconic disasters are a no-brainer. How then do you explain the catastrophe that could be rendered by a gas like CO2, that we exhale and drink in our beer?
What can we do to make it matter more to disengaged people?
It won’t do for journalists to slothfully go through the motions, Revkin intimated. I can talk about a bit of news, find some PhD expert to back it, find some “equal and opposite” PhD to refute it, give my own analysis, and yes I’ve done my job as a reporter. But he wonders,
“Have I done a public service?”
(Photo: Johnny Kilroy.)
It’s also too easy to get comfortable in our own views and with people who agree, to fail to challenge our convictions…to fail to achieve. “We’re dining on comfort food,” Revkin said. If it’s Rush Limbaugh’s talk show, it’s conservative minded folks, if it’s Grist,
“It’s people from Eugene.”
Akin to overly pungent viewpoints is what Revkin referred to as “Whiplash Journalism,” where journalists can report matter-of-factly about potentially complex issues, “true for a day,” and hearkening back to front page syndrome. Real reactionaries. Of course they are under great pressures to crank out copy that is on time, authoritative, and in as few words as possible.
(“This is not Nam, there are rules.” Photo: Focus Features.)
Then there’s the editorial process, to which Revkin and colleagues attribute some bastardizations of good work. You may file a 1000 word piece that ends up 400 words. You lose a lot of words, he said, important words like “probably.”
Sometimes the story can’t be told in a day. If you’re too definitive, it can turn out wrong; and if it turns out wrong, it can bite you, and erode public trust.
Stories don’t wrap up so tidy with climate science. It’s a process.
Durable journalists recognize that today’s events are blocks of a larger story. An ongoing story. An organic story (HA!). It is worth the time and effort to step back from the day-to-day news, and put it in a bigger context. This is especially important for environmental journalism, and other fields that oscillate around scientific revelations.
Sure, the climate change debate is active, but it can be cartoon simple and overly polarizing. How can we sustain interest in topics that have been widely covered already, and actually challenge our own thought process?
Creativity in communication is a great help. He shared this graphic depiction of CO2 emissions that he’d come upon.
Revkin even shared a little formula he’d concocted, a set of responses to the usual ingredients of current affairs. At any given time and topic in history, however faint, these elements could be discerned:
Science + Journalism + Society + Politics = a) detachment, b) paralysis, c) engagement, d) progress.
We’ve Been There
Even news editors may fetch for a reason to talk about it. “Why now?” Revkin jokingly impersonated, “Didn’t we write about climate last year?” He said that in the news world, especially on front pages, there is a stark tendency toward black-and-white. We want to know what happened today, definitively, “the way is is,” as Cronkite said.
Then, a surprise.
Revkin lit up the projector screen with some bits on climate change, archived from NYT. Old…old, dusty, forgotten pieces. One was about a warming New York climate causing failure of winter ice crops in the Hudson River (dated 1890); another about climate change skepticism (1932); and a warning from scientists that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels can cause warming trends, and that they would continue to do so as long as there were such fuels to cheaply extract (1956).
A quick-witted young man in the audience, dressed in collegiate eccentricity and beard stubble, asked Mr. Revkin about the current oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. His response included an interesting note on word use.
“It’s not a spill, it’s a gusher.”
Keepsin’ it Real
The challenge of the modern journalist is to use all available media to re-engage the public with important issues. Time elapsed does not equal problem solved. How, for the love of God, do we avoid the “MEGO (my eyes glaze over) effect”?
Readers need relevancy and, like it or not, entertainment.
I’m glad that Eugene is not so far off the beaten path.
For his unassuming acumen, Revkin could have been right at home there on the UO campus, but indeed he’s traveled all the way from the Big Apple to our precious little nursery. For his prodigious work and recognition, he certainly wasn’t gaudy. He mentioned that, these days, even New York offices don’t have the budgets anymore to be sending reporters all over the place, willy nilly.
Despite this, he said, the last thing that the Times will ever dispense of is the deep, investigative work that makes newspapers shine in their finest hours of true public service. It’s hard to substitute for high carat, specialized journalism.
How does one keep up, in the dizzying world of info with an abundance of higher octane thinkers? Like a Kerouac to a Cassady, so many of us are rightly fitted just to “shamble after.”
“Find a niche,” Revkin told me.