Pulitzer laureate: We need to pay attention to climate change now

Deborah Nelson, who won her Pulitzer Prize in 1997, has been reporting on environmental issues throughout her career. Her major report for Reuters, Water’s Edge, was published in 2014 and put a new perspective on reporting on climate change – “showing what is happening here and now, not only on the global scale but in people’s own backyards”.

Deborah Nelson received the Pulizer Prize in 1997. (Source: Sam Kittner)

Nelson responded to the questions of The Slovak Spectator about climate change but also about the challenges that journalists face nowadays, prior to her visit to Slovakia earlier in October.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): In a survey among journalists by New York Magazine many named climate change as the biggest story of the past ten years that the media had undercovered. Would you agree?

Deborah Nelson (DN): Climate change is one of the greatest disasters confronting humanity. But it is a slow motion disaster so it took a long time for news media to take notice. And longer still, because it is an environmental story and many journalists do not know how to report on environmental issues. So they view them with suspicion. And when the news media did take notice, and I think it really has, it focused on the direst prediction: what’s in store for the Earth 100 years from now. That is of utmost importance and we should be putting that before the public regularly. But it’s hard to get the public’s attention if they perceive global warming as only a distant threat. In the interim it’s easy for the industry and the deniers to sow doubts whether it is real. I thought it was also important to look in the other direction, back a century, and document what effects climate change has already had. And to show what is happening here and now. Not only on the global scale, but in people’s own backyards. If we can get people to actually see it rather than imagine it in the distant future, maybe they take it more seriously.

TSS: Why don’t journalists know how to report on environmental issues?

DN: When dealing with scientific studies it’s important to know how to judge good science from bad science, what weight to give a study. One of the reporters on my current project for Reuters, about antibiotic resistance infections, has a science degree in addition to her journalism degree. But that’s unusual. Many of us aren’t well grounded in science and statistics. Many journalists are scared away from reporting on environmental issues for that reason. I have done many science-based and data-driven projects and I had to learn those skills. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I’m always careful to consult those who are. There is a real need for journalists to learn science and in fact I’ve proposed a statistics course for journalism students.

Giving equal weight to deniers is the worst response

TSS: Where should one draw the line between journalism and activism?

DN: This question has scared many journalists away from reporting on environmental issues. But reporting factually on climate change, pollution, and other environmental issues does not make you an activist any more than writing about crime makes you a cop or writing about politics makes you a politician. In all cases our job is to document the problems with such precision that people can make informed decisions on how to fix them. With such power that they feel compelled to act.

TSS: How do you usually respond to climate change deniers?

DN: The easy and the worst response by news media is to give equal weight to the views of those who do not believe in climate change. Our duty is not to present a balanced picture when the evidence is in favour of climate change. Our duty is to give a fair and accurate picture of reality to our audience. So the answer is not to demean climate change deniers but to give them their due in the story. And I would argue that their due should be a very small part of every story. Our job is to report scientific evidence. And I think one of the reasons why journalists struggle with this and why bad science on climate change receives so much attention in the press, is because journalists do not understand science and they do not feel equipped to distinguish between good science and bad science. That is why it is essential for journalists at this point in time to become familiar and comfortable, and informed, reporting on science.

TSS: Journalists struggle with giving equal weight to different opinions on an issue also in other spheres than climate change. For instance in the Brexit-related discussions.

DN: I don’t think good journalism ever preached giving equal say to all sides of an issue. Maybe this is because I come from the perspective of an investigative journalist. My job is not just to report what people say but to determine whether what they say is true and accurate. In the process of doing that it is my duty to tell the public what I have found out. Our duty is not to present balance to the public, because everything isn’t balanced, all sides are not equal. Our job is to give an accurate picture of reality to the public. If we present all sides as being equal when they are not, we are not being accurate. And our first and highest duty is to be fair and accurate.

Our duty is not to present balance to the public, because everything isn’t balanced, all sides are not equal. Our job is to give an accurate picture of reality to the public.

TSS: What are the challenges of making people hear what you are telling them about climate change?

DN: Because people perceive climate change as something far in the future it’s hard to get them to pay attention now. But I think that it’s changing. There have been polls and surveys that show people’s attitudes are changing, but it’s taken a lot of persistent reporting. Human nature has a tendency to focus on now and to put off thinking about the future, not just about climate change. But with climate change, science says that we need to take action now to prevent a disaster in the future. If the public doesn’t push for change, policymakers don’t act, then 20 -30 years into the future we will have a disaster on our hands. Some say that since the time our series came out there has been more focus on what is happening now. That has to be the biggest challenge, getting people to pay attention right now when there are a lot of things that demand our attention right here and right now. There is a hurricane coming up the cost. There is the economy. So many problems that people face right now, that it’s hard to make them think into the future.

TSS: When you received your Pulitzer Prize in 1997 you were not yet reporting on climate change.

DN: No. I had done quite a bit of environmental reporting, but not on climate change. That was just beginning to get people’s attention in the late 1990s. I almost always worked as an investigative reporter, I did my first investigation two years after graduation.

The fire to do investigative burns in reporters, not their employers

TSS: So you’ve also experienced a time when news organisations did not need to pay that much attention to the cost of an investigative project and could be more generous on spending on investigative projects than now.

DN: Yes. But here’s the thing, over my career I’ve worked on projects where we had a half-million-dollar budget, and I worked on projects where the travel costs were a few bus tokens to get across town. I have to say that it’s certainly more fun to do the one where they have a half-million budget, but investigative reporting does not require a huge amount of money. It does require a huge commitment in time and will. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about the current state of the news business and how it affects investigative reporting. But investigative reporting has been under attack from newsroom budget cuts for much of my four decades as a journalist. Investigative reporting has survived and will survive because the public values it and because the fire to do it burns in the individual reporters and editors who do it, not in the companies that employ them. This is why non-profit investigative centres have sprung up around the world. Journalists have forged collaboration, like the Panama Papers project, which involved a hundred media organizations and hundreds of journalists in the the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The Global Investigative Journalism Network now has 100 investigative reporting organizations in 62 countries and brings people together to provide support and training. All that is generated by people, not companies. Around the world the survival of investigative reporting has depended on people who do it and encourage it.

Investigative reporting has survived and will survive because the fire to do it burns in the individual reporters and editors who do it, not in the companies that employ them.

TSS: Why would you argue that a good newspaper needs to have an investigative desk?

DN: There is so much official deception in the world that we need people who have dedicated their lives to finding the truth. There are other institutions that do that, the courts for example, but you need investigative reporting to reveal when those institutions aren’t working. It is an essential part of the checks and balances of democracy. Even beyond deception, there is so much noise today on the internet and social media that it’s all the more important to have people with skills and commitment to find the signal, to determine what is really happening and why, to identify who is profiting and who’s been hurt.

TSS: Is there a lot of interest among young people to do this job?

DN: My investigative reporting class is always full. I always have to add seats to accommodate more. I think there is great fire in young people. They have opportunities to do investigative reporting at even younger ages. In the olden days you had to work your way up to be on an investigative team. With the explosion of non-profit investigative reporting centres young journalists can start doing that kind of meaningful reporting right out of college. We really try to ready them to do that. At the University of Maryland students actually do investigations that are published. Because we know that once they get out of school we are depending on them to carry on.

TSS: It is not common in Slovakia at all for newswires to publish the kind of texts like Water’s Edge. How did it work for you and Reuters?

DN: Newswires like Associated Press and Reuters have really stepped up investigative reporting in recent years to fill the gap in many news organisations. Reuters has built in the last few years an international investigative team and they commit a lot of resources to doing investigations both in the US and globally. At AP they also have doubled their commitment to investigative reporting. They won a Pulitzer last year for a report on slave conditions that people on fishing boats in south-east Asia work under, that had a big impact. The newswires have the resources and the reach. So they have the capacity to do important global investigations.

TSS: Are there any differences in doing investigative reporting for newspapers and for newswires?

DN: I don’t see a lot of differences, except that it is nice that when we did the story on rising sea levels we had reporters in the UK who could report on what was happening there, and reporters in south-east Asia who could report on what was happening there. So our ability to look at issues worldwide. When I worked at the LA Times and the Washington Post we also had people stationed abroad, but the number of foreign bureaus even for big news organizations has shrunk considerably. I think that’s the difference between the newswires and newspapers.

Many people believe in doing the right thing

TSS: What are the specifics of freelance reporting? What would be your advice for young journalists, graduates, who are thinking of going freelance?

DN: For most of my career I worked at news organisations. I work as a freelancer now because I teach as a full-time job. I would recommend someone just out of school to find a full-time job at a news organisation because it’s important to find a job where you have good mentors when you’re young. I always tell my students, you don’t necessarily have to go to the biggest news organisation but go to a news organisation that has a good reputation for mentoring young journalists, and for doing good journalism. Sometimes that’s a very small place in the middle of a cornfield, sometimes it’s a place like Philadelphia. But when you cannot find a job immediately, it’s important to do freelance reporting until you can. There was a short period when I was married and we moved and I didn’t have a job for a couple of months very early in my career. I spent my days working one job and at night I went to meetings and covered them. I wanted to continuously produce stories because I knew it would get me a job. As a freelancer, it’s important to find a support network of other investigative journalists that you can turn to. The Global Investigative Journalism Network is a great example. They have hundreds of volunteers who are there to advise journalists, and they connect freelance journalists with jobs, with stories.

It’s important to find a job where you have good mentors when you’re young.

One of the things I often talk about is how to do investigative reporting while you have to turn out stories every day. I actually had to do that through the first half of my career before I was able to do investigative reporting full time. I had to turn out two or three stories a day because the organisation I worked for wasn’t supporting. But I came up with a lot of tricks for getting it done. Even here in the US where there is a strong tradition of investigative reporting a lot of investigative is done by journalists who cover busy beats. By the time I moved up I had the luxury to do it full time. But most reporters don’t, they have to juggle with other things. Organisation and time management become very important.

TSS: What is the thing you love about your job the most?

DN: People always ask: Do you become really cynical, are you depressed all time? That brings me to what I really love about my job. You often see the darker side of human nature in my line of work. But for every official I found doing wrong, or allowing it, I have met a dozen people who believe in doing the right thing. And take much greater risks than me to get the truth out to the public. That is the best part of the job.