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Environmental reporters discuss challenges, opportunities under new administration

  • (left to right) Erik Hoffner, Rebecca Kessler and Mike Gaworecki. Jack Suntrup—



@JackSuntrup
Thursday, March 23, 2017

AMHERST — Members of the environmental reporting nonprofit Mongabay.org were on-hand Thursday at the UMass journalism department to discuss challenges to environmental reporting during the Trump administration.

Since taking office in January, President Donald Trump has staked out stances seen as antithetical to combating and researching climate change. His proposed budget slashes funds for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

The administration is also discussing whether to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and to what extent it intends to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations.

The tone set toward the media and the environment during the first months of the Trump era is not promising, the reporters said.

The international reporting outfit, with no brick-and-mortar headquarters and contributors all over the world, is drawing on experience from reporters working under restrictive governments, the journalists told the students.

“Many of them are accustomed to working with, you know, federal agencies and federal governments or officials that aren’t being transparent or that won’t respond to inquiries,” said Rebecca Kessler, a contributing editor at the website, which is translated into nine languages and reaches 2 million readers a month.

Mike Gaworecki, a staff writer, said the global climate is still changing, whether the government collects data or not. He said journalists will likely have to look more toward independent researchers and on-the-ground stories to inform the public.

“I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve cited NOAA data or NASA data in my writing,” he said. “Having less access to that kind of thing will certainly be a challenge. But, you know, I think there’s ways around it.”

Gaworecki said news organizations are increasingly using and developing tools for government officials to leak information to them. Developing a strong source network and using the Freedom of Information Act are also ways to work around official public relations channels, he said.

“A big part of any journalist’s job is just networking,” he said. “Just because the EPA becomes tight-lipped and won’t give up this data doesn’t mean there’s no one at EPA with, you know, an interest in getting that out. And somewhere there’s a journalist that probably knows a person or knows someone who knows that person.”

Rolling back climate regulations “doesn’t stop physics from still obeying its principles,” Gaworecki said. “If we don’t have the data to show, you know, that temperatures are continuing to climb, we can certainly show that the southern tip of Florida is underwater.”

Erik Hoffner, editor and content strategist, said if channels of communication stop or are further restricted between government officials and the media, then journalists will seek sources elsewhere.

“There’s a lot of wisdom out there in terms of how you can get the job done,” he said, “and being creative is seemingly what it’s all about.”

One student asked to what extent the reporters include “both sides” of the debate as it relates to climate change in their coverage. Though 97 percent of active climate scientists consider it extremely likely that our warming climate is caused by human activity, according to peer-reviewed studies cited by NASA, climate-change skeptics are still vocal.

“At Mongabay, we’ve just embraced the reality of man-made climate change,” Kessler said. “That may have been a question that came up, I don’t know, in the earlier days, but we’ve just sort of moved beyond that and we treat that as an established, scientific fact.”

Jack Suntrup can be reached at jsuntrup@gazettenet.com.