Somewhere between soaking my boots in the frigid surf as the Atlantic chewed away at a beachfront vacation home and being blasted in the face by sand traveling fifty-miles-per-hour upon the winds of a Nor’ Easter, a thought crystallized in my mind – journalists need to get out more.
Sure, I say this as a part-time employee of an organization that strives to help journalists do exactly that. But the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources isn’t alone in this belief.
In 2013, NewsPro magazine polled the members of the Society of Environmental Journalists about barriers they face in getting the information needed to do their jobs. Coming in first was the lack of a travel budget. Access to officials, scientists and locations (respectively) took 3rd, 4th and 5th place. In other words, reporting from their desks isn’t cutting it.
While this is undoubtedly true for most news, the environment beat seems uniquely unsuited to be reported via phone calls and Google searches. These are complicated issues that often have no clear resolution even when the facts are, more or less, “in.” They don’t fit neatly into the news cycle and are often decades-long in the making or, as Frank Allen, former Wall Street Journal environment editor and founder of IJNR, likes to say “Environment stories don’t break, they ooze.”
Until my trip to North Carolina in early March, the importance of field reporting hadn’t been so clearly hammered home to me. Now I can say without reservation that, for an issue where climate change runs into human development and political maneuverings run up against geologic inevitability, doing the story justice requires a travel budget.
More than two sides to a story
Travel introduces you to a multitude of voices. When reporting by phone, the sources who have the time and inclination to take your call are the ones most likely to wind up in print or on air. The trouble with voices most motivated to get their message out, however, is that they often sit near the far ends of the spectrum.
Out in the field, you meet a lot more people and are reminded again and again that there about as many sides to the story as there are people with opinions about it. On our trip to the Outer Banks, we met real estate developers, insurance brokers, county managers, city mayors, state regulators, university professors and environmental non-profit reps. Each had a different perspective on the scope of the sea-level rise problem and potential solutions. Wrangling all of those voices into a coherent narrative is fodder for a future blog post (not it!) but their mere existence illustrates the complexity of the issue and the inadequacy of the “two-sides to a story” approach.
Make it memorable
Field reporting also lets you add detail and depth to your stories. We all strive to spin a memorable yarn, and there’s no better way than being there to get some of the details that really make a story come alive for your reader. I could explain, or you could watch this clip of our bus pushing through the Nor’ Easter as nature tries to build a beach on top of Highway 12 while North Carolina Department of Transportation workers strive like Sisyphus to keep the sand in place. Being there lets you paint a fuller picture for folks who weren’t.
I could go on, but you get the picture. (See what I did there?)
What about you? How does field reporting prove indispensable in your work?
Image and Video Credit: Adam Hinterthuer