The rag-tag collection of tents, fire pits and under-construction wigwams was called “Harvest Camp,” a tribal occupy movement of sorts where environmentalists, concerned citizens and members of the Ojibwe nation had staked claim to the forested edge of the property of a major multinational mining operation. I stepped off of our 55-foot long motorcoach carrying eighteen journalists who’d come to hear another important voice in the debate raging over a proposed open-pit iron mine in the northern Wisconsin hills.
In my job leading professional development workshops with the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources, I often get to see the practice of our craft from a unique vantage point – one that’s not my own. We take journalists out into the field to meet the people and places that make up pressing environmental issues, and I get to watch them at work.
Our camp host ambled out to welcome us and my first thought was that I’d hit a home run – getting the journalists to this remote location, giving them access to a unique group of protesters, and then finding someone who was obviously going to be an unforgettable interview. The journalists stood at attention – notebooks open, audio recorders in hand, iPhones shooting video.
Then my home-run source said something along the lines of:
“My biggest concern is what will happen when they remove the mountains behind us. You look at Antarctica and there are no mountains there and it’s freezing all of the time.”
Yes. I know. Not only did he reference the absence of mountains in Antarctica, [highest peak: 16,066 feet] it would be just as inaccurate if he’d picked an actual flat landscape, say Death Valley. Climate and mountaintop removal just aren’t connected. (Well, okay, the whole carbon emissions thing, but you get my point!)
I cringed as he kept talking, acutely aware that this colorful character and his claims were being preserved by spiral-bound notebooks and hand-held digital devices.
Of course journalists jot down outlandish quotes all of the time. Industry representatives may deny the impact of their practices. Environmental groups can overstate potential risks. Lawmakers might say pretty much whatever they want. Our job is to winnow the wheat from the chaff. Just because we’ve taken a quote, doesn’t mean we’re beholden to use it. As fellow SciLancer, Robert Frederick (bio), puts it “that’s just part of the job of serving the audience.”
But, after our trip, sites we’d visited and speakers we’d talked with began emerging as news stories. The contentious mine proposal was a big hit. And, sure enough, stories appeared featuring our colorful camp host. In some, he was the lone voice speaking for mine opponents. To anyone encountering the issue for the first time, these stories came off as a tale of local citizens desperate to bring some of mining’s economic infusion to an impoverished area versus protesters with vague concerns camping in the woods.
IJNR’s founder and former president was fond of saying that environment stories don’t break, they ooze, by which he meant that we rarely get handed a story where something happened at a specific time, had discrete consequences, then ended. We’re more apt to traffic in complex issues filled with uncertainty. Unfortunately, it’s rare that a journalist is allowed the space to really examine this complexity. Most environment stories are told as standard news items, getting maybe a few minutes on air or a few hundred words in print. And that makes choosing your sources all the more important. Sure the grizzled guy scavenging for food in the woods and trying to winterize his wigwam is an unforgettable character, but does he serve the story?
In my mind, no. Sure, if I had a 3,000 word feature to write, I would happily include his part in the story and provide the appropriate context. But, in the case of a two or three source story, there are simply too many people with too many reasonable concerns to have one man’s misinformed objections serve as the voice of opposition.
Yet, even as I type this, I feel uneasy. Every writer knows that part of telling a story is deciding what to leave out. But we are also supposed to check our biases at the door, which means any judgement call is a little unsettling. Maybe I’m meddling with the “truth” when I leave out what I consider to be unscientific or inaccurate statements. Should I let a person’s beliefs stand on their own? What’s the right balance between color and context?
Image credit: Adam Hinterthuer