Two things I’ve learned from my first foray into environmental reporting

I am not by any means an expert in environmental policy. In my four years at Kent State, I’ve stuck to what I know — sports — and generally haven’t strayed from that area of expertise. When I was approached about being in a practicum course focusing on heavily data-driven reporting on environmental issues, I was beyond skeptical to say the least.

I couldn’t tell you the first thing about environmental policy or the bureaucratic matters that lie within. I know our planet is slowly dying a painful, burning death and that it would probably help if I stopped eating meat and started recycling, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. I can tell you the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XIV — it was Terry Bradshaw — but I really couldn’t begin to fathom what could matter to the fate of the planet I currently live on.

All that being said, I decided to dive in because the professor seemed to think I could do it, I needed more credit hours and I figured challenging myself wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. I’m still not necessarily good at it, but we’re getting there. Regardless, here are two things I’ve learned in my short time in environmental reporting.

#1: No one wants to talk to you.

I genuinely don’t understand how reporters can focus on environment issues and topics and make an honest living when no one wants to speak to you. I fully understand we’re at a disadvantage because we’re college students, and we won’t be taken as seriously by default. But my goodness, even when we just want information, not to try to dismantle their entire operation floorboard by floorboard, it’s like we were quarantined.

The Ohio state Environmental Protection Agency? No. The company running a hazardous waste incinerator? Nada. Townsfolk living near said incinerator who genuinely have nothing to lose by giving their opinions on it? Zilch.

It gives you an appreciation for the people who can actually create sizable reports about these issues to inform the public, but it also fills you with a certain level of distrust and disdain for policymakers who refuse to shed light on their actions and decisions. Almost as if there are things going on there they don’t want everyone to know.

#2: People have very strong opinions that aren’t necessarily based in hard data.

Imagine you’re living near a hazardous waste incinerator, and one day the facility blows up without warning, covering your entire neighborhood in a disgusting black soot. Sounds gross, doesn’t it? It was for the residents of a few-block radius in East Liverpool, Ohio. They are perhaps rightfully angry about this facility’s presence in their neighborhood and feel as though it’s essentially a powder keg waiting to go off again.

This makes for some really good quotes, let me tell you. But these are average Joes in the nicest sense of the word. It’s not derogatory to them, but these people aren’t climate scientists, foremen or probably even fans of Bill Nye the Science Guy. They’re pretty sure this eyesore has caused health problems in the area — higher rates of cancer, miscarriage and early death — but they don’t have the raw data to back that up.

Does that mean we as environmental reporters ignore them? No, but we have to use their testimony with a grain of salt. Stories are often based around human emotion, so the voices of common folk in town are just as important as those creating the policies that affect them. A mix is necessary, voices from regular people and from the head honchos of places like these, who, as we’ve covered, don’t want to talk to you.

Environmental reporting is harder than I thought.

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