The environment is THE beat of the 21st century

Christy George

Christy George

By Jack Nissen
Environmental journalism is known by some reporters as the “bummer beat” and “the journalism of despair.”
For Christy George, it’s going to be the “story of the 21st century.”

“It already is,” said George, a public radio and television producer from Portland, Oregon. “People just aren’t reading it yet. Climate change and extinction and things like that are really critical environmental issues that are about to overtake us and become the number one story.”

George recently met with students at Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. She visited the university as a keynote speaker at the university’s annual Fate of the Earth conference.

George says environmental stories aren’t easy to pitch. Editors may not realize a story’s importance. And the stories can be complicated and depressing.

“You don’t want to bum people out, you want to make them happy they’re watching your network,” she said.

It’s also one of the first beats to be cut in a newsroom under budgetary constraints. Even so, while newspapers aren’t hiring as many environmental reporters, public radio stations are, George said.

The industry is in growth mode, she said. There are stations hungry for environmental news happening in the local areas all around the country.

Boasting 21 years of experience in Oregon Public Radio, she’s covered the intersection of business and the environment for “Marketplace,” the nationally aired radio show on National Public Radio.

If Marketplace is going to cover a story about the environment, it’s going to be associated with large national events providing a macro-view, or a feature story set in a very particular locale that happens in one place, she said.

Encapsulating this kind of story was a project George worked on for Marketplace near Spokane, Washington, she said. It was about a student with asthma who was tired of breathing dust and smoke from controlled burns of farm fields. She created a new way to convert the grass stalks that farmers burned into paper.

“It was a really cool story and it illustrated the issues of air quality in rural places that have these various things going on,” George said. “It’s telling a very personal story about some people who did something that is a tiny piece of a much larger story about air quality.”

While the real issue was about the fine dust particles that float in the air, George didn’t pitch the story that way. She saw a different way to talk about it by using a local issue to discuss a larger problem.

“It’s interesting to people everywhere,” George said. “You don’t have to be from Idaho or Washington State to care.”

George has advice for young environmental reporters trying to wiggle their way into the industry.

For anyone wanting to cover the environment exclusively, online publications covering climate change are out there, she said. Others can get a job in a newsroom working other beats for a few years and gathering as many clips as they can.

“If you want to freelance, go find some part-time job that doesn’t conflict with journalism,” she said.

Her own experience spans decades of environmental reporting, and before then political reporting for Boston newspapers like the Boston Herald. Today she serves as the treasurer and finance chair of the Society of Environmental Journalists, produces television shows and podcasts and is writing a book on the intersection of climate change and social change.

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