By David Poulson
Chile’s Chiflon del Diablo coal mine descends more than 3,000 feet below sea level before extending some five miles under the Pacific Ocean.
Miners no longer undertake the back-breaking, thigh-burning trek through low tunnels to extract coal – the mine closed in 1990. It’s now a tourist attraction operated by former miners and one that I visited as part of a 10-day swing through Chile while teaching environmental journalism with Knight Center Director Eric Freedman and Research Director Bruno Takahashi.
The three of us recently lectured at four universities in three Chilean cities as part of a $40,000 project funded by the U.S. State Department to further investigative reporting in that country.
We met with Chilean university faculty to discuss the development of curriculum to benefit future environment and science writers. The stops included visits to the campuses of the Universidad de Chile and the Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago.
We also visited with students and faculty at the Universidad de Playa Ancha in nearby Valparaiso. And we flew to Concepcion to meet for a day with students and faculty at the Universidad del Desarrollo and then with local professional journalists the following day.
We discussed environmental reporting trends, techniques and challenges. We brainstormed story ideas and taught them how to find scientific studies and turn them into compelling stories.
We were struck by how students were highly engaged with environmental issues. They suggested story ideas that were diverse and numerous and rarely repeated. The participants identified challenges to telling these stories that are similar to those faced by U.S. reporters – access to information and trustworthy sources, scientific jargon and a multitude of news outlets that may or may not be accurate or credible.
At Concepcion, the nearby coal mine was a concrete example of the reach and complexity of environmental reporting that we attempted to convey. While the closed mine no longer threatened the health of miners or of the cities once choked by emissions from coal-burning power plants, the nation seeks alternative sources of energy, and the loss of the mine has devastated the local economy. Proud former miners and their descendants struggle to find work.
We met with more than 220 university students and professional journalists for half-day and full-day workshops that explored the challenges and opportunities of environmental reporting in Chile and elsewhere. Takahashi gave additional feedback as a panelist at a student research forum on climate change communication attended by another 200 students at the Universidad de Chile.
The training program continues in the fall when the Knight Center will host about a dozen Chilean journalism students and journalists for a visit to MSU. That trip will include attendance at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ national conference in nearby Flint.
David Poulson is the senior associate director of MSU’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism