Covering the urban environment in four steps

By Anntaninna Biondo

There wasn’t a Patagonia vest in sight at a recent annual conference for the Society of Environmental Journalists in Flint.

The conference brought attention to complex environmental issues beyond simply traditional outdoor and wildlife concerns. Also under discussion were issues like diversity and renewable energy. And with the backdrop of the Flint water crisis, clean water in urban environments was much at the forefront of the sessions.

In a panel discussion titled “Covering the Urban Environment,” reporters gave some of their best advice to young and experienced journalists alike.

Oscar Abello, editor of Next City, a global nonprofit organization that aims to make environmental changes in cities, suggested a four-step process to writing an urban environmental story.

Who benefits from writing this story?

Ask if the story you want to cover glorifies gentrified areas, or if it questions the privilege surrounding those areas, Abello said.

For example, when writing about bike or scooter shares like Bird or Lime, will it address whether the transportation is only in high-tourism areas or do local workers benefit from it as well? Can local workers afford to use this transportation if it is accessible to them?

Whose idea was it?

“If it is a press release from the mayor, I can almost guarantee it wasn’t the mayor’s idea,” Abello said.

Getting stories and perspectives of people “on the ground” is important to the journalistic integrity and the authenticity of the story, he said. It’s easy to report on the press releases from corporations, but it’s not necessarily good reporting.

Consider if this story came from a public relations official or a person who has been known to fight for low-income areas.

Who else has a say?

It’s especially important with urban reporting to talk to all involved, Abello said. In a lot of environmental stories, zoning boards and planning departments will come into play. Sometimes these sources won’t even be aware of the story, as was the case for many cities that have become over-run by e-scooters. By reaching out to the other sources involved, you ensure total authenticity and might even stumble upon another story.

Who will pay?

Like with anything, money can be a big issue. If money is involved, find out who is paying, Abello said. Is it federally or privately financed? In some cases, community block grants are being cut. Paying attention to that pattern is worthwhile, Abello said.

Other panelists suggested following one person to get a more grounded view.

“When reporting on complex issues, follow one person’s journey as they navigate that complex system,” said Serena Daniels, a contributor to Next City and founder of Tostada Magazine.

Open stories with an anecdote from that one person and close with them as well, she said.

“You have to be able to find that relatable person not in power,” she said.

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