Rethinking environmental journalism education

By Shealyn Paulis

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories coming out of a recent meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Philadelphia.

Experts at the recent Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Philadelphia discussed environmental journalism education. Panelists included (left to right) moderator Bernardo Motta, assistant professor of journalism at Roger Williams University; Karen Coates, fellowship editor of Mongabay; Karla Mendes, fellow at (Brazil-based) Mongabay and equity and inclusion chair for the Society of Environmental Journalists Board of Directors; and Lisa Palmer, research professor of science communication at George Washington University. Attending virtually were panelists Laura Moorhead (top left of screen) and Andrea Wenzel (bottom). Image: Shealyn Paulis


Environmental journalists and educators face a changing media field and systemic barriers that make it difficult to improve the profession.

Experts at a recent Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Philadelphia addressed some of these challenges to reimagine a more sustainable system.

The panel, moderated by Bernardo Motta, the assistant professor of journalism at Roger Williams University, consisted of journalists and educators: Karen Coates, fellowship editor of Mongabay and Karla Mendes, a fellow at Mongabay and the equity and inclusion chair for the Society of Environmental Journalists Board of Directors and Lisa Palmer, research professor of science communication at George Washington University. Joining the conversation virtually were Laura Moorhead, associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University and Andrea Wenzel, an associate professor at Temple University.

Motta said that although the need for journalists exists, core problems in education systems create barriers to preparing aspiring journalists for these positions. Such barriers include the cost of education and access to media exposure and training.

“I don’t think the model that we have right now is working. We have too many challenges,” he said.

The cost of education is just one of many obstacles that can create a veil of exclusivity surrounding professional journalism,   Motta said. It is difficult for many students to pay for education and it is expensive to train new journalists. That makes it difficult for some to get into the practice.

Students need field experience and ongoing mentorship to best equip them to become working journalists, Coates said.

One solution is fellowship programs like the one at Mongabay, Coates said. This program supports educationally disadvantaged individuals to receive journalistic training . This creates opportunities for those in marginalized communities with little to no experience and connects them with outside experts.

“This is a relatively new program that is specifically for journalists, early career journalists in low income tropical countries, aimed at people who had very little opportunity for other education or training or international publication,” Coates said. “What we want to do is find people who want to be environmental journalists and don’t have the opportunity.”

Panelist Andrea Wenzel said there are benefits to redesigning the early stages of journalism education to focus on harm reduction and solution based approaches. Media has a long history of harming communities, both globally and locally, she said.

“I think journalism education has a need to reimagine how it can be part of addressing that harm,” Wenzel said.

A model explored at Temple University focuses on a more accountable method of student journalism, meaning reporters are accountable to the communities they’re serving, she said. This creates opportunities for students to connect with and understand those in their stories to better represent them.

While there are solutions to some problems faced by climate journalists and educators, not all are easily managed. Some systemic challenges create large problems and require evaluation of journalism needs and education, Motto said.

People who live in areas lacking reliable and independent media never receive the opportunity or the education to become a journalist, he said. If they were to learn of the career and have aspirations to pursue it, there is a severe lack of funding to train them. And once in the career, it is a competitive and exclusive field that often offers neither a high salary or fame.

“How do we create something more resilient, something that changes the system?” Motta said, “The panelists and I have many ideas, but we agree first to talk about this openly, every day.”

The methods and traditions of educating and creating climate and environmental journalists have failed, Motta said.

“We are environmental journalists, we’re climate journalists, and we have not fixed the climate or environment, we have failed,” Motta said.

The important part of creating a new system of educating journalists is addressing this failure, he said.

“Because if we know that we have failed, we can fix it. Once we accept that we have not done it right, we can fix it.”

As practitioners and educators continue to adjust to an evolving media landscape, the need for change is clear, according to the panelists. Aspiring journalists need knowledge, mentorship and experience to best equip them for the field. To see improvement, the systems of education need to refocus on these values and not only include but emphasize marginalized voices.

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