Journalists as scientists

Go on – get into the water

Journalists can do science to gather their own information for environmental stories. They’d better, or good stories will go unreported.

The courthouse reporter doesn’t have to be a lawyer to read and understand information in legal documents. Likewise, environment writers don’t have to be scientists to use science to gather data.

Sometimes reporters are reluctant to draw their own conclusions about the environment.  But observation and primary data gathering have always been hallmarks of any good reporter.

A good environment reporter studies the environment like a court reporter examines legal briefs.

The first three videos below give simple techniques for evaluating water quality. They give you a start on assessing the quality of lakes, rivers and streams that may be ignored by government regulators, but that are vitally important to your news community.

Make these tests a longterm commitment of the culture of your newsroom – one that outlasts you. Data gathered over time builds a base from which you can produce annual stories about water quality trends, not unlike annual stories that document local crime statistics or housing values.

The next section includes examples of environmental reporters doing science to get a story and interviews and presentations of how they did it. Note that they often seek the assistance of scientists and other experts to plan their newsgathering and to evaluate its results.

Hey, if these fifth-graders can do it, so can you.

Water testing techniques

Examples of reporters doing science

  • Counting trash by pulling a scientific sample.
  • Perry Beeman, an environment reporter for the Des Moines Register, sampled water and had it analyzed for evidence of human sewage.
  • Ben Raines, while reporting for the Mobile Register in Alabama, did his own mercury pollution testing and discovered rare and endangered animals in areas previously thought not to host them.
  • Dina Cappiello, a former Houston Chronicle environment reporter, explains the parallels of scientific and journalistic investigations.
  • Bill Moyers tested his own blood for chemicals.

–David Poulson, associate director, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism