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Home » Once considered an international issue, climate change needs reporters digging in at home

Once considered an international issue, climate change needs reporters digging in at home

Who knew that septic tanks and poison ivy might be the pain points that truly draw people into climate change?

“When people think about certain areas — New Orleans, parts of California and Miami — you’re like, of course, every single person there cares so deeply about climate change and wants to get better and wants to fix it. And that’s just not true,” said Alex Harris, lead climate change reporter for the Miami Herald.

Harris was one of several panelists convened for Poynter’s Beat Academy on covering climate change, which kicked off Thursday.

“I’ve done a lot of experimenting to figure out what kinds of stories readers will react to,” she said. One example: As sea levels rise, groundwater is impacted, and septic systems are compromised, affecting people who live far from the scenic Florida waterfront.

“They’re not necessarily having the tide coming to their front door,” Harris said. “They’re having the waste in their toilet and their shower back up into their homes. And that’s how climate change affects different communities in different ways.”

Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, mentioned another “mundane” story that really took off with readers. He said a now-retired meteorologist in South Carolina maintained that his biggest story every summer was about poison ivy — how bigger bushes were leading to more contact, more cases and worse rashes.

“It’s a concern of everybody who goes outside to walk their animals or whose children play outside,” he said. “You just have to try to tell a whole bunch of different stories to find out which of those local angles really resonate with your readers, with your viewers, with your audience.”

It was advice given repeatedly during Thursday’s webinar, the first of three climate change sessions in Poynter’s Beat Academy, which is designed to bring journalists up to speed on new beats they may need context and guidance on.

Harris and Maibach were joined by Andrew Pershing, director of climate science at Climate Central; and Katherine Egland, a member of the national board of directors for the NAACP.

Egland said that growing up in the Deep South — in Mississippi — she’d always been interested in environmental and climate justice issues.

“However, it wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina, where I lost two of my dearest friends to drowning deaths, that I actually prioritized this issue as a human and civil rights concern,” she said. The impacts of climate change vary from region to region, she added, but nationally, poor areas are hit the hardest. “Climate change itself is not discriminatory, but the way … we prepare for and recover from climate events is certainly disproportionate.”

Pershing said that journalists can shine a light on such disparities and localize global warming — which used to be seen as an international phenomenon — in part with the great data that’s available.

“That’s one of the really big advancements,” he said. “We just have a much greater ability to connect local events and local trends with climate change than we did even a couple of years ago.”

The next Beat Academy climate change session is April 13 and will feature new expert panelists before wrapping up April 27 with even more guests. (A full schedule is available under the “schedule” tab.)

Attendees from six Great Lakes states — Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin — can apply for one of three $15,000 grants to report on climate change. And while it helps to be present at all three sessions, applicants can also watch the webinar replays — so it’s not too late to sign up and pitch your project.

The first Beat Academy topic was private equity. Future sessions include:

  • Tracking ARPA funds and infrastructure projects near you (May 4, 18)
  • New immigration patterns and challenges (June 8, 15)
  • Bringing a community focus to crime reporting (July 13, 20)
  • Roy Peter Clark’s writing tips for beat reporters (July 27, Aug. 3)
  • Health care trends in non-metro areas (Sept. 7, 21)
  • Misinformation (Oct. 5, 19)

All sessions are available for replay. Tuition to Beat Academy is $75 per person, with bulk discounts available to newsrooms interested in training for five or more people. Attendees can pick and choose the topics they want to attend or consume all 18 planned webinars for the same $75. Enroll here.

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