Journalists have many sources of stories about the environment and the way it affects human health — in part, because there are so many different angles to cover, forms of information and points-of-view to report.
Sometimes these stories are new and unexpected – a disease outbreak, a chemical spill or an oil spill, for instance (see Reporting on Disease Outbreaks and Reporting on Disasters).
But many more stories require journalists to seek them out directly from communities, research institutes, government agencies, law courts, scientific journals, businesses and non-governmental organizations, etc.
A growing number of these sources employ press officers to liaise with the media about their forthcoming news, and journalists can usually sign up to receive these press releases via email.
For instance, the EurekAlert and AlphaGalileo services provide press releases from major international science journals and research agencies.Often these are embargoed press releases about new research that will be published in the near future.
Press conferences are another source of stories. They are designed to encourage media coverage of an issue, but they try wherever possible to push information at journalists. This makes it all the more important for journalists to actively pull out the information they need to make a story relevant to their audience.
This means it is important then to come well prepared with some good questions, and to be prepared to work hard to ensure that the questions are answered, in what can be a very competitive and sometimes intimidating environment.
One way to get good stories that nobody else is reporting, is to find and connect with new sources and then stay in regular contact with them.
Academic or business conferences are a good place to do this as they bring together many people into one place and speakers may be saying newsworthy things. However, if the conference is a scientific one, it is less likely that big news will be announced from the stage. This is because scientists prefer to save their best results for publications in peer-reviewed journals.
Nonetheless, conferences can be highly educational and are great places to meet new people. Large conferences can involve many parallel sessions of presentations so it is essential to study the program well before arriving. The program and list of speakers are usually available in advance.
With good preparation a journalist can have many ideas about possible stories long before the conference begins. But even if a conference does not produce any immediate stories, it will often plant the seeds for future ones.
Big international conferences at which governments negotiate changes to multilateral environmental agreements can be sources of political news. Journalists who are unable to attend can follow each meeting’s progress by reading the Earth Negotiations Bulletin and watching web-casts of the press conferences.
Another way to build up a good contact book of experts is to search the internet for recent scientific papers on a particular topic (Google Scholar is a good tool for doing this as it reveals how many times a paper has been cited by later researchers).
Most papers are copyrighted so cannot be downloaded for free, but from their title pages a journalist can always find out the name and institution of the author and -– usually their contact details — and can then build up relations with these people both as commentators and sources.
Environment stories are often, at their heart, about money and power. And because the media represents a powerful communications channel through which governments, companies and advocacy groups can influence people, journalists must take care to check the sources’ credentials and intentions.
A large amount of the information that a journalist will encounter will in fact be at best partial and intended to drive a particular agenda — at worst will be misinformation.
Press releases are usually written by professional communicators, not by the scientists, communities or private sector actors who are the real source of the news. They may be highly biased and intended to protect reputations or promote commercial interests.
Some sources are very keen to talk to journalists as they have economic interests in getting media coverage. They may even offer journalists gifts. To accept them would damage a journalist’s credibility however, especially if the gift is a product or a service that the source would normally sell to customers.
Science is often seen to be the most neutral sources of environmental information, but scientists and their research papers can have hidden agendas. For instance, drug companies may release results that show their products in a positive way, but they may also choose not to publish findings that are negative.
To check for rigor, journalists can find out the credentials of the researchers, ask how research has been funded, check whether it has been peer-reviewed and see what independent researchers think about it.
Important for journalist to explain to their audiences what the vested interests of their sources may be. Journalists should also be cautious in their use of the descriptive term “expert”. As people tend to trust scientists more, agenda-driven organizations have often tried to appear more scientific.
Industrial companies have set up institutes that conduct a limited array of research that tends to support their agenda. Advocacy groups often produce reports that have not undergone a detailed review that would expose any lack of rigor.
One helpful resource is SourceWatch, whose website includes information about media sources such as public relations companies, pressure groups and others.
Sometimes sources such as government officials or scientists may be unwilling – initially at least – to talk to journalists. This may be because they expect that they will be misquoted or have their research misinterpreted.
When dealing with potential sources it is important to remember that they may not understand how the media works and what your priorities as a journalist are. If their expectations are not met, they may become reluctant to talk to you or other journalists in the future so it is always a good idea to talk to potential sources about why you are interested in them and what you intend to do with the information they provide.
While big news tends to come from big names (major companies, senior politicians, famous scientists), the richest and most vivid stories often come from completely unknown people – such as communities who are facing an environmental challenge or developing a sustainable solution, or the more junior colleagues of the big names who are the ones who actually do the work.
Even when a journalist is reporting on big ‘top-down’ news, they can enrich their reporting and make it more relevant to their audiences by getting personal stories from communities that the news affects. Interview old and young people, women and men to get a broad range of views.
When a story is particularly sensitive, a source may want to remain anonymous in order to protect themselves or their job, etc. Journalists should respect this but because an anonymous source is less credible than a named one, some media outlets do not allow reporters to quote from unnamed sources.
Nonetheless, the information they provide may help a journalist to find other sources who are prepared to corroborate it and be named.
Lastly, other journalists are often a great source of story ideas. By tracking what other media outlets are reporting, a journalist can find ideas for things to report locally or for different audiences (with appropriate credit to the original reporter where it is due of course).
Online social media such as Twitter are a great way to keep track of environment stories from around the world, and to network with other journalists (see Using Social Media).
IJNet – Building sources (video)
Panos – Reporting research: Using evidence for effective journalism [PDF]
SciDev.Net – Reporting from conferences
The News Manual – Sources of information