Writing about Science and the Environment
|Scientists and journalists have many things in common, including a fascination with nature. Here, members of the Society of Environmental Journalists talk with a Scripps Oceanographic Institute scientist about a climate experiment. (Photo by Bill Kovarik, 2006).|
COMS 407 / 20982
School of Communication
2-3 MWF Young 412
Practice and theory of environmental journalism. Students will perform research, interview sources and prepare environmental news articles for all forms of media. Students will also examine the history, ethics and politics of news coverage regarding environmental science and concepts of sustainability. Guest speakers, professional networks and optional field trips will enhance the educational experience and encourage lifelong participation in this important area of journalism.
Optional Field trips:
-- January -- Air and water pollution control systems in NRV
-- February -- Green architecture in NRV
-- March - Mountaintop Removal Mining site near Beckly WV
-- April -- Parkway, rails to trails systems, regional conservation
Bob Wyss, Covering the Environment: How journalists work the green beat (Routledge, 2008)
Recommended: Mark Neuzil and Bill Kovarik, Mass Media and Environmental Conflict (Sage, 1996) Portions available at www.billkovarik.com/papers
Scholarly journals in Environmental Communication
This class will consist of a lecture session, research reporting and interaction, team sessions, and coaching for writers.
Students will work alone or in teams on journalistic, non-fiction narrative and expository writing involving a variety of environmental topics. Guests speakers will include journalists, scientists and scholars in environmental science, policy and history. Critical analysis of issues and broad historical perspectives will be emphasized along with research, interviewing and writing skills. Each student will be required to write one literature review, a research briefing, three short news articles, and one major news article, Publication in a variety of formats will be encouraged.
The class will also take advantage of conferences and events that, by virtue of optimal proximity, could help engage students in the learning process. October 7-12, 2009, for example, the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists will take place at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Specialized training in the complexities of environmental reporting is needed now more than ever, as scientific literacy declines and environmental challenges increase. This course involves practice in researching, interviewing, visualizing and writing scientific and environmental topics for general audiences. In addition, scholarship about environmental history and public understanding of science will be the a parallel focus of the course. There is a persuasive argument to be made that more should be done to train journalists in scientific issue analysis and writing, given the increasing importance of these issues today.
Perhaps the most chilling warning about the need for public understanding of science came from the late Carl Sagan, who said:
"I have a foreboding of ... a (future) service and information economy ... when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority ... The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media ..". -- Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World, Random House, 1995
- For the professor:
- To create a supportive climate for writers who will be working in environmental journalism
- To help build infrastructure for ongoing training of environmental communicators
- To encourage writers to understand the scientific process
- To understand and appreciate the issues students are dealing with in their professional lives and to find routes toward optimal growth
- For the students:
- To understand the general field of science and environment non-fiction writing
- To understand the roles of those who interpret science for the public
- To understand non-fiction genres of writing with styles ranging from exposition to literary narrative to investigative journalism.
Specific goals: To increase skill in science & environment writing
- Research scientific and environmental issues
- Evaluate the public impact of scientific research
- Locate authoritative and primary sources
- Write about scientific research for the mass media
- Profile scientists and their work
- Fathom permits and other public documents
- Explain environmental controversy to the public.
- Illustrate and visualize scientific materials for the public
- Help build infrastructure for ongoing training of environmental communicators
- 10% - Reading assignments - review science and environment writing and lead discussions
- 10% - Research reports and briefings concerning biographical, theoretical or historical information as contributions to the classroom learning environment
- 40% - Three written articles assessed with standard journalistic and literary criteria such as grammar, logic, creativity, scope of subject, insight into the subject, appropriate writing style and (where appropriate) respect for privacy and reputation. Some assessments or feedback about your articles may be requested by the scientists or other sources interviewed for the articles. The article categories may include one or more of each:
- Environmental News / Information (expository - inverted pyramid lead)
- Personal or research group feature or profile (narrative / literary journalism)
- Nature / Outdoor writing (non-fiction literary description)
- 40 % - Major research / writing project of your choice to be discussed in class
- 20 % - Additional extra credit assignments available
* All information must be accurate, properly attributed and original
* If you are taking another writing course, do not submit the same article to both classes.
* Artices must have the informed consent of sources for publication.
*All articles are non-fiction and intentended for mass media (newspapers, magazines, radio, television, web, podcast, etc).
* It is understood that all submissions will be made public through a faculty web magazine or student media.
* Students retain copyright to their own work, but must assign reproduction rights to the class website unless prevented from doing so due to placement in commercial mass media publication.
* Attendance policy: Attendance will be recorded but allowance will be made for the normal course of events. We assume that students signing up for the course actually are interested in the subject matter, particularly on the graduate level. Overall, absense of more than 20 percent of the class will result in questions concerning the students commitment and serious grade reductions.
* Late policy: Late completion of projects will result in reduction of grade by one letter grade per week.
* Disabilities policy: We are glad to work with all students to accomodate disabilities on a non-discriminatory basis. Students with special needs may be required to clear accomodations through the disabilities resource office of the university.
* Honor Code: By accepting admission to this university, each student makes a commitment to understand, support and abide by the University Honor Code without compromise or exception.
* Plagiarism -- Plagiarism will not be tolerated.