Syllabus, calendar, recommended reading

Writing about Science and the Environment

scientist and writers at Scripps oceanographic
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

Spring 2011
School of Communication

Radford University

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


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

Goals for the professor and the students

Assignments and grading

  • Environmental News / Information (expository - inverted pyramid lead)
  • Personal or research group feature or profile (narrative / literary journalism)
  • Nature / Outdoor writing (non-fiction literary description)

Policies regarding submissions

* 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.

Addiitonal policies

* 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.

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