PROGRAM

Keynote: 

David Biello will share his experiences communicating science to a national audience, as well as consider the role of science communication in the south central region, the importance of this region in the national conversation about science and society, and the importance of building connections among science writers.

Panels/Breakouts:

  • So You Want to Publish a Book? Join us for a conversation covering all aspects of the book business— author, editor, and agent—as we explore the particularities of book publishing in the South. Moderator: Juli Berwald. Panelists: Stacy Eisenstark, Texas A&M University Press; Melissa Gaskill, freelance; Jim Hornfischer, Hornfischer Literary Management.
  • Unconventional Science Communication (eg., Nerd Nite) These days science communication doesn’t just happen on the page. This panel explores a broad swath of ways to communicate science from video to the stage and beyond. Moderator: Nichole Bennett, STEMprov; Panelists: Roxanne Bogucka, UT Science Communication Interest Group; Panelists: Joe Hanson, It’s Okay To Be Smart; Mickey Delp, NerdNite.
  • PIOs Outside the Box: New Audiences, New Ways to Reach Them Go beyond the press release with a panel of innovative science communicators using creative formats to share their institutions’ stories of science. Moderator: Marc Airhart, University of Texas at Austin. Panelists: Rachel Barry, NASA; Rebecca Fowler, Center for Climate and Life at Columbia University and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund; Nadia M. Whitehead is a science writer at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.
  • How to Pitch Your Stories to Editors Got a brilliant idea for a regional story and not sure how or where to pitch it? This panel of successful editors and freelancers has got ideas for you. Moderator: Melissa Gaskill. Panelists: Louie Bond, Texas Parks & Wildlife; Tina Casagrand, New Territory Magazine.
  • Using Improv to Sharpen Science Communication Skills (an interactive workshop) Austin’s own Nichole Bennett guides you through some of her signature STEMprov activities to inspire you to think about your science in a whole new way. Moderator/Speaker: Nichole Bennett, STEMprov.
  • The Challenges of Reporting on Energy and the Environment in our Region The South is the battery of our nation, home to more biomes than many countries, and a powerful conservative party that often controls the conversation. Our panel of expert writers share their experience navigating these fraught waters. Moderator: David Biello. Panelists: Kiah Collier, Texas Tribune; Brendan Gibbons, San Antonio Express-News; Asher Price, Austin American-Statesman.

SPEAKERS

Keynote

David Biello is the author of The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age. He is an award-winning journalist who has been reporting on the environment and energy since 1999—long enough to be cynical but not long enough to be depressed. He is the Science Curator for TED as well as a contributing editor at Scientific American. He has also written for publications ranging from Aeon and Foreign Policy to The New York Times and The New Republic. Biello has been a guest on numerous television and radio shows, and he hosts the documentary series Beyond the Light Switch as well as The Ethanol Effect for PBS. David Biello received a BA in English from Wesleyan University and a MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He currently lives with his wife, daughter, and son near a Superfund site in Brooklyn.

The Challenges of Reporting on Energy and the Environment in our Region

Kiah Collier is a reporter and editor for The Texas Tribune where she focuses on energy and environmental policy through the lens of state government and politics. Since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in philosophy and multimedia journalism, Kiah has reported for publications across Texas, including the Houston Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman. Kiah began her career at a small newspaper in West Texas, where she chronicled a burgeoning oil-and-gas boom and broke news about energy companies’ voluminous water use during a prolific drought. In 2017, Kiah won a Peabody Award for her work on a multimedia project that examined research into a specific type of hurricane scientists say will eventually devastate the city of Houston.

Brendan Gibbons covers the environment and water for the Rivard Report, an independent nonprofit newsroom in San Antonio. He previously covered the environment for a daily newspaper in Scranton, Pennsylvania and the San Antonio Express-News. He holds a degree in science journalism from the University of Missouri, and his background includes stint as a science aide monitoring birds for the U.S. Forest Service and as an office assistant for a plant science lab in Missouri. He grew up in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Asher Price writes about politics, energy and the environment for the Austin American-Statesman. Three times the Society of Environmental Journalists has named him a finalist for a national beat reporter of the year award. He is the author of the memoir Year of the Dunk: A Modest Defiance of Gravity and co-author of the Great Texas Wind Rush: How George Bush, Ann Richards and a Bunch of Tinkerers Helped the Oil and Gas State Win the Race to Wind Power. Interested in the intersection of race and sports, he’s currently at work on a biography about Earl Campbell.

Unconventional Science Communication

Roxanne Bogucka is the founder and convener of the UT Science Communication Interest Group, which annually hosts the Science In Plain English contest and Research Speed-Dating. For more than a decade as a librarian with the UT Libraries, she has produced science outreach programs, including Science Study Break—a series where STEM researchers discuss the science shown in popular movies and TV shows. Roxanne has a B.S. in Wildlife & Fisheries Science from Texas A&M University, and an M.L.I.S. in Library & Information Science from the University of Texas at Austin.

Joe Hanson isa Ph.D. biologist and science writer based in Austin, TX. He’s the creator/host/writer of PBS Digital Studios’ It’s Okay To Be Smart, a blog and a YouTube show about science. He writes: “We live in the future, and that future is one in which science impacts every part of our lives. But too many people aren’t taking part in that future. Too many aren’t taking part in science. We must teach science as more than facts. It’s a creative process, it’s an instant injection of wonderment, it’s the excitement we feel at the edge of knowledge. It’s for everyone.”

Mickey Delp is an electrical and computer engineer with expertise in analog and digital circuit design and embedded systems programming. He is the founder and Chief Inventor at Delptronics, a maker of unique electronic musical instruments. He is an instructor at dadageek where he teaches analog audio electronics. He is a frequent presenter at Dorkbot and Nerd Nite, and co-developed and co-runs the Nerd Nite Austin Ambasador program. Mickey is also an electronic musician who performs solo and with various projects around Austin.

PIOs Outside the Box: New Audiences, New Ways to Reach Them

Marc Airhart is a public information officer in the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences. In addition to the typical work of a PIO, he produces a monthly science podcast called Point of Discovery. Before coming to the university, he was a writer and producer for the daily science radio program Earth & Sky. He has also written for national publications including Scientific AmericanMercuryThe Earth ScientistEnvironmental Engineer & Scientist, and StarDate Magazine. Marc is a long-time member of the National Association of Science Writers. He was twice selected a fellow of the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Science Journalism Program.

Rachel Barry went to Space Camp when she was 12 years old, fell in love with MMUs (think: Jet Packs!) and then turned into a journalism nerd. When she watched NASA adopt a new communication style and community outreach during the STS-125 Hubble Space Telescope repair mission in 2009, she knew she could finally find a place for herself at the space agency. She was active in the space enthusiast Twitter community, and went to NASASocials back when they were called Tweetups. She went on to land a dream job in communications at NASA’s Johns Space Center, where she leads the team that produces everything from gifs to Instagram stories about the research happening aboard the International Space Station. She spends her days tweeting about things like heart cells beating in microgravity, and explaining complex research topics like DNA sequencing in 140 characters or 60-second videos. She’s a 42-year-old who’s not afraid of Snapchat.

Rebecca Fowler is a freelance science writer based in Bryan, Texas and New York City. She manages communications for the Center for Climate and Life at Columbia University and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. Rebecca frequently collaborates with Earth and ocean scientists on education and outreach initiatives, participating in their fieldwork and writing about the process of doing research. Rebecca enjoys connecting people with science in somewhat unconventional ways: She’s co-creator of the Climate Models calendar (the hottest thing since the Hadean Eon), a project that used Columbia scientists as models to humanize science and increase understanding of climate research. She’s also collaborated with New York City’s International Center of Photography on a series of public programs that brought climate scientists into the museum to discuss their work.

Nadia M. Whitehead is a science writer at the University of Arizona Health Sciences. Nadia helped launch The Exam Room, a monthly Facebook Live Q&A session that features various faculty practitioners at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso. Community members are invited to tune in to the sessions and pose their health questions directly to the institution’s doctors. Nadia studied anthropology and multimedia journalism at The University of Texas at Austin and later honed her storytelling skills in Johns Hopkins University’s Master of Arts in science-medical writing program. In her (very rare) spare time, Nadia enjoys freelancing. Her work has appeared in NPRScienceThe Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalEveryday Health, the American Heart Association and Undark, a publication of MIT’s knight science journalism program.

How to Pitch Your Stories to Editors

Louie Bond is the editor of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine, where for more than a decade she’s translated biologist-speak into entertaining and accessible articles. Like many of you, Louie was the kid who stared out the classroom window, needing to hold that lizard to learn about it, more interested in the butterfly on her finger than the textbook on the desk. Today’s short-attention-span audiences demand snap, crackle and pop in their choice of publications, often passing over what looks like “heavy” reading. Do we have to sacrifice scientific accuracy for wider outreach, or is there a sweet spot where it all balances? Texas Parks & Wildlife has won many accolades, but none please Louie more than testimonials from lifelong readers who were inspired by the magazine.

Tina Casagrand is Publisher/Editor of The New Territory Magazine.

Chris O’Connell is a senior editor at the Alcalde magazine, the independent and official alumni magazine for the University of Texas at Austin, where he edits and writes feature stories and produces a web documentary show called Alcalde Docs. Recent episodes on science and technology have highlighted a student Hyperloop project and the MasSpec Pen for cancer detection on the molecular level. Chris is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Texas Monthly, Columbia Journalism Review, Talking Points Memo, Splinter, and the A.V. Club.

So You Want to Publish a Book?

Stacy Eisenstark worked on books in a variety of fields, including natural history, at the University of California Press before coming to Texas A&M University Press in 2016. At TAMUP, she acquires and edits books on all facets of the natural environment for both trade and scholarly audiences. She holds a B.A. in history from UC Berkeley.

Jim Hornfischer is president of Hornfischer Literary Management, L.P., a literary agency with a strong track record handling a broad range of serious and commercial nonfiction. Hornfischer’s clients include major award-winning nonfiction writers, memoirists, historians, scientists, professionals, journalists, and assorted other literary artists. Hornfischer is one of the few agents in the country who is both a licensed attorney and a former New York trade book editor. He is also the author of four well-received nonfiction books of his own. This combination of experience makes him an effective advocate as well as a perceptive editorial adviser for his clients. In sixteen years as an agent, Hornfischer has handled many New York Times bestsellers and ranks consistently among the top nonfiction dealmakers on Publishers Marketplace, the leading book industry publication. The company enjoys strong relationships with all of the New York publishing companies.

Juli Berwald, received her Ph.D. in Ocean Science at USC working on satellite imagery of the ocean. She wrote science and math textbooks in Austin, Texas for about a decade before branching out into more mainstream science writing, publishing in National Geographic, Wired, and The New York Times among others. This year she published her first non-textbook called Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone, which is both about the incredible gelatinous animals that swim in our seas as well as the health of our planet and our role in it.

Melissa Gaskill has a B.S. in Zoology from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from The University of Texas. An independent journalist for more than 20 years, she writes about science, nature, the environment, and travel, mostly the outdoor adventure kind. Her work has appeared in many places, including Scientific American, Men’s Journal, Newsweek, The New York Times, Alert Diver, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, and NASA’s International Space Station research webpage. She wrote Best Hikes with Dogs: Texas Hill Country and Gulf Coast and is a co-author of A Worldwide Travel Guide to Sea Turtles. She lives in Austin and has three grown children.

Using Improv to Sharpen Science Communication Skills

Nichole Bennett‘s big passion is helping scientists better communicate their research. STEMprov: Improv for Science Communication (stemprov.org) introduces scientists to the tools of improvisational acting to help them become better collaborators, increase their storytelling skills, and become more relaxed with the unknowns of science communication. Nichole regularly teaches and performs improv around Austin and is a graduate of The Hideout Theatre’s improv classes. She is a Teaching Assistant for The Hideout Theatre’s adult classes and special needs youth and teen classes. For her day job, she is a curriculum developer and instructor with Hello World Tech Studio, where she introduces kids to engineering thinking through data science and web development programming.


KEYNOTE AUDIO

In the keynote address, David Biello shared his experiences communicating science to a national audience, as well as considering the role of science communication in the south central region, the importance of this region in the national conversation about science and society, and the importance of building connections among science writers. Listen to his address below.


SUMMARIES

So You Want to Publish a Book?

Summary by Anthony Alaniz

Author Melissa Gaskill, editor Stacy Eisenstark, and literary agent Jim Hornfischer joined session host Juli Berwald in a discussion about the peculiarities of book publishing in the South. The panelists explained their respective roles in the book publishing process.

Hornfischer, president of Hornfischer Literary Management, described himself as a liaison between the New York publishing industry and authors who are looking to reach a national audience. An agent works with a writer to develop a book proposal to sell to a publisher. As an intermediary between author and publisher, agents are there to look after the author’s best interests, beginning by identifying a strong project that can lead to a deal with publishers. In some instances an agent may even seek contracts for publishing rights to an author’s idea and future related work. Although he isn’t opposed to local and regional stories, Hornfischer said he looks for stories of national relevance: “my clients are the writers, but really, my customers are the publishers in New York.”

Eisenstark, an editor at the Texas A&M University Press, explained the unique aspects of a university press, as compared to commercial trade publishers. University presses are typically well connected and engaged in their local and regional communities. With geography playing a bigger role, university presses aim to provide a service to the region by publishing books that are relevant to the local community and that might have otherwise gone unpublished. Eisenstark highlighted that everything a university press publishes has been peer-reviewed by experts. In contrast, commercial presses expect the author to have their writing fact-checked, Berwald noted.

Answering the question of how to get a book published, Hornfischer suggested two approaches. One is for a science writer to produce a narrative in their domain of expertise and establish themselves as the best person suited for the job. Gaskill gave the example of how she was well suited for writing a book on hiking with a dog in the Texas Hill Country, noting that “I write, I hike, I have a dog.” A second way a science writer can publish a book is to collaborate with scientists, bringing the best authority on the subject to the page and serving as communicator between the expert and the audience. “Your job is to help them [the scientist] write their best book. It’s a different role, but the opportunities can be huge,” Hornfischer said. Gaskill gave the example of how she collaborated with a marine biologist and a travel expert to write “A World Wide Guide to Sea Turtles.”

In developing a book proposal, commercial considerations are essential, Hornfischer said. A proposal typically includes a narrative overview (chapter summaries), who you are, what research you’ve done, where you would position your book in the market, and a sample chapter. A good proposal has a succinct summary of the content, and you must make the case about the market for your book, Eisenstark said. It’s important to know your audience – who you’re trying to reach, and why those people would want to read your book. Making that case will help an editor advocate for your book within the press, Eisenstark said. That’s the most important piece – writing skill is secondary, she added.

To close the discussion, Berwald and the panelists discussed the process of finding an agent, all coming into consensus that the agent has to be a good fit. In the words of Berwald, “It’s kind of like dating in a way… I had an agent who never did see the vision the way I saw it, and we had to break up.”

Anthony Alaniz studies biochemistry and social work at The University of Texas at Austin.

Unconventional Science Communication

Summary by Lisa Strong

These days science communication doesn’t just happen on the page. This panel explored a broad swath of ways to communicate science from video to the stage and beyond. To encourage participation and audience camaraderie, this session began with an ice breaker: audience members were encouraged to find someone else with similar shoes. People quickly looked down and around, moving through the crowd to find a matching pair, while laughter and apologies arose as people bumped into each other.

After audience members found seats once again, moderator Nichole Bennett introduced the panelists. Roxanne Bogucka from the UT Science Communication Interest group described her science study breaks. These breaks consist of an expert explaining science in science fiction movies. An example clip was played where a scientist from UT Austin explained to students how Warp Drive from Star Trek may be possible. Bogucka also elaborated on other activities that promote participation to explain science, such as scaling the solar system orbits on a plaza, Science Speed Dating, and Science in Plain English competitions.

Mickey Delp described his NerdNite events as “TED Talks with Beer.” He proudly explained that the speakers were not invited guests, but rather audience members from the previous weeks, emphasizing that these “nerds” were most likely experts in their field and could explain the science better than he could. Another video clip example was shown with speakers on a wide variety of topics to demonstrate his point.

The last panelist was Joe Hanson, who developed a YouTube video series titled “It’s Okay to be Smart.” In the clip shown, Hanson described the size of Big Data by equating a byte to a grain of rice. The viewer could then picture how much a gigabyte or terabyte of data was by how much rice could cover an area. Hanson maintained a humorous tone by making the video in a cheesy 1980’s format to more thoroughly engage the viewer.

After these brief presentations, audience members asked questions. The first couple of questions centered around the process of creating the events and videos. The panelists each described the long journey that got them to where they are and the small support team that helps them. Each panelist now has a team of 4-5 people.

The next set of questions centered around accommodating special needs from diverse audiences. NerdNite has a volunteer to sign the presentation for hard of hearing participants, while YouTube uses community support to translate videos into different languages and UT Austin provides closed captioning.

The final round of questions focused on where communication is going as these unconventional methods become the norm. Bogucka started off with describing the slow process of change in an academic setting and sadly predicting that universities will not adapt to these new methods anytime soon. Delp and Hanson both have seen a rapid growth of interest in science communication communities.

At the end of the session, Delp and Hanson both gave some parting advice. Hanson summarized that there is a wide diversity of communication platforms both for learners and teachers, so it is best to try a few and go with the one you feel most comfortable with. Delp expanded that if you are unsure where to start with your exploration, there are things happening in every city and to just get out there!

Lisa Strong studies biology at The University of Texas at Austin and was the 2017 winner of the Science in Plain English contest.

PIOs Outside the Box: New Audiences, New Ways to Reach Them

Summary by Lisa Strong

This breakout session focused on the ways that Public Information Officers can harness creativity to share their institutions’ stories. Marc Airhart began by introducing himself as the moderator. At the University of Texas at Austin, Marc hosts a 5-10-minute weekly podcast that covers a wide range of scientific topics. He played a clip for the attendees in which he explained the advancements in robotic technology and had a guest researcher at UT further explain.

The panelists then introduced themselves. Rachel Barry from NASA began with PowerPoint slides showing live streams of astronauts in space. Barry explained that she used popular social media platforms such as SnapChat and Instagram to connect with a younger audience by allowing them to directly view the day-to-day life of astronauts. On national coffee day, the astronauts played with coffee in space in the hopes of inspiring excitement for fluid mechanics. She also utilized the social media website Reddit to host AMAs or Ask Me Anythings, where Reddit users could specifically ask astronauts anything.

Rebecca Fowler spoke about her experience reaching audiences using a climate scientist calendar, where different notable climate change scientists posed for each month of the year with a blurb describing their research and lives. This campaign humanized scientists who normally receive a lot of criticism for their work. In a different campaign, Fowler was able to utilize the International Center of Photography’s (ICP) Instagram account to promote awareness of climate change.

The last panelist, Nadia Whitehead, from the University of Arizona Health Sciences, had started a video series using Facebook Live to connect viewers with doctors in real time. Aptly termed the Exam Room, the series promoted awareness of a new medical center while helping the community understand common medical problems.

An audience member asked for advice on choosing the right platform to connect with the community. Rachel explained how her small team frequently coordinates with NASA’s Public Affairs office to increase their resources. But, she added that she would occasionally go rogue when a collaboration was denied because she trusted her gut on a project. Rebecca said that it’s best to start small, like starting a Twitter account, to show your ideas are successful. Once trust is established, beginning a campaign, such as her successful calendar campaign, without first asking for permission is generally better received. She did warn that one must be prepared to take responsibility if a risky project flops.

Next, Nadia was asked how much she had to groom her experts for airtime. Nadia replied that she did not have to train them very much since she had previously worked with most of the experts and knew they were capable of chatting with viewers.

Scientists in the audience then inquired how to manage their presence without a public information officer. Rachel advised them to use a platform that they are comfortable with and be themselves. Rebecca added that they should make sure they are easy to contact. All panelists later encouraged experts to contact journalists if they want to share their findings with the public.

The final round of questions focused on finding the right people to represent their story. Marc and Rebecca agreed that people must be mindful of representing the diverse population they are writing about. Rachel also recounted her experiences of difficulties finding women to be in a social media campaign about Women in Science.

Closing advice from Rachel was to “be unconventional and outside of the box, but make sure your partners are also on board.” She stressed the importance of keeping any experts that are involved on board and informed through the whole process. Nadia concluded by encouraging the audience to try new things.

Lisa Strong studies biology at The University of Texas at Austin and was the 2017 winner of the Science in Plain English contest.

How to Pitch Your Stories to Editors

Summary by Anthony Alaniz

Editors Louie Bond, Tina Casagrand, and Chris O’Connell shared insights into the magazine publishing industry and  the best ways for science writers to pitch successful stories to each of their magazines. Bond, editor of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine, explained that she looks for stories focused on nature in Texas. O’Connell, senior editor at the Alcalde magazine, the alumni magazine for The University of Texas at Austin, will often publish stories that relate to the university and incorporate science. Casagrand, publisher and editor of The New Territory magazine, said that she likes to incorporate science into stories in ways that are relevant to her Lower Midwest audience.

These three editors all discussed strategies of subtly incorporating science into mainstream articles, as opposed to making it the main focus. As O’Connell put it, “Since it’s a general interest magazine, people aren’t there to necessarily read science, science, science.” Indeed, one shared strategy for incorporating more science into an article is to make the human connection:  discuss someone who’s been affected by a particular research project and make it clear to the audience why the science matters to the person.

The three editors agreed that one thing writers must do is familiarize themselves with the magazine they’re pitching. Before pitching, they said, be sure to look through archives to see if the magazine has already published a similar story. “Patience is a great virtue,” Bond added. Writers should understand that some magazines plan far in advance before publication and may not want certain types of articles at a particular time.

The editors also said to keep in mind how well you know an editor when pitching. If a writer is new to an editor, he or she may have to reach out and make a connection. And if a writer doesn’t know an editor well, it’s even more important to be familiar with the magazine and its audience, as an editor will easily be able to tell if a writer hasn’t done that homework. “Put in fifty percent of your research before you do the pitch, because then I’m going to have the confidence that there is a story there,” explained Casagrand.

Anthony Alaniz studies biochemistry and social work at The University of Texas at Austin.

Using Improv to Sharpen Science Communication Skills

Summary by Lisa Strong

The audience rummaged through their personal belongings to find a personal object. The object and story behind it was then transferred to a partner. Then it was exchanged along with the story two more times. At the end, people volunteered to share the final version of the object’s story.

As the stories were told, the audience was asked to make note of what information was retained through three different people. Someone in the crowd offered that emotional and random details were oftentimes remembered more than the nitty gritty information. For example, a pack of mints purchased on a honeymoon in Spain was remembered more vividly than the type of yarn used on ear warmers. Another observation was that the objects that had a story connected to have more fidelity retained compared to those with random facts associated with it.

When the audience began to sit down, the moderator Nicole Bennett began a new exercise where partners were to agree to a story proposed by the other in a gamed termed “Yes and…”. Here partners where supposed to exchange imaginary gifts where the giver initially described the object, the receiver added an additional detail, and the giver added one more detail. Each additional piece of information was supposed to constructively add to the gift instead of destroying the original idea.

Reflecting on the activity, the crowd realized how collaborative the partners became. The ideas became more outrageous the more comfortable the partners became with one another. A safe place for ideas was formed because no one could reject them, only add onto, or improve the original idea.

Nicole then related these ideas back to science communication. She pointed out that when working with a team, its better for creativity to expand ideas instead of outright destroying. Occasionally, this collaborative effort will lead to ground breaking stories. Bennett also demonstrated the importance of writing stories about positive data, because scientist can generally be skeptical when looking at new data. Creating a balance of both sides and not rejecting outrageous ideas can enrich a story, even if the writer must discredit some ideas to not provide false information.

The last activity was an improv story telling exercise call “Bigger Smaller”. Two audience members volunteered to tell a story and when Nicole yelled bigger the volunteers focused on a bigger detail and vice versa when she said smaller. The two volunteers began talking about the time the cat ran away. As the narrative began, the audience erupted in laughter as “Mr. Kitten’s” adventure began. Details of his narrow escape unraveled along with background information as Nicole requested bigger and smaller details.

Reviewing the activity, the audience noted that to tell a story, there must be a good mix of “bigger” and “smaller” information. In any article, the readers must have a good background and motivation to understand the more in-depth information.

Lisa Strong studies biology at The University of Texas at Austin and was the winner of the 2017 Science in Plain English contest.

The Challenges of Reporting on Energy and the Environment in THE SOUTH

Summary by Evelyn Moreno

Texas is best known as an oil and gas state however, it is also rich in flora and fauna, including many endemic species. With an abundance of natural resources, one might believe that reporting on energy and the environment in this region is an easy task. In reality, journalists who cover the beat in the Southface many challenges when reporting such as backlash from businesses and politicians, access to data and more.

David Biello, the moderator of the panel, has been covering energy and the environment since 1999. He kicked off the discussion by describing what the beat entails, stating that even if a journalist is writing about leaves they are also writing about politics in the same article. Biello’s description of the beat resonated with the panelists and encouraged them to share their own take on what it means to cover energy and the environment in the South.

Reporters Kiah Collier with The Texas Tribune, Brendan Gibbons of The Rivard Report and Asher Price from The Austin-American Statesman emphasized the importance of such reporting, stating that it intersects with other beats and applies to everyone, even those who are not very fond of the natural world.

One of Price’s approaches when reporting is to untangle proposed bills and regulations regarding energy and the environment and then relating it to popular issues. By doing so, he hopes that readers may become aware of the oftentimes obscure policies that play a role in their lives.

“I think a lot about the (environmental) beat as illuminating something about broader issues that are going on in society,” Price said. “Whether it’s issues about who controls truth, who controls power, matters of race and a lot about politics… this all intersects. I see my role as trying to illuminate for readers, matters of policy in terms of money and power.”

Like Price, Collier believes that politics play a big role in her reporting. Her approach is to “hold their (politicians) feet to the fire” by presenting them with scientific findings and getting their opinion on certain environmental issues so that the public may know where the politicians stand. In her years of reporting, Collier has noticed that a few lawmakers have shifted how they feel about certain things such as climate change, however, the majority do not reflect the public’s opinion on the matter.

While Gibbons also agrees that politics play a major role on the environment and its coverage, he sometimes prefers to ignore what the politicians have to say and go straight into the science behind topics that have less to do with regulations and more to do with concepts. Gibbons believes that the political back and forth on a scientific issue can detract from the facts. He seeks scientific experts as sources to provide a better understanding on certain topics.

No matter their reporting approach, the journalists all agreed that science should be useful to people in their daily lives and aim to accurately convey the facts in their coverage of energy and the environment in relation to other societal issues.

Evelyn Moreno studies journalism and geography at The University of Texas at Austin, her portfolio can be accessed at https://evelynmoreno518.myportfolio.com/