Alumni Peter Thomson lectures on environmental reporting

By Staff

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When first assigned a story on hunting in the 1980s, Peter Thomson, the current environmental editor at Public Radio International’s “The World,” thought it would be simple.

“I sort of went into it with a set of assumptions that I had growing up that hunting was bad. As a journalist you are not supposed to have those preconceptions, but everybody does,” said Thomson in a question-and-answer session with senior journalism and environmental design major Kimya Hedayat-Zadeh as part of the Eleanor Bateman Alumni Scholar in Residence program yesterday.

After that story, Thomson tried to put preconceived notions aside before covering a story.

“I learned how much more complicated everything is than you initially think it is,” said Thomson. “And that killing animals and cutting down trees is not necessarily a bad thing in terms of protecting the environment.”

Now, Thomson – who has worked at WFCR in Amherst, NPR, WBUR in Boston and Monitor Radio, as well as a slew of odd jobs including oyster shucking – says he works to convey the complexities in each story.

“You need to make things relevant and distill it down to the [simplest] element,” said Thomson to the audience.

To further his point, Thomson shared an anecdote about a story he covered in Alaska on the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill 10 years later. While working on the story, he talked to scientists and other professionals. But he said the whole story came together when he was at the home of two fishermen.

“They took me into their kitchen and showed me these jars of oil that they had dug out of the beach just a couple of weeks before and after talking to a lot of scientists … that moment, more than anything, told the story,” said Thomson.

Another challenging topic facing environmental reporters is climate change, something that Thomson spoke extensively on. Thomson said that the so-called “balanced approach” to covering global warming, where both the believers and the deniers have a presence in the story is “bogus” and “basically malpractice.”

“There is a point where you have to say these people are right and these people are wrong,” said Thomson. “And trying to balance that is just bad journalism.”

According to Thomson, a journalist’s job is to present people with the facts and possible solutions while helping people understand the role their daily decisions, such as buying a cup of coffee, play in it.

“I am always wary of the idea that journalism should be in service of a single idea,” Thomson said.  “I think it should be about what is happening right now and the choices.”

However, covering these complex issue-based stories that frequently have no solutions can be stressful, according to  Thomson, who tries to combat the stress by finding ways to bring optimistic messages into his stories.

“Finding ways to tell these stories, I’ve always tried to bring in hope. Not into every story, but into enough that I can still get out of bed in the morning and my listeners don’t tune out,” said Thomson.

And as more and more environmental desks get cut due to economic strains on different news sources, keeping listeners is important, according to Thomson.

“There is a crisis in this particular part of journalism,” said Thomson.

This crisis is leading to changes in journalism, some good and some not so good, according to Thomson.

“This revolution that is going on … is providing all kinds of new opportunities. Some of it is garbage and some is fantastic,” said Thomson.

One of the changes that Thomson likes is the restructuring of online newsrooms to use technologies such as Skype to imitate the traditional model. By creating these online systems of checks, balances and conversation, Thomson believes that better journalism is being produced.

“There has to be a process of vetting,” Thomson said.

Thomson also said that good journalism, especially on environmental topics, is undervalued. He explained that people should be reading more journalism and writers should be producing more issue-focused stories.

“We have slid back,” said Thomson. “We were writing good stories, then ‘Climategate’ happened and caused a lot of journalists to throw their hands up and get caught up again in the he said she said.”

He predicts that in the next decade, environmental journalism will be focused on the energy crisis, global sustainability and the consequences of climate change. He expects that climate change will trigger conflicts over resources in regions such as Asia and Africa.

Thomson, who was a  Social Thought and Political Economy major at UMass, graduated from the University in 1985 after transferring from Anitoch College. Even though he was always attracted to the idea of broadcast journalism, he refused to study journalism instead opting for learning about what he wanted to write about and developing his analytical skills.

“At the time I thought, ‘Who needs to learn to write? Who needs to learn how to ask questions?’” said Thomson. “In retrospect, that was extremely stupid and those classes would have been helpful.”

Katie Landeck can be reached at [email protected]

Emily Burt/Collegian