Peter Thomson, UM alum, discusses environmental journalism

By Chris Shores

Emily Burt/Collegian

When a March 11 earthquake set off a meltdown at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, it was Peter Thomson’s job to assemble coverage for a radio show that was airing that afternoon.

“The nuclear power plants [were] melting down. Suddenly I [had] to figure out with the show producers, ‘How are we going to cover this story today?’” said Thomson, a University of Massachusetts alumnus who is the environmental editor of “The World,” a daily afternoon show co-produced by Public Radio International, the British Broadcasting Corporation and WGBH in Boston.

The Fukushima coverage began that day but was a focus of “The World” airtime for the next several months. In addition to assigning stories to reporters, Thomson participated in several shows, providing updates on the status of the power plant and surrounding area.

A 1985 graduate of UMass’ Social Thought and Political Economy program (STPEC), Thomson returned to his alma mater yesterday through the Eleanor Bateman Alumni Scholar in Residence program. He will speak today at a 4:30 p.m. lecture in Memorial Hall entitled, “Journalism, the Environment and the Future.”

Events like Fukushima happened without warning, but many environmental stories are worked on for weeks or months at a time, said Thomson. Currently, he has 20 different stories assigned to reporters around the world and has additional pitches from both staff and freelance reporters.

Environmental journalism can focus on larger issues or themes such as climate, energy or agriculture, which makes coverage challenging in nature, he said.

“The [stories] are not event-driven. It doesn’t break, it oozes,” he said. “They’re chronic, they’re long-term. They infiltrate into all aspects of life.”

“It involves a lot of science, it involves a lot of contentious economic issues,” Thomson added. “You have to engage with all of those at times. You have to have all of that in the back of your mind.”

At the same time that environmental journalists must sort through the complexity of their assignments, they are, as a whole, not receiving support from news organizations, he said.

“[The environmental desk] is always one of the first things to get cut in any newsroom. [It’s] ‘We’re in an economic crisis and we don’t have time to worry about those things and we don’t have money to pay you anymore,’” he said.

Thomson is on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and said the organization is continuously in a debate about self-identity, whether they should be considered journalists, environmentalists or both.

“I have no problem saying, ‘I’m an environmentalist,’” said Thomson.  “I believe that these issues are tremendously important and should be taken into account in everything we do as a society and as individuals.”

“It doesn’t mean you prescribe an outcome, or even a road to that outcome for any particular story,” he added, saying that he does not believe it influences his reporting or editing in any way. “These are things that are an integral part of how our world works. I care about the impact of what we do on the environment. I would hope that everybody does.”

Thomson said he always knew he wanted to be a radio journalist, but upon transferring to UMass from Antioch College, he signed up for the STPEC program instead of journalism. He said he wasn’t interested in taking writing classes or working on interview skills.

“I thought I wanted to study the things, the issues, the ideas and the problems that I had hoped to engage with as a journalist,” he said. “STPEC was important in … helping me learn how to think about things, pull back the surface layers and all the assumption and really get an understanding of how things are related to each other. Everything is connected; nothing can be seen in isolation.”

Thomson got involved with on-campus radio station WMUA, beginning with a two-hour live Sunday public affairs program. He then began doing freelance reports for WFCR-FM, the public radio station in Amherst.

Next he got a job with National Public Radio, working on the environmental news program, “Living on Earth.” It was there where Thomson, to his surprise, discovered that he was doing exactly what he had always wanted to do.

“It brought everything together and I don’t feel I left behind that STPEC focus on social justice and economic justice,” said Thomson. “I feel like the environment is totally about … who is bearing the impact of all the things we do to create all the stuff we use in our lives.”

“I think still a huge amount of reporting at ‘The World’ is on communities that are in one way or another bearing a disproportionate brunt of the impacts of industry, commerce and all that,” he said.

After spending 10 years with “Living on Earth,” but before he began his job with “The World” in 2008, Thomson traveled to Russia. There he studied Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest lake, and published “Sacred Sea: A Journey To Lake Baikal” in 2007.

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]