How an investigative journalist helped prove a city was being poisoned with its own water

Read the full story in the Columbia Journalism Review.

It was not a typical evening of reporting. In early September, Curt Guyette was knocking on unfamiliar doors in Flint, Michigan—not to ask for interviews, but to ask residents to test their water for lead. Local activists were doing the same thing on sidewalks nearby, and in other parts of town. The task: Muster tests from as many ZIP Codes as possible to give a complete picture of what, exactly, was flowing out of the taps in Flint.

Guyette had been following the story of lead in Flint’s water for months, even as officials assured residents and the media that everything was under control. Over the summer, he’d helped produce a minidocumentary about concerns with the water for the ACLU of Michigan, where he works as an investigative reporter. That led to a scoop—a leaked memo from a US Environmental Protection Agency official that explained how Michigan’s process for lead testing in Flint’s water delivered artificially low results.

Now, a researcher from Virginia Tech was conducting an independent evaluation, and Guyette wasn’t just following the story, he was in the middle of it. Initial assessments by the researcher, Marc Edwards, had already found dangerously high levels of lead in the water in many Flint homes—the consequence of a series of questionable government decisions. More tests, taken with the samples collected by Guyette and others, confirmed the problem with the water. Soon, a local doctor was reporting elevated blood-lead levels in Flint children, too, and county officials were declaring a public health emergency.

Webinar: Tools for Smart Science Journalism

Thursday, October 29, 2015 at 1:00pm Central Time
Register at

As journalists, we ignore science not only at our own peril, but at the peril of our readers and viewers. In this Webinar, you’ll learn to how make sense of scientific data and tell stories in ways that connect with your audience. You’ll get techniques and tips to improve your interviewing and reporting skills. You’ll also learn how to lift the veil from front groups to launch investigations based on informed fact-gathering.

What Will I Learn:

  • How to break down jargon for your audience and demystify the science
  • How to identify front groups for organizations that may have a hidden agenda
  • How to cultivate relationships with scientists so they can be reliable sources

Who Should Take this Course:

Journalists who want to better understand how to cover complicated scientific subjects, and educators and students who want to improve their reporting skills.

Apply for a grant from the Fund for Environmental Journalism

SEJ’s Fund for Environmental Journalism welcomes applications for grants of up to $5,000 to underwrite story projects. The next application deadline is November 15, 2015. Contact Jeanne Scanlon with questions about this program.

In 2015-16 grant cycles, funding is available for story projects in three categories: 1) open topic, including international; 2) coverage of land-use issues of North America; and 3) coverage of  biodiversity conservation and climate-change impacts in North America. For the first time, freelance independent journalists may also include a stipend in the proposed budget. (See guidelines.)

SEJ’s Fund for Environmental Journalism invests in top quality public service journalism on environment-related issues, and the journalists who produce it.  FEJ grants support development and dissemination of significant coverage that otherwise could not be completed. The selection jury looks for news value, undiscovered or under-reported news, a fresh take on a familiar story, and potential for community impact.

An addition to AP Stylebook entry on global warming

Read the full post from the Associated Press.

The AP Stylebook editors today informed AP staff about a change to the entry on global warming. In addition, they described what goes into keeping the Stylebook up-to-date, including their outreach to experts.

AP science writer Seth Borenstein was among those who provided guidance during the discussion that resulted in today’s change, which adds two sentences to the global warming entry.


Climate Change Storytelling Contest

Write your best climate change story and get an opportunity to join and cover COP21

While climate change is a global phenomenon, it is hitting the world’s poorest regions – and most marginalized communities – the hardest. These changing conditions are impacting human health, economic activity, and are threatening basic human rights including access to water and food security. Climate change is already affecting local communities in low and middle income countries but stories on the negative impacts as well as on the solutions that governments, communities and individuals are implementing often get lost in the global climate change debate.

UNDP story telling contest on climate change aims to contribute to raising public awareness on the negative impacts of climate change on people and communities as well as on the opportunities and solutions seen in actions by individuals and governments in vulnerable developing countries.

The contest provides young journalists in developing countries a unique opportunity to contribute to the global debate on climate change in the run-up to COP21, while building their capacity, and providing recognition for excellence. Authors of the top two stories will be funded to attend and cover COP21.

Target Group

We target journalists 35 years of age and under from developing countries vulnerable to the impact of climate change who:

  • Are already engaged in public writing through an official media outlet
  • Have a strong interest in reporting on climate change as a contribution ­– locally and internationally – towards greater public awareness on this critical global topic
  • Are eager to seize an opportunity to build their journalistic capacity and contribute to COP21

Timeline of the Campaign

The contest was launched on August 27th. The deadline to submit an entry is October 11th 2015, with early submission encouraged. Following selection, different stories will be published every day from 2nd to 29th November. The two winning journalists will cover the climate conference in Paris.


Stories, once screened, scored and published on UNDP’s website, will be disseminated through partners’ channels to ensure maximum outreach and exposure. A common hashtag – #Voices2Paris – will facilitate social media integration by all partners, helping to amplify the dissemination. All materials are creative commons, encouraging further media outlets and people everywhere to make maximum use of the stories told and photos gathered.

Why it’s OK for taxpayers to ‘snoop’ on scientists

Read the full Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times.

Generally speaking, in the last decade or so, the research community has been moving toward increased transparency, particularly when it comes to any financial entanglements that might cast doubt upon a scientist’s objectivity. The backlash, however, has begun, and calls to reverse the trend are coming from some surprising places.

The dangers of separating science and environment

Originally published at Ensia. Written by Manu Saunders, Ecologist, Charles Sturt University  @ManuSaunders

We need to figure out a better way to communicate science that balances technology and nature.

Does the natural world have any relevance to modern science? Of course it does; but sometimes it seems like that’s not the case. This is a myth perpetuated directly and indirectly through media, policy decisions, academic disciplines, even some science engagement initiatives: that the natural world is somehow separate from science.

Some people assume that any discussion of science automatically includes ecology, botany, entomology and other natural sciences. In some contexts, it might. But, as our immediate surroundings become increasingly engineered and artificial, science based on outdoor study of the natural world is easily (and often) overshadowed in the frenzied excitement over gadgets and numbers. The tangible outcomes and “wow” factor inherent in the physical sciences and technologies (mathematics, chemistry, engineering) have effortlessly commandeered the scientific spotlight.

Just have a look at your favorite online news website. Under what category do environmental stories appear? Are they included under science? Or are they singled out as an unrelated topic?

Out of 14 of the most popular English language news websites in the world (from comScore’s global and U.S. top 10 lists), only three sites (BBC, NBC and New York Times) combine “Environment” and “Science” news stories together under one category. Five sites separate the two as unrelated topics; five have a science category only, with minimal coverage of natural environments; and one site has neither science nor environment news categories.

The power of communication to build and sustain myths, intended or not, is often underrated.

The act of separating science stories on medical breakthroughs and astronomical wonders from stories that cover ecosystems and biodiversity unwittingly enhances the myth in readers’ minds that science and nature are mutually exclusive. Combining science with technology is even more damaging, because it distances science further from natural systems and processes.

Myths as Dominant Ideologies

The power of communication to build and sustain myths, intended or not, is often underrated. In cultural theory, myths are dominant ideologies that are maintained through media and popular culture. So, separating all those sixth extinction and climate change stories from the science category in media simply perpetuates the myth that they are not scientific issues.

Yet, despite the popular portrayal of science as lab coats, space travel, gadgets and mind-blowing math, in reality, science is more closely aligned with the natural world around us. Science is about generating and sharing knowledge about the structure and behavior of the natural world. Technology is about the functional application of that knowledge to produce tangible outcomes.

This distinction goes beyond semantic pedantry. Science is independent of technology; they are not identical and they are not replacements for one another. If we reduce science to a technological sector removed from the natural world, its relevance to society becomes limited. It becomes another “industry” with a finite customer base, shifting its focus from the pursuit of knowledge, which has far-reaching benefits for all, to the tangible, immediate outcomes it can provide a certain sector of society.

What will be the consequences if the perceived connection between scientific endeavor and the natural world continues to weaken?

When this myth is perpetuated beyond popular media, it can have damaging impacts. The current Australian government, for example, spent more than a year without a minister of science at all, before tacking science onto the industry portfolio after public outcry. The industry minister, Ian Macfarlane, even suggested a new approach to scientific research funding, where funds could be awarded to universities based on the number of patent registrations, not the number of published scientific papers. His comments highlight a common misconception — that the vast majority of scientists work on creating and developing products that can be commercialized.

Critical to Understanding Our Place in the World

What will be the consequences if the perceived connection between scientific endeavor and the natural world continues to weaken? Presenting nature study as a pleasant but scientifically irrelevant hobby may have beneficial effects on our health and well-being, but it will damage our understanding of environmental issues and therefore our understanding of science.

Far from being self-indulgent, knowledge of natural sciences is critical to understand our place in the world and manage the environmental, social and economic challenges we face. How can we understand how environmental change will impact an ecosystem — and the human communities within it — if we don’t know what species and ecological interactions make up that ecosystem? How can we achieve sustainable agriculture if we don’t understand the ecological nuances of the pest, pollinator and predator communities that use the agricultural landscape? Technologists don’t create food, fiber and shelter; ecosystems do. But that can be hard to believe in a world where biotech ag and test-tube meat command so much of the spotlight.

So how do we make sure natural sciences share the spotlight dominated by technology and physical sciences? It’s a challenge, to be sure; and human psychology plays an important role. Gadgets and machines do things; their functionality builds on the momentum of the initial “wow” to sustain the audience’s interest. In contrast, much of the contemporary communication about ecology and natural history focuses on the beauty and vulnerability of nature. In a technological society that is increasingly removed from that beauty and vulnerability, this approach can have a hard time competing for public interest.

Everything in nature holds a story we can connect to. And we haven’t even come close to hearing them all.

The key is to communicate science in a way that is engaging and relevant to everyone, a goal that requires multiple complementary strategies, not just one. Ideally, science should be presented as a balance of natural and technological, so that scientists and nonscientists alike believe that ecosystems, organisms and ecological interactions are as essential to science — and ultimately society — as mathematics, engineering and technology.

Studying nature teaches us about interactions, consequences and survival. What could be more essential to all of us? Through natural sciences, we learn how environmental change affected us, as well as other living things, in the past (paleoecology). We learn how some of the tiniest organisms on Earth can make us sick or keep us alive (entomology). We learn that controversial species (such as wolves or dingoes) are a critical part of our local ecosystems (ecology). And we learn that we can’t fully understand the implications of these interactions, unless we identify and classify all the organisms involved (taxonomy).

Nature is useful and functional to you and me, not just as a resource opportunity or a “happy place,” but as a raison d’être. After all, ecosystems and organisms do things too — they are our natural life support system. Bees, flies and wasps pollinate crops and control insect pests so we can harvest food and fiber; wetlands purify the water we drink and mitigate flooding near our homes; birds and beetles scavenge wastes so we are less likely to suffer from disease.

The list goes on and on, because everything in nature holds a story we can connect to. And we haven’t even come close to hearing them all. The latest groundbreaking technology is indeed a great scientific story to share. But the story of how the natural world works — the world we all live in and depend on — is even more engaging.View Ensia homepage