7 Billion: Reporting on Population and Environment
“It’s an issue – population – that is immensely diverse in its effects and repercussions, and it’s a great opportunity for reporting,” said Jon Sawyer, executive director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting at a November 1 roundtable discussion at the Wilson Center. The session, reporting on population and the environment connections, also featured Dennis Dimick, executive environment editor at National Geographic; Kate Sheppard, environment reporter for Mother Jones; and Heather D’Agnes, foreign service environment officer at USAID.
A Cumulative Discussion
“I ended up covering reproductive rights and health issues because I saw a need and a gap in coverage,” said Kate Sheppard. “I had been an environmental reporter for years…and so it sort of became this add-on beat for me.” But, she emphasized, they are actually very related issues.
“It’s a cumulative discussion,” said Dennis Dimick, speaking about National Geographic’s “7 Billion” series this year. “[Population] really hasn’t been addressed that much in media coverage over the past 30 years, in this country at least, and I think that the idea was that it wasn’t really just a discussion about the number seven billion, which is a convenient endline and easy way to get into something, but really to talk about the meaning of it, and the challenges and the opportunities that means for us as a civilization living on this planet.”
The series has had stories on ocean acidification, genetic diversity of food crops, the transition to a more urban world, as well as case studies from Brazil, Africa’s Rift Valley, and Bangladesh. “What we are trying to do in this series is really paint a broad picture to try to unpack all these issues and try to come at this question in sort of broad strokes,” Dimick said. “It’s sort of like we are orchestrating a symphony. Even though it’s a printed magazine, it’s a multimedia project – more than just words and more than just pictures.”
The Pulitzer Center, a non-profit journalism organization that seeks to fill gaps in coverage of important systemic issues, was able to commission pieces for PBS NewsHour that complemented the National Geographic series. This population collaboration launched the Center’s own initiative on population. “Our hope was that by having that platform, and the visibility of National Geographic and NewsHour, that it would bring attention to the rest of our work,” Sawyer said. The Pulitzer Center has gateways on water, food insecurity, climate change, fragile states, maternal health, women and children, HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, and Haiti, in addition to population.
Playing off a story that was already making world headlines, the Pulitzer Center supported reporting by freelance journalist Ellen Knickmeyer on the demographic dimensions of the Arab Spring, and particularly the role of young people. The stories explored youth’s frustration at high unemployment and lack of prospects, their roles in the revolutions, and their expectations for the future.
“Of course, we had the advantage that the world was interested in North Africa because of the amazing events that were taking place, but it was an opportunity to get them to look at the other dimension to it,” Sawyer said.
Based on a model developed to cover water and sanitation in West Africa, the Pulitzer Center also created a partnership with four African journalists to produce reporting on reproductive health that will be distributed in both international and African media outlets. “They have important things to say to American audiences, to international audiences,” Sawyer said. “And so we see this project as an opportunity to bring them into the international media discussion.” The journalists will be reporting from the upcoming International Conference on Family Planning in Dakar, Senegal, later this month.
“It’s really a nuanced discussion, and that is why covering these topics, and looking at all the different aspects of it, is really important,” said USAID’s Heather D’Agnes. Furthermore, speaking as a development practitioner, she emphasized the importance of offering solutions, such as family planning, as part of an integrated development approach.
“In our journalism we don’t pretend not to have arguments, or ideas, or thoughts about the issues we are covering,” said Sheppard, speaking of Mother Jones. “I think that the value is that you tell the story well and you do solid reporting – that gives people a more informed perspective.” Especially with complicated issues, like population and the environment, “people find it more accessible if you have a perspective…they can associate better with a story if you walk them through the process you have gone through as a reporter.”
“What we are really trying to do is to advocate a discussion of issues that aren’t getting well-aired in other media,” said Dimick. Sometimes you need to find an interesting or counterintuitive framework, such as the National Geographic story about rural electrification and TV novelas in Brazil. It started as a story about the booming popularity of soap operas, but also created the opportunity to talk about gender equity, family planning, and other complex issues. While the magazine does not advocate a position, like the editorial page of a newspaper might, Dimick said, they do use case studies to guide readers through the range of risks, choices, and opportunities and to help them understand their implications.
Drafted by Theresa Polk and edited by Schuyler Null and Geoff Dabelko.