As a writer for Mother Jones' magazine, Kate Sheppard doesn't mind getting her hands dirty, metaphorically speaking. As a specialist in energy and the environment in Mother Jones' Washington, D.C., bureau, she regularly wades into weighty topics like last year's Gulf oil spill and climate change. I became a fan of her work when she was writing for Grist and followed her to her current spot at Mother Jones.
Kate grew up on a vegetable farm in New Jersey and studied journalism and politics at Ithaca College. She studied abroad in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Russia and she admits that her biggest eco-sin is "lots of air travel." She was part of a Mother Jones team that won an award for Best Online Topical Reporting/Blogging from the Online News Association last year and was named one of the best Business and Political Twitterers by the green uber-blog Treehugger. (You can follow her on Twitter.)
Here are seven questions answer by Kate Sheppard:
Kate Sheppard: My biggest gripe might well be calling it "environmental journalism." The phrase implies that it's about plants and critters, when for me it's all about humans and how we figure out how to live in a way that's responsible to each other, future generations, and yes, the natural world, too. It's about envisioning the best possible future for all of us, so that requires thinking about health, education, equity, human rights, and economic stability and opportunity as well. I don't think that "the environment" should be sectioned off as a separate issue in journalism, because then those stories often aren't seen by general audiences. I also find that my generation in general doesn't think of it as separate from all the other issues we care about.
Video: Kate talks about The Yes Men on the "Rachel Maddow Show."
Who are the biggest behind-the-scenes players pushing climate change denialism right now? Are they winning?
I don't know that there are any new major players here — it's the same interests as it's always been, which are largely fossil-fuel interests and anti-regulation "think-tanks." They're amplified, quite well I would say, by outlets like Fox News and conservative blogs. They're also benefiting from the fact that many more reputable news organizations have cut back on environmental coverage. I'm hesitant to say that they're winning, because I do believe that society has no choice but to turn the tide on this issue. What they've been very successful at doing is sustaining the status quo by confusing the public. They don't have to "win" the debate — they just have to convince people that there still is a debate at all. The entire situation is in their favor, since they only have to create the slightest shadow of a doubt.
Which journalist is consistently getting the green story right? Who is paying attention to the right things and telling the story as it truly is?
During the oil spill, the reporters at the Times-Picayune [in New Orleans] were my go-to sources. On climate news, I love Climate Central and SolveClimate. For long-reads, Elizabeth Kolbert at the New Yorker is the best. Bryan Walsh at Time and David Roberts at Grist always have insightful reporting and commentary, too.
What's the difference between green and greener?
We all have to find our own entry points to the "green" world. For some people that's buying a smaller car or making one less trip per week. For others it's biking to work. And for still others it might be hand-stitching your wardrobe from recycled burlap. What we need to do is to make greener options more accessible to people through policy changes — and, where we can, make the "green" choice the default. So that means better building codes, better transit systems, more efficient appliances, and providing other options for powering our economy. I hope that some day we're not talking about things being "green" because green will be the norm.
Does the world need saving?
The world is going to be fine. The question for me is whether we can keep Earth a safe, pleasant place for humankind and the ecosystems we rely on. And if the world is less hospitable in the future, the question is whether we will create more resilient communities and take care of each other.
Who is one person doing good in the world (besides yourself) who we should know about and why?
Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign and the co-creator of ilovemountains.org, is doing awesome work on mountaintop removal coal mining and pollution from coal plants. Coal is such a huge challenge — it supplies nearly half of our electricity, but most Americans never think about it. Unless they live in Appalachia, most Americans seem to think that their lights are powered by unicorns it seems. They don't realize that the entire lifecycle of coal is dirty and deadly, and that both communities and workers need better alternatives. The Beyond Coal campaign has been taking clear steps toward stopping new coal-fired power plants and shutting down old ones. It's not just Mary Anne though — there are hundreds of residents of the coal fields and communities situated next to coal plants who are organizing. All of them inspire me.
(Shea's note: I asked Kate to come up with and answer her own question here)
What advice do you have for young people who want to be journalists?
Read everything you can get your hands on. Read nonfiction so you know more about what you're writing about, but also read great fiction, too, because it makes you a better storyteller. Practice writing in every format you can — pitch your school or local paper, start your own blog, Tweet — because the only way to get better is to experiment. Write about subjects that you're passionate about, because that will also make your writing more engaging. And don't be deterred by the doomsday predictions about journalism. The media landscape may be shifting, but it's an exciting time to be involved and there will always be a need for people who can tell good stories that help explain the world.
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