Inside Story: Climate Change at Core of Beat Reporters’ Award-Winning Coverage
Climate change and its impacts was a central focus for two top journalists, one at an established large-market newspaper and the other at a digital news media platform, who turned their beat reporting into outstanding examples of award-winning environment coverage. Hal Bernton, with Daniel Beekman of The Seattle Times, and Mark Kaufman of Mashable both took awards at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2020 Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment.
Of Bernton’s first-place entries in the large newsroom or circulation beat reporting category, several of which focused on climate and ecosystem threats to northwest Alaska, SEJ’s judges commented that his “impressive package of deeply researched stories [is] environmental beat reporting at its finest.” Of Kaufman’s third-place small newsroom or circulation beat reporting work, judges said his “authoritative, lively, entry exemplifies beat reporting at its best.”
SEJournal Online recently caught up separately with Bernton and Kaufman. Here is the conversation, edited for space and continuity.
SEJournal: How did you get your winning story ideas?
Hal Bernton: Three of my stories were datelined from Alaska, where I previously reported for 11 years and helped cover fisheries. I knew that the summer of 2019 was one of startling changes in the Bering Sea, and that's what drew me back to the northwest part of the state to help chronicle some of the changes in a year when the winter ice that helps drive the ecosystem had a dramatically smaller footprint and summer water temperatures soared.
Mark Kaufman: The rise in atmospheric CO2 levels is exceptional when compared to 80 years ago, 8,000 years ago or 800,000 years ago. So I thought it prudent to inform the public about this in creative ways — and it became a beat.
SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the pieces and how did you solve that challenge?
Bernton: My newspaper, The Seattle Times, has faced serious financial restrictions in recent years, so money for northwest Alaska reporting was not in the budget. Teaming up with the Pulitzer Center made a big difference and enabled that reporting to move forward.
Kaufman: The biggest challenge was demonstrating, via stories most people read on their cell phones, how extreme CO2 levels are today, and the continued upward trajectory. Fortunately, my sources — candidly — did the work for me. For example: “The rate of CO2 increase since the first Earth Day is unprecedented in the geologic record" or "Scary times ahead."
‘The decisions we make today will not
have an impact for just the next few
generations. Rather, we’re setting the
environmental stage for well over 1,000 years.’
— Mark Kaufman
SEJournal: What most surprised you about your reporting?
Bernton: I had reported from northwest Alaska 20 years earlier, and the magnitude of the changes spurred by climate change in the northern Bering Sea and those who rely on its bounty were quite a revelation.
Kaufman: The decisions we make today about generating energy will not have an impact for just the next few generations. Rather, we’re setting the environmental stage for well over 1,000 years.
SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the story and why?
Bernton: In beat reporting, there are always a lot of story ideas tugging you in different directions. For that year, I made an extra effort to pick and choose carefully to find the time to tell the stories that seem important to me and, whenever possible, would break new ground.
Kaufman: It’s not easy to get someone to care about an abstract number like 414 ppm (parts per million). I wanted to show why someone alive today should pay attention.
SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the story/series and why?
Bernton: I would work harder to get a video component to complement the reporting and photography. I would have spent more time in the field in northwest Alaska. I also had hoped to do some followups that were put off by COVID-19 and some of the travel restrictions that I faced due to the pandemic.
Kaufman: I’d remember to ask more sources: “What stories aren’t being told, or aren’t being told well, about the unprecedented rise in CO2 levels?”
‘Some reporting is time sensitive and
weather dependent, so try the best you can
to make sure that, when all the stars align,
you are there to take advantage of the moment.’
— Hal Bernton
SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your story or project?
Bernton: If a story involves travel, do plenty of upfront research to figure out what are the best reporting opportunities and where you need to go to make them happen. Be about changing plans when circumstances dictate. Some reporting is time sensitive and weather dependent, so try the best you can to make sure that, when all the stars align, you are there to take advantage of the moment. I was able to get out in a small skiff in the northern Bering Sea with fishermen from the St. Lawrence Island village of Savoonga and that was crucial to some of my storytelling. But it took some advance planning, and I had to make sure that people in the village knew who I was and what I was up to before I showed up. It also took some luck. There were a few days when the wind died down to enable this small boat fishing, and I was there when the weather break came.
Kaufman: Beat reporting is critical.
SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?
Bernton: Whether you are freelance or working for a news outlet, you should try to talk things through with editors and have them on board as much as possible as you launch into your stories. Prior to writing them, it helps a lot if you give the editors a sense of story structure. If possible, take the time to circle back with scientists to double-check how you are summarizing their research. As a bonus, sometimes you learn stuff that never quite came through in earlier interviews and is worth sticking in the story.
Kaufman: Look beyond the news story. The AP and New York Times already beat you to it anyway.
SEJournal: Is there anything else you would like to share about this story or environmental journalism?
Bernton: Three of the stories in my submission were supported by a Pulitzer Center Connected Coastlines grant, which enabled me to travel to northwest Alaska.
Kaufman: You can often find refreshing ways (with engaging angles) to tell a story that’s already been told.
Hal Bernton has been a staff reporter for The Seattle Times since 2000 and previously worked in Alaska for more than a decade. He has reported extensively on energy, forestry, agricultural and climate issues, as well as the fisheries of the Bering Sea region. He was part of a reporting team at the Anchorage Daily News that received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for reporting on Alaska's Native peoples, and a team at The Seattle Times that received the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News for reporting on a landslide that killed 43 people.
Mark Kaufman is a former park ranger who reports on fire, the oceans, the climate and, whenever possible, bears.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 38. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.