One of the reasons we launched Treesource.org was to help foster a new, stronger relationship between professional journalists and foresters. It’s a mission that demands a genuine commitment to face-to-face communication, a good measure of risk-taking, and the willingness to trust one another.
Recently, our board chairman had an opportunity to talk about the need for a stronger connection between foresters and the journalists who cover their life’s work. The occasion was the annual meeting of the Montana Chapter of the Society of American Foresters. Frank Edward Allen was the keynote speaker.
We present his talk here, so you too might have the opportunity to hear what he’s learned after 50 years in journalism – and after interviewing a host of Montana foresters and journalists about how their relationships could be improved.
Better Relationships Through Deeper Conversations
Prepared Remarks by Frank Edward Allen
Montana Society of American Foresters
April 14, 2017
I’m honored and pleased to be here with all of you.
This morning I want to talk about the theme of your conference, Branching Out: Building Better Relationships between Natural-Resource Professionals and Journalists. I think your theme is important and timely. I also like the implication that better relationships are wanted and needed. Wrapped up in this theme are questions like these:
What are the reasons for the current status of relationships between journalists and natural-resource professionals? What are the obstacles to better relationships? How can these obstacles be overcome?
Gordy Sanders made this comment to me recently: “As natural-resource professionals, we need to go out of our way to strengthen our relationships with reporters. They need to understand what we are saying. And we need to understand how they work. Without understanding, there is no communication.”
In my remarks, I’m going to argue that better relationships between natural-resource professionals and journalists depend on investing time in deeper conversations and on cultivating mutual trust.
To get started, let’s look at the news-media landscape: American journalism is in turmoil. The world of news outlets has exploded. Now, with Google and Apple and all manner of social media as part of the mix, American journalism has become a highly fragmented world. These days, many Americans get all their news from Facebook. At the same time, for many mainstream traditional news outlets, just about every aspect of the enterprise is shrinking: That’s true for advertising revenue, audience size, staff size and net profit.
Nielsen Media Research says local TV stations affiliated with networks CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC have been losing news-program viewership over the past several years in every key timeslot—morning, early evening and late night. Most of those people who are still viewers are tuning in to local TV news shows mainly for the weather report or the sports coverage, not for the news.
Pew Research Center reports that more than twenty thousand daily-newspaper jobs have disappeared since 1997. That’s a 40 percent cut in news staffing for the dailies—and a huge loss of institutional memory. According to Editor & Publisher, 126 daily papers have gone out of business just since 2004.
For many journalists, the pace of work has become almost frantic. A lot of reporters say privately they believe their performance is measured and judged for compensation mostly by sheer quantity of output—the number of stories they generate daily, weekly, monthly and yearly.
Consider another one of journalism’s many current challenges—the length of the news cycle. In the 1970s, morning and evening newspapers operated on a once-a-day cycle, while television stations would broadcast their news twice or three times a day. Then with the advent of CNN in 1980, the news cycle became 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week.
Now, with the impact of the likes of smart phones and Twitter, the news cycle runs at warp speed, creating ferocious competition for audience share. Rivals, including many of the best newspapers, are now forced to update their websites constantly. That incessant practice often interrupts work that is more important, reporters say.
But this fierce competition, coupled with the profit demand by the corporate owners of most news organizations, has also led to what I believe is a decline in standards for American journalism.
In general, the mainstream news media, and especially national television networks, have moved toward sensationalism, celebrity, entertainment, and opinion. At the same time, mainstream news media have moved away from the traditional news values of significance, relevance, verification, depth and quality of interpretation.
Even worse in my view, these traditional news values are now being replaced by a “Journalism of Assertion” that de-emphasizes whether a claim is valid and instead encourages hurling that claim into the arena of public discourse as quickly as possible.
With that cheerful little snapshot of the journalism landscape as background, I’ve divided the rest of my talk into three parts. First, I want to acknowledge the way many Americans, including many Montanans, perceive journalists. Second, I want to report on my recent conversations with journalists in Montana. Third, I want to share some thoughts about how existing relationships between journalists and natural-resource professionals could be improved, and how new relationships might get started.
Part One: How Are Journalists Perceived?
A lot of people have a low opinion of editors and other journalists. But this is nothing new.
In the 1890s, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde sarcastically observed that journalists “disseminate the opinions of the uninformed, thereby keeping us in touch with the ignorance of the community.”
In the 1920s, Montana artist-cowboy Charlie Russell conceded that journalists were, in his words, “part human.”
In 1972, the year of the Watergate break-in, President Nixon warned, “Remember, the press is the enemy.”
In 1973, a national opinion poll by the Gallup Organization asked people to identify occupations they admired most and least. The occupation of journalist placed near the bottom of the list, just above IRS agent.
Forty years later, in 2013, a similar Gallup survey found members of the news media placed near the bottom again. Television and newspaper reporters were tied with lawyers and barely more popular than used-car salesmen, lobbyists and members of Congress.
Now it’s 2017. President Trump, on his second day in office, declared American journalists to be, in his words, “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” In February, the President expanded his criticism by calling the mainstream news media “the Enemy of the People” and purveyors of “Fake News.”
I have a different perception: During my career of 50-plus years, I have known, worked alongside or competed against or mentored a total of about twelve hundred journalists. Nearly all of them have been honest people trying their best every day to report what they believe to be the truth.
Overall, the journalists whom I have known have produced accurate, impartial and relevant stories. They also have worked under difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions.
In my own case, someone set fire to my house because of a story I wrote.
In 2016, a total of 115 journalists worldwide were killed while doing their work. Most died after fighting insurmountable odds and daily threats. During my career, I have known two journalists who were murdered viciously while doing their jobs.
Unlike President Trump, I believe our country needs good journalists—and more of them—for many reasons, and especially now.
All journalists have a responsibility to be competent. The challenge isn’t merely to get the facts right. The challenge is also to get the right facts and to put them into the larger context, so that the public can understand.
But that’s often a tall order: Currently, most mainstream American news organizations simply don’t have enough reporters. And that means the reporters they do have are overloaded, stretched too thin.
Partly because of the way these reporters and their bosses manage time, they lack sufficient opportunities to develop deeper stories.
Studies by the Knight Foundation have shown that most American news organizations deliberately keep staffing levels low and travel budgets small. In my judgment, such practices are profit–motivated, and they are harmful.
In the West, managers of medium-sized and smaller newsrooms often assign a single reporter to cover three or more beats at once. Further, most of these same Western newsrooms invest little or nothing on issue-based training or other professional development for their journalists.
Ironically, 80 percent of the West’s managing editors and broadcast news directors acknowledge that staffing shortages and inadequate training are major obstacles to better news coverage of natural resources and the environment.
Part Two: What Are the Perspectives of Montana Journalists?
As part of my preparation for this talk, I contacted 15 current journalists—including but not limited to environment and natural-resource reporters at the leading news outlets in eight Montana communities: Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell, Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley. They all spoke with me, on the record, about their job pressures and their relationships with natural-resource professionals.
I can’t possibly quote them all this morning. But let me introduce several of these journalists and share some of their comments:
At The Associated Press news bureau in Billings, Matthew Brown is a regional and national correspondent who has been covering environment and natural-resource issues for the AP since 2007. Matt tells me a key to good relationships is “always being very clear” about his purpose:
“It takes time…to get a relationship going,” Matt says. “After one of my stories has been published, I always send a copy of it to the people I interviewed, even if I didn’t quote them in the story. Often they are anxious because they aren’t sure what I’m going to use out of a 45-minute conversation. Before the story is published, when I can, I go over with them what I am going to use and check for accuracy. They appreciate it.” Matt emphasizes that he never reads or shows the entire story to any source before it is published.
At the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Michael Wright is the environment reporter. Michael has contacts at the USFS, the USFWS, the NPS, FWP, the DEQ, the DNRC, and the EIEIO. He likes to get out of the office for a story, but it happens only rarely because he has to plan ahead and rearrange his whole day. “People working in government agencies and departments are generally afraid to talk with me,” he says. “They often have to deal with a strict spokesperson hierarchy.”
When Michael is interviewing someone for the first time, he finds the conversation goes better if he doesn’t write anything down until afterward. Michael also has this complaint: For a recent story about Yellowstone National Park bison scheduled to be slaughtered, Michael recalls, “This guy in the Montana Department of Livestock wouldn’t even tell me how many bison were in the corrals. It’s the non-responsiveness on the basic factual stuff that makes it hard to have a good relationship.”
At the Billings Gazette, Tom Lutey covers natural resources and the environment. He concentrates on the coal industry and Colstrip Power Plant, but he also covers the Bureau of Land Management, grazing, and public-land issues. He has been a journalist for 24 years.
One of Tom’s best sources is a coal marketer who provides accurate, timely information about coal exports and the current economics of the industry. This marketer’s name has never appeared in any stories Tom has written. Tom explains it this way: “His boss doesn’t know he talks to me.”
Tom’s suggestions? “If the press doesn’t come to you, then come to the press. Go meet the reporters face to face….We need to come up with a way to get beyond the superficial interactions….Let’s have discussions in between the kinds of events that trigger the news announcements. We need broader discussions about what’s going on, to help journalists understand the issues, not just the events.”
At the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, reporter Sam Wilson has been on the job about two years. He covers Glacier National Park, the Flathead and Kootenai national forests and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, plus various state departments and agencies, the local timber industry, and the Montana Legislature when it’s in session. Sam’s bosses have decided not to fill a recent staff vacancy, so Sam himself may also have to cover the City of Kalispell and the business community. He came from eastern Pennsylvania by way of North Carolina. He has a background in environmental science but no formal journalism training.
Sam says he is eager to do more stories about the national forests. He finds the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to be the “friendliest and most accessible” agency on his beat. Sam says: “I can call up the wildlife biologists and the wardens directly without having to get permission first.”
At the Montana Standard in Butte, David McCumber is the editor. He told me, “It’s our responsibility to get out there and get acquainted with natural-resource professionals and build the relationships. But those professionals should not hesitate to reach out to us if they have an idea or if they know about something going on that they think is important.”
On David’s news staff at the Standard, Susan Dunlap is the environment and natural-resources reporter. She joined the staff two years ago after a stint at a small newspaper in southwest New Mexico. In Butte, she focuses heavily on the geese-enticing toxic Berkeley Pit and the rest of a huge Superfund site.
Susan estimates that she spends 80 percent of her work time on the phone, gathering information. She spends most of the remainder of her time writing up what she has learned from the phone calls. Susan’s general observation about reporting is that it’s difficult to get a story right when you’re talking on the phone with somebody you’ve never met about a place you’ve never seen. But in her view, she has precious little time to go out to meet people in person and see the places she writes about.
At the Great Falls Tribune, the natural-resources reporter is Karl Puckett. He has been a journalist for 29 years, and he has worked as the Tribune’s natural-resources reporter for a total of 14 years. Speaking about his sources, Karl says there is no substitute for meeting them face-to-face. Although he has to rely heavily on the telephone, especially on deadline, he takes “just about every opportunity that’s offered” to get outdoors. So he deliberately schedules himself out of the office. He explains it this way: “You can’t help but get to know people when you spend several hours with them in the field.“
Karl continues: “I also go to community meetings even when I think I won’t write a story about the meeting. I need to make myself visible so people feel they can approach me. I like to bump into folks at meetings and talk with them….
“They shouldn’t be bashful. Some people, for example scientists, have to be willing to take a little bit of risk. It can pay dividends.”
For instance: In 2014, Karl met silviculturalist Tanya Murphy, who was working on a complex genetic process to help white-bark pine trees resist blister rust. She was worried about telling any journalist about her work. But Tanya and Karl agreed to talk face to face. They talked for about two hours. Once Karl had the story written, he went over parts of it with her to check for accuracy. The 1,260-word feature article ran in the Tribune without a single error.
In his story, Karl explained that some white-bark pine trees have genetic traits that make them more resistant to disease. Through a restoration program, genetic material from those disease-resistant trees is being collected and grafted into regular white-bark pines. Karl was careful to point out in his story that genetic engineering, which refers to inserting foreign DNA into an organism, is not happening in the white-bark pine restoration program.
Not long after the story ran, Tanya came up to Karl at a town meeting and said, at least partly in jest, “That story you did, it made my career.”
Now Tanya wants to work with Karl again. Karl says, “I don’t think the story literally made her career…. But she does need us to help her explain the complexities of her work.”
Part Three: Better Relationships Through Deeper Conversations
Karl Puckett’s journalism experience with Tanya Murphy shows what’s possible when the conversation lasts two hours instead of 10 minutes.
I think a major trouble with too many relationships between journalists and natural-resource professionals is this: The relationships rely heavily on hurried and shallow conversations. Also, neither side understands the other side’s business very well. And neither invests the time often enough to learn about the other’s business.
Consider for a moment the perspectives of natural-resource professionals who are being interviewed by journalists. Several resource mangers told me they are afraid of being painted in a negative way or being perceived as the bad guy in the story. Forest ecologist Dave Atkins in Missoula says there is a general fear among many natural-resource professionals of being interviewed by the news media. “For them, it’s intimidating,” Dave says. “They have a fear of saying the wrong thing or putting their organization in a bad light. The risk of miscommunication or misunderstanding is high. And there ‘s not much training for talking with the news media.” A wildlife biologist in Montana told me he is “intensely focused on accuracy.” If the reporter makes an error in the story and the inaccurate statement is attributed to the wildlife biologist, it could harm his reputation and undermine his work. “Scientists now also have a credibility gap,“ he says, “as evidenced by the politicians and members of the public who don’t believe the best science about climate change or the best information about what’s happening in our forests. Statements such as ‘Science is just another opinion’ affect us all.”
Tim Love, a retired Forest Service district ranger, cites the risk of oversimplification by journalists in stories about such subjects as old-growth management, clear cutting and fuels-reduction treatments.
Research hydrologist Gordon Grant, who works for the Forest Service in Corvallis, Oregon, notes that relationships with journalists “can be different for people who are managing resources versus people who are studying resources. Journalists need to understand the roles of managers and scientists.
“As a scientist, I used to be able to say, ‘Read it back to me; let’s make sure we got it right.’ I even played the role of fact checker on stories about other scientists and their work. That dried up about 15 years ago. I feel we have lost something: Now I feel as if I am speaking into a microphone, and whatever I say is being disseminated instantly, and I have to be very careful when doing that. Now I spend quite a bit of time making sure that I am being understood.”
Too often the journalists come to these encounters expecting—or sometimes even demanding—what amounts to sound bites. They want short, succinct statements in response to rather broad questions that are sometimes poorly framed.
Henry Fassnacht insists, “You can’t explain resource management in sound bites.” Henry is a co-owner of Blackfoot Forestry Incorporated. He describes himself as having 35 years of experience “observing in the forest.” Here is Henry’s advice about how to work with journalists: “Make the interview on your terms. Don’t settle for ten minutes. Take a day. Go out in the field. Look at a project that’s under way now—and then show a project you did three years ago… It’s important to go into the interview confident and feeling prepared… There is no need to be defensive… We have good science to support us.”
But what if you, the natural-resource professional, find a microphone stuck in your face and you feel as if you’re under duress? What should you do?
I suggest you signal “time out!” and hit the reset button. At least try to slow the pace of the interview. Consider starting over with a proper beginning that includes detailed self-introductions.
Don’t be afraid to ask your interviewer some questions, such as these: Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? Do you like to camp or hike or fish or hunt? Would you remind me, please, What’s the purpose of this interview? Shouldn’t we agree to some ground rules at the outset? And, if you really want to put your interviewer at ease: May I offer you a beverage?
After all, an interview is just a conversation, right? Here’s my definition, which you may find useful: A journalistic interview is a conversation in which two people exchange information to produce something valuable that neither could produce alone.
As I see it, a journalistic interview shouldn’t allow one person to do all the taking of information and the other person to do all the giving. It should be an exchange, not an interrogation. The word interview comes from an ancient French term, entrevoir, or literally, “to see between.” The entrevoir is the view shared between two people—the view or perspective that neither could produce alone.
For a journalist, the interview is probably the single most important tool. It’s indispensable. In most cases, journalists simply could not do their jobs at all, let alone do them well, without interviewing people. So journalists ought to have interviewing skills.
“When you meet people for the very first time,” says Perry Backus, “you have to put them at ease and get them to open up to you. To find some connection, I ask what their kids are doing. That usually works. I think I have strong relationships with natural resource professionals. I’ve never burned a source. “
At the Ravalli Republic in Hamilton, Perry covers the natural resources beat and just about everything else. The newspaper publishes Monday through Friday. Perry and one other reporter are responsible for producing three to four local news-feature stories a day. They typically take the photographs to accompany each piece. Perry also edits the entire paper.
Before moving to the Bitterroot Valley about ten years ago, he worked for the Montana Standard for 20 years and before that for the Dillon Tribune. Right out of college, Perry spent a year as a ranch hand in the Big Hole. He worked long hours, seven days a week, for about $110 a week.
That Big Hole experience has helped him show more empathy on the natural resources beat. He gets out of the office and into the field almost every day. Perry concludes, “When you see things with your own eyes, you finally get to understand what the truth is.”
I think Perry Backus is a natural interviewer. And I would argue that natural-resource professionals ought to have interviewing skills, too. Without interviewing ability, a natural-resource professional is at a distinct disadvantage in trying to communicate with the public—especially through the news media.
“To be at your best, you need to practice,” says fish biologist Mike Dombeck, who served as acting director of the Bureau of Land Management and later as chief of the Forest Service. Mike says many natural resource managers “don’t appreciate the value of what journalists do in terms of educating the public.”
“For the managers,” he says, “it’s a matter of setting priorities, and building relationships should be high on the list…Managers have to decide which journalists they want to work with. It’s a courtship. What you want is a continual, solid, trusting relationship, and that takes time and effort to develop. Let’s go fishing. Let’s have a cup of coffee.”
While attending annual conferences of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, Mike had seen many high-ranking public officials simply give their speeches, take a few questions and then leave. In contrast, Mike liked to hang around the conference for a day or two and cultivate relationships. He found the informal exchanges more valuable, not a waste of time.
Orville Daniels, a former supervisor of the Lolo National Forrest, told me this: “Understanding the world of the journalist is one of the most important things that natural-resource professionals have to learn.
“They need to think it’s a priority to get to know the major journalists in their territory before there is a crisis.”
Because of a crisis in the Pacific Northwest called the Timber Wars, the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources (IJNR) started in 1995.
IJNR started because I had become disturbed by the shallowness and the polarizing effects of news coverage about forestry, natural resources in general, and the environment. I thought this problem was local, regional and national in scope.
I also had come to believe that the natural-resource and environment beat was the most isolating and lonely assignment in most American newsrooms.
In too many places, immediate supervisors and bosses higher up the line just didn’t understand the beat because it’s not all black and white. Instead of two sides to the story, there may be five or six. The beat has many shades of gray. It’s peppered with ambiguities and complexities and nuances.
It has much-longer time horizons, and the resulting stories often lack clear, tidy endings. Why? I think it’s because natural-resource stories often aren’t “over” yet. They’re still unfolding. Unlike stories about crimes, trials, train wrecks or the economy, the natural-resource news stories usually don’t break. They ooze.
So I’m almost to the end of my talk. Together we have examined the current, turbulent landscape of American news media. We’ve looked at public attitudes about journalists, and we’ve listened to the concerns of several Montana journalists. Finally, we’ve explored some suggestions for improving relationships and starting new ones.
Today I have argued that better relationships between journalists and natural-resource professionals depend on investing time in deeper conversations and on cultivating mutual trust. To sum it all up, I think the overarching goal that natural-resource professionals share with journalists is to increase public understanding and awareness.
The understanding and the awareness must come from respectful interviews that create an atmosphere in which wisdom can reveal itself.
To that end, I think it’s up to you as the natural-resource professionals to “Branch Out.” It’s up to you to help the journalists develop stories that shed less heat and more light.
Frank Allen is chairman of the board for Treesource.org, founder of the Institute for Journalism in Natural Resources, former dean of the University of Montana School of Journalism and a longtime journalist.