Astill on Covering Forests

Grantham Prize winner discusses his series for The Economist

It’s often hard for reporters to see the forest for the trees, said James Astill, the newly anointed energy and environment editor for The Economist.

Astill won this year’s $75,000 Grantham Prize for an eight-part special report on global woodlands in the September 25, 2010 issue titled, “The World’s Lungs.” At the award ceremony at Columbia University in late September he explained the benefit of approaching the topic with fresh eyes:

For my part, effectively having no background in science reporting, it was obvious to see forests as only partially a science story. It was also an economics story about properly valuing natural capital. It was an intensely political story about conflicts between local forest dwellers and their governments, about sparring between eco-concerned rich countries who have already chopped down their forests and poor ones who now, very naturally, want to chop down theirs.

Astill pitched the story while covering Asia from his desk in Delhi, India. His editors gave him a few months to complete the assignment, six weeks of which he would have to devote to the project:

I could go more or less wherever I wanted to go, and I could spend any reasonable amount of money in so doing. And there, I think, is another obvious lesson, though it’s possibly not a very useful one. If you do want to write seriously about he world, it helps enormously to work for a profitable newspaper. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many of those left.

Astill travelled to Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and Uganda, but ample support and financing did not, by themselves, render a totally clear picture of the state of forests worldwide, he said:

In the process of this, I was, of course, invited to ride quite a few hobby horses. The agro-foresters were especially obsessive about their métier. The biologists sometimes couldn’t see beyond biodiversity. But by and large with my wishy-washy politics background, I was profoundly impressed by how clever, learned, and extraordinarily helpful these forest people were. I found them—and I’m not just saying this—strikingly devoted to their subject, exceptionally keen to get wider attention to it, and thankfully tolerant of all my stupid questions. This was true in all of the forest countries that I traveled to.

The experience made Astill reflect on challenges inherent in capturing readers’ attention and the state of journalism:

I found these things intensely dramatic, and I wondered, to my shame and embarrassment, why so many of them were new to me. I had, after all, been reading the world’s best newspapers pretty assiduously for many years. So how was it that I knew so little, for example, about forests’ role in the carbon cycle?

The answer, of course, is that I should’ve known much more than I did. There’s an awful lot of excellent scientific and environmental reporting out there. Yet it is also true, I suppose, that not enough of it gets widely read. It may be too wonkish. It may be too forbiddingly academic. It may sometimes just be too boring to be digestible to the general reader. And this seemed to me to be a pretty obvious problem, and if environmental subjects are to grab more public attention, it should be addressed.

Too little environmental or science journalism, I would suggest, expresses in a vivid, also serious, way the wonder of the Earth’s systems—the awe-inspiring power of nature. Too often, environmental and scientific dispatches on the wildest oceans and forests say almost nothing about what they look like, what they sound like.

Perhaps he has a point. Last week, I critiqued and complimented a 4,500-word, front-page New York Times article that read almost like an abridged version of Astill’s series, taking a broad view of the state of forests worldwide. The piece contains twenty-one instances of the phrase, “scientists say…” or some variation thereof. After describing trees in the mountains of western Montana as having “earthy red glow” in the lede, the reporter, Justin Gillis, stuck to tight, adorned newspaper writing.

That’s to be expected, but not all of the Times’s coverage of woodlands is so businesslike. On the its Green blog, Gillis began one post with an engaging story about how a visit with Ralph Keeling—the son of Charles David Keeling, who discovered the trend of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the 1950s—prompted him to pursue the story that wound up on the front page. In another, he answered readers’ questions about personal actions that can be taken to promote forest conservation, the impact of population growth on forests, and tree replanting schemes.

It’s worth checking out the all the posts at the Green blog tagged “forests.” There are plenty of the non-technical, non-wonkish journey-through-the-woods type pieces from contributing writers. The hoard of stories there is in addition to the Times’s main Forests and Forestry topic page and its Wildfire 2011 (Arizona and Texas Wildfires) topic page. For good writing, it’s also worth checking out the coverage at Yale Environment 360 and Audubon Magazine. And if you’re into the technical stuff, has a forests page that churns out information about the latest research in the field.

It turns out, by the way, that 2011 is the United Nations’ International Year of Forests. That won’t be the most useful lead for most reporters, but at least it comes as some reminder of what an important, worldwide story this is.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.