A University of Oregon journalism professor sees risk and reward in small town news
interview by Jonathan Shipley
The world is on fire. But, so, too, are the students at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications as they covered the disastrous effects of climate change with Science Story. The Science Story project brought together students to write stories about the impacts of climate change with particular regard to Oregon’s Holiday Farm Fire in 2020, which burned more than 173,000 acres in the McKenzie River Valley. The class was led, with the help of award-winning journalist Dennis Dimick, by University of Oregon’s professor of practice Torsten Kjellstrand, an accomplished news photographer for more than three decades.
What appeals to you in telling stories of the underrepresented and misrepresented in rural communities?
I grew up in Lund, Sweden, where I spent a lot of time in my family village, a farm community of about one hundred people. Those rural roots stick with me. As I grew into the journalism industry of the United States, I found some parts of it curious: how seldom the media seriously took the issues of rural America; the great stories that were going untold in rural America; and how the happenings in rural America were more often close to the core of the biggest and most pressing issues of the United States, historically, economically and culturally, and yet were being ignored.
How did “Life in a Flammable Forest” come about?
The Science Story class that published Life in a Flammable Forest evolved from a series of project-based classes I taught beginning the first year I was at UO. I teach what I know, and what I know is how to tell stories that rise from communities I get to know. Responsible and effective journalism always involves ethics of storytelling, working within the law, the context of a story in our society, modes of communicating, and a whole grab bag of the kinds of theoretical things that real professors of communications write about and teach, but for me that is just background for creating stories that matter. So, that’s how I teach. Stories come first.
How did the Holiday Farm Fire become the focus?
Me and my friend Dennis Dimick fired up the Science Story class just in time to both have it go completely remote, due to COVID, and to have the Holiday Farm Fire sweep through our valley. We pivoted to a fully online teaching mode because we had to. Then we did what good journalists always do: We reacted to the events and issues in our community by telling stories that help explain and clarify. The students rose to the occasion, finding innovative ways of telling stories during a time when it was hard to meet people.
All of the work centers on climate change. Students know that it is the biggest issue of our time.
With climate change being such a monumental issue, how does science journalism help combat it?
Science journalism is simply a way to use storytelling to translate the ideas of science to an audience that isn’t trained to read scientific literature—and to make sure that the stories put the ideas in science in the context of our lives. So, science journalism can’t combat climate change. Only effective (and brave) policies that lead to specific and broad behaviors can do that. What we can do as storytellers is sensitize people to the need for solutions, so that they can implement, support and cry out for solutions.
How can journalism make issues personal enough for people to change their habits or their thinking? Then again, Is it a journalist’s job to change minds, or simply to report the facts?
I would say that any journalist who only lays out facts isn’t a journalist at all. We’re not makers of objective lists, no matter what the click-bait journalism wannabes are doing online. “Ten Great Ways to Save the Planet!” is just another form of propaganda that tells an audience that complicated ills can be fixed with a few quickly applied remedies requiring a few mild changes in how we think and act.
We try to teach students to be rigorous and sharp in their thinking as they research, pitch, report, and shape their stories. That’s not an objective exercise. Rather, it is a process of continuous and fragile judgements—and judgements are nothing if not subjective. What’s true? What’s meaningful? Who is important? Whose stories matter enough to tell? When should we tell stories? Who are we trying to reach? What information do we include or exclude from a story?
How do you think science journalism will evolve as forest fires rage even more and the political climate, undoubtedly, heats up?
I have no idea where science journalism is going, but I know that if our students are any measure, it will be smart, surprising and well-crafted. It will also be increasingly necessary. Fires, floods and other calamities will need to be covered with sensitivity. More importantly, they’ll need to be put in broader context, so that we can muster the energy to do the hard work of finding solutions.