Telling humanity the story behind climate change



Most people experience climate change through its effects on water, whether it’s drought or floods. The Walton Family Foundation believes that communities can adapt and become more resilient to the effects of climate change. But to take meaningful action, we need access to high-quality, fact-based information.

Environmental journalism tells the stories of communities working on the front lines to protect water in a changing climate. It elevates the voices of fishermen, farmers, ranchers, and others facing urgent public health, economic, and racial justice issues. This work is critical to understanding these challenges and finding solutions together. Moira McDonald, the Foundation’s Environmental Program Director, spoke with Frank Sesno, the Foundation’s Director. planet forward He discusses his work training the next generation of environmental journalists at George Washington University.


Leading together: Investing in the next generation of environmental storytellers

Watch this featured conversation about the Foundation’s support for Planet Forward and the work it’s doing to build a unique movement of young journalists telling the stories of people affected by climate change.

Moira McDonald: What is the big picture of environmental journalism today? How is Planet Forward contributing to the growth of this sector?

Frank Sesno: With the multiple crises and challenges we face, environmental journalism is more important than ever. We see people moving for climate and water. We are seeing efforts to shift to renewable energy and electrification through electric vehicles. There is so much going on and it is deeply connected to our lives. Environmental journalism connects these developments to people and helps them understand how it affects them, their neighbors, and their communities. Human stories make it real.

Planet Forward strives to inspire, connect, inform, mobilize and lead the next generation of storytellers through journalism, filmmaking, public service and more. Planet Forward is a multimedia publishing platform for students to tell stories about food, water, energy, the built environment, biodiversity, and environmental justice. This is also an inclusive conversation because, as we know, communities of color are on the front lines of climate change. We built a broad consortium of college, university, and correspondence students from across the country from our most diverse communities because this needs to be everyone’s story.

Moira: One of the Walton Family Foundation’s particular focuses is ensuring that communities experiencing climate change have a more central role in decision-making. For example, on the Colorado River, this means ensuring more tribal voices are represented. I know Planet Forward is also working on getting more tribal reporters in the field, right?

Frank: That is correct. A few years ago, two Indigenous students told us, Indigenous Student Correspondent Program. They will host a series of workshops and hear from other Indigenous experts, storytellers and journalists. They develop stories of buy-in from the community, tell those stories, and share them with a wider audience. We are doing similar work at HBCUs. [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] others. It’s a very intentional effort to bring these voices together and empower them to tell the stories of and about our communities. These are not just stories about victimhood and poverty, but also about resilience and innovation.

We think of environmental reporters as storytellers called to write the future.

moira mcdonald

Frank: Switching gears for a moment, why is the Walton Family Foundation investing in this area?

Moira: We believe that an informed public can make better environmental decisions. That’s why we’re committed to funding independent and enterprising environmental journalism. We think of environmental reporters as storytellers called to write the future. At the same time, news outlets covering these issues are becoming increasingly sparse. According to the Pew Research Center, Newsroom downsized by 25% Over the past 15 years, environmental initiatives have often come first. But we know there is strong public support for more fact-based reporting on the environment. We believe we can help fill that gap.

Frank: That’s very important. I started my local news career at a very small radio station with a full-time news person in a town of 16,000 people. It doesn’t exist anymore. We made every problem real and local. Even if a river overflows its banks or a bridge collapses, that’s local journalism’s job. You connect people to a community.

Moira: In addition to local reporting, you were also a White House reporter and won an Emmy Award. From your perspective, why is it important for philanthropy to increase support for journalism? How can viewers be confident that the stories they’re reading are less influenced by their funders? Can I get it by doing this?

Frank: I think we have a big problem with trust in journalism today. The population is highly polarized. Broadly speaking, institutions do not have the trust of the public, and the media suffers from that very lack of trust.

Therefore, total transparency is required. Transparency means that the person telling the story explains to the audience where the story comes from, who the source is, and whether the survey or poll they are sharing has an agenda. . Transparency comes from the source of funding, whether it comes from traditional advertisers or philanthropy. We just tell people clearly. This support helps us do our work and helps us get these stories out into the world. However, there is no influence from these organizations.

These organizations fund businesses that creatively express factual and verifiable information so that people are aware of it. So I think philanthropy has a very important and frankly a very simple role to play in this area. So you could say we’re funding companies, not products.

Moira: We call it a firewall, creating distance between newsrooms and funders. And we hope that the more we elevate this idea, the more we can bring peace of mind to both journalistic work and philanthropy in this area.

Frank: We base our editorial decisions on key journalistic assumptions and principles. Please pursue the truth. Attribute information with a clear source. We will update the story as it unfolds. This work requires resources. This can be time consuming and, in some cases, expensive. Gather people and means of transportation and go out to see the site. And I think if we are honest with people, they will give it back to us in the form of trust.

Moira: Do you have a favorite Planet Forward story?

Frank: The first series is Water reaches all boroughs of Washington DC – All demographics, all regions. Part of the series looked at how a nonprofit organization is changing the way the community views the Anacostia River, where local supporters are rallying to clean up the river.

Another story I love is about the brilliant young women at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School.Water is life: The foundation for solving water inequality on the Navajo Nation” She looked at the percentage of people on the Navajo Nation who don’t have running water and what community organizations are doing to get tanks and water to families. It was a very visual and beautiful video.

We also travel around the world on storytelling expeditions with our students. Last year we went to Iceland. One student told a story about fisheries around Iceland and how climate change, population, and commercial pressures have changed them.

Moira: I love how the stories you choose highlight the importance of water in different ways. Water for wildlife. Water is important for people’s homes. Water for meals. A very important episode about how water and people are deeply connected every day.

Frank: I think the story of water tells us about our current times. This country was founded and established on this concept of abundance. There was a lot of water on the ground. There was a lot in the sky. But we are now at a point where we have to think very carefully about water. It’s the canary in the coal mine about how we need to change our brains to live inspired, sustainable lives. It’s an important story to tell.

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