By Dan Dennison, Communication Director, Hawai’i Dept. of Land and Natural Resources
Four media representatives, three from the broadcast side and one from print, spent an hour with ACI Conference attendees addressing a series of questions about how they cover conservation issues and what communicators, and their agencies can do better to facilitate and enhance coverage.
Let’s take each question and provide a few comments from Amy Alonzo, a reporter with The Nevada Independent; Ryan Canady, an anchor/reporter with KTVN-TV; Rebecca Kitchen, an anchor/reporter with KOLO-TV; and Kenzie Margiott, content manager at KRVN-TV, all Reno-based television stations.
- What types of stories related to conservation are you most interested in covering?
- Ryan – Stories that are high interest to viewers when seeing is believing. Stories about keeping people safe.
- Rebecca – Stories that are unusual and unique. Keeping wildlife wild stories. Anything to do with water and wildfire. For television high visual impact stories.
- Amy – Print’s perspective is a little different. We tend to do deeper dives into a small segment of a larger story. Microcosms of a bigger picture issue. Unlike the daily deadlines of television, our turnaround is two to three weeks.
- What advice can you give for effective story pitches and what story elements are most likely to be broadcast or printed?
- Kenzie – Knowing who you are working with is important. Build trust, which helps when you are seeking behind the scenes information.
- Rebecca – Keep story pitches short and to-the-point. Newsrooms receive hundreds of e-mails, texts, and phone calls daily from organizations pitching stories. Providing real, relatable people for interviews and background helps.
- Amy – We want to hear from scientists and subject matter experts in their own words, not in e-mailed or canned statements. We can’t report accurately if we can’t have experts interpret complicated or scientific information. Avoid answers full of agency or government jargon.
- How can conservation communicators best provide reporters with information and resources they need to report on conservation issues accurately and comprehensively?
- Ryan – For broadcast we need on-camera interviews, and we prefer capturing things in the moment, not after the fact.
- Kenzie – Make people available to talk. Once reporters are assigned a story and we don’t hear back from an agency, it’s not a good sign and the story you want to tell will likely fall to the side.
- What are some of the common misconceptions or challenges you’ve encountered when reporting on conservation and how can we address this?
- Rebecca – When agencies don’t want to talk about something doesn’t mean it’s going away…it won’t. We’re not here to pass judgment (she provides an example of a wild horse roundup gone wrong and how an agency response did not match up with the facts or public perception). Be receptive to listening to what the media is saying.
- Ryan – When people are passionate about a subject, like wild horse roundups, emotions tend to run high which can result in misstatements and misinformation. There are misconceptions creating mistrust from opposing sides. Fair and balanced coverage can create positive change.
- What role do visuals and multi-media content plan in coverage. What specific types of visual assets or data is useful or compelling?
- Kenzie – Anything is better than nothing. One picture is helpful.
- Rebecca – Visuals are everything, though it’s not always easy to capture or provide video. For television, translating data into visuals that are easily understood and readable is challenging.
- Amy – For my publication, the opposite is true. We want data and like our broadcast counterparts, we want to be in the field capturing our own material as much as possible. When pitching a story know the particular needs of the medium (television, print, radio).
After some spirited discussion between the audience and the panel regarding information gone wrong and who was responsible (communicators or media), responses to the final set of questions were shortened for time considerations.
- We often rely on scientific research and data to support our messaging. How can we effectively communicate complex information to make it more accessible and engaging for your audiences?
- Ryan – When I first started as a reporter I thought I had to use the ‘jargon.’ You learn to speak in plain English. While it’s hard to dumb-down what data experts or scientists say use the loved-one or neighbor litmus test and ask, “will they understand this?” Speak in the common-persons language.
- How do you see the role of social media and online platforms in shaping conservation narratives and how can we use these platforms to effectively reach broader audiences?
- Amy – Understand particular platform metrics and engagement to figure out what works and what doesn’t and tailor your posts accordingly.
- Kenzie – Good visual content is the key driver of online audience engagement. Strong video and good photographs will make a story spread.
- What are examples of successful conservation stories or campaigns that you covered in the past and what made them impactful. How can we replicate this in our communications efforts?
- Rebecca – Human impact stories, those with an emotional element spread well. Humanize your pitches with real people as much as possible to achieve this.
- How do we build and maintain strong working relationships with journalists?
- Ryan – We want to share the good stuff, so talk to us, let us know.
- Kenzie – Have mutual respect and understanding even when we disagree. Understand we all have jobs to do, even though we may approach them from different perspectives.
- Amy – When we make a mistake, we’re happy to fix it. We’re human, so be kind. Where did the wrong information come from and how was it presented to us?
Our thanks to the panelists for taking time away from their busy newsrooms to share with us and to engage in respectful and engaging dialog.
Much of what was discussed came into sharp focus for me, shortly after the end of the conference. I returned to Hawai‘i early, from a post-conference vacation in Colorado, after seeing the images of Lahaina burning beginning on August 8. By the afternoon of August 10, I was in Lahaina, and to date have spent a total of 25 days in the “impact zone,” gathering photos, information, and video for media distribution.
That first afternoon I was struck how open the fire area was. People wandering the streets, kids on bikes, and virtually no access control. By the beginning of the second week county authorities shut down access completely except for people involved in emergency response and recovery. Some of the national media representatives complained rather loudly, but due to the serious safety and health threats involved, their voices eventually fell quiet.
This has become an event, where media access to a scene was cut-off, and it fell to me and my agency to provide daily visual content, storytelling, and updates. Numerous reporters and news organizations have actually thanked us for being their “surrogates” and DLNR videos and photos have been seen worldwide.
While we routinely provide the media visual content, it is rare that the news media has been forced to rely entirely on a government conservation agency for visuals during an event like this tragedy. My role is to provide support for Maui County, other State of Hawai‘i executive branch departments and federal partners (FEMA, EPA, FBI, U.S. Coast Guard), so not everything has been directly related to my department.
54 videos and hundreds of photographs have been released to date. The fire has shown more social media engagement than any other single event in my decade with DLNR. The power of visuals has been reinforced over and over, with one raw video of the famous Lahaina Banyan tree being watered, achieving 638,919 Facebook post impressions. Several others were in the hundreds of thousands and most in the tens of thousands.
You can see the video collection here: https://vimeo.com/showcase/10623175
The long-term impact, I hope, will be a better appreciation of my department’s efforts to provide content for the media when they can’t gather it themselves. Perhaps, a better understanding that we are not inherently the enemy just because we are the government. And a better appreciation for the roles we communicators play. Many of us are former journalists, with the heart’s of journalists, and still practicing as journalists, though our titles may not say as much.
In the meantime, as Maui and Lahaina recover, thousands of people are still in need of help. You can contribute to the Maui Strong Fund through the Hawai‘i Community Foundation at https://www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org/strengthening/maui-strong-fund