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Before starting This American Land, Gary was CNN’s global environment correspondent and has earned the National Press Club’s top prize for environmental reporting.
ODP: This American Land is premiering its 9th season later this month (April 23rd). You started the show to tell compelling stories on critical issues affecting America’s natural landscapes, waters, and wildlife. Why?
GS: After 30 years of reporting in Africa and the developing world, I returned to the U.S. and saw a void in coverage of environmental issues here. There were so many great, untold stories that needed to be told, and I was attracted to that. I tried freelancing for a while but it was often hard to get news desks interested in what they perceived as “soft” stories. Finally, with a few former CNN colleagues, we decided to start our own show for distribution to public television, giving us the freedom to cover the stories that we think are important.
ODP: The traditional media outlets don’t cover these stories very much. Why are they so absent from the news? And do you think there is more interest than the MSM appreciates?
GS: We’re in an age where stiff competition pushes aside the stories that aren’t “click-bait” or “breaking news”’, and yet there is a huge audience for stories that engage viewers with thought-provoking messages about our natural resources and people trying to conserve them, farmers trying new ways to produce food sustainably, and progress with the generation of climate-friendly energy. Mainstream media sometimes scores hits with such stories, but not nearly as often as it should. With each of our episodes, we offer three in-depth (6 to 8 minute) segments that inform and entertain our viewers with stories they’ll see nowhere else.
ODP: In this new season, do you have a theme or area of focus that continues through the episodes? What story resonated the most with you?
GS: We’ve reported a number of stories on water issues in the Southwest, particularly along the Colorado River, the importance of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund in protecting special places across the country, and the growing influence of women in agriculture. One story, in particular, was a challenge and rewarding to translate into a story that will resonate with viewers – farmers in Iowa are learning how their practices can have a major impact on mitigating climate change. My personal favorite is our report on wild horses and burros whose numbers are exploding across the West, creating a crisis in their management as they destroy grazing habitat and water resources; it’s a good example of a story I’ve wanted to report for years.
ODP: How have things changed since you started making the show 9 years ago?
GS: We’ve built a loyal following among public television stations nationwide; our series now airs on hundreds of channels covering nearly 80 percent of the U.S. market. And we have many more stories out there that we want to cover – we really have little competition. Our style has changed from standard reporter-in-the-field narration to a different approach which is more like reality TV: our stories are built around characters who tell their stories themselves; we’ve found that this technique is much more engaging for viewers, offering compelling accounts of conservation told by people on the front lines. Today we’re finding new ways to spread our messaging beyond public television: re-editing our stories into smaller reports for TV stations nationwide, providing our stories to conservation partners to use for their own fund-raising and promotion, pushing our content through social media, and producing our own series of podcasts across all major platforms.
ODP: What gives you hope for the future as you cover the issues of conservation and the environment now?
GS: Of course, we’re in a period now where the federal government is moving backward against conservation policies that have been followed for decades. This creates new stories that we must cover, and we hope these events will actually generate public support for re-investment in conservation after this bleak era ends. The harmful consequences of current policies, I feel, will be self-evident, and when the pendulum swings back into sanity we’ll begin a return to strong conservation measures that we desperately need as our climate changes. So in spite of the present circumstance, I’m still optimistic.
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