Interview of the Week: Justin Worland


Image: JP Yim

Justin Worland is a Washington-DC-based journalist covering energy and the environment for TIME. He is also the 2019 winner of the SEAL Environmental Journalism Award.

ODP: Were you always interested in environmental journalism? How did you choose this beat – especially since ten years ago – it probably wasn’t as prevalent?

 

JW: I definitely stumbled on the beat. I was covering other things, health, mainly, and I was offered this opportunity. I thought, why not try it for a bit? At some point I came to a realization: energy and climate touch basically everything, and I’ve been sold on the beat ever since. It seems that finally the rest of the world is coming to that realization now, too.

ODP: What makes your writing so hard-hitting is how you challenge the basic PR premises of industries like oil and gas and finance. You show that business as usual is infeasible in many instances, despite contrary claims. When beginning to write a story, how do you decide on the most important aspects to convey to your readers?

 

JW: I think some of my best stories function on two levels: helping readers unfamiliar with the subject matter better understand climate change — and everything else that goes along with it — while also offering something new or surprising for those already immersed in the field. To that end, I’m always thinking about how to add nuance to existing narratives and, while it’s not necessarily where I start, debunking PR premises, or at the very least complicating them, often happens along the way.

ODP: Journalists of color have reported harassment that their white colleagues do not specifically experience, especially when on assignment reporting on political stories. As someone who is in the field a lot, is this something you’ve experienced? How have you handled the environment we are in right now where hostility towards the free press is at an all-time high?

 

JW: I’ve definitely received a lot of internet hate, often times racially tinged. In the field, I’ve received no shortage of dirty looks, and I once did a quick 180 back to my rental car when I arrived at an uncomfortable Main Street dotted with confederate battle flags. But, interestingly, the only time I’ve been physically threatened while reporting was right here at home in Washington D.C. For so many reasons, it’s a challenging time to do this job, but generally I just try to remind myself of the value of the work I’m doing — and also to remember to take a proper break occasionally.

ODP: You were one of the TIME journalists who wrote the 2019 Person of the Year story on Greta Thunberg. Her journey has been so public but was there anything surprising you learned about her from writing the story?

 

JW: I was struck by her independence. Yes, she had some volunteers and a few others helping her, but everything she did seemed self-directed. When I arrived a bit early to our interview, I spotted her standing alone in the lobby hanging out. My colleagues and I interviewed her on the boat before she departed, where she decided how much time she wants to give us (a welcome relief when you’re accustomed to hovering PR people). She later showed up at the photoshoot by herself. The experience really affirmed the sense that this was her project, not anyone else’s. 

ODP: Some news outlets have decided to focus on positive or constructive news to ensure that readers don’t burn out and tune out. Do you agree with this approach? Do you think it’s your job to highlight hope where it exists?

 

JW: A lot of stories try to convey either hope or despair, looking at how bad things could get or how we might “save the world.” I think my best stories do a little bit of both. The truth is that we’re in really deep trouble, but there’s still a lot we can do. I sometimes think along the lines of, if my reader only reads this one climate story this year, will they come away with a sense of both the stakes and the possibilities to tackle the crisis head on?

ODP: We’ve seen a lot more media coverage of the climate crisis in recent years, however, one area that oftentimes gets under-reported when it comes to the effects of climate change is the social-justice component. What is the media-at-large missing when it comes to this conversation?

 

JW: I agree completely that we need more coverage of the intersection of climate and social justice. I think for many journalists — particularly those without a climate background — those connections aren’t really understood, so that presents a communications challenge. There’s also a difficult balance to strike: how do you tell compelling stories centered around individuals without missing the scale of the challenge? Often times, I think we journalists can fall into the trap of looking for “the next Flint,” for example, but in reality there countless Flints happening around us, and we need to find ways to show readers that.

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