Interview of the week: Kendra Pierre-Louis, climate reporter for the New York Times

Kendra Pierre-Louis is a reporter on the New York Times climate team. Before joining The Times in December 2017, she was a staff reporter with Popular Science, where she covered science and the environment. And if you don’t follow her on Twitter for her climate reporting and snack tips, what are you waiting for?

ODP: We live in a time where not only is the media is attacked as being “fake news” but attempts to dismiss climate science are also prevalent, as a journalist focusing on climate how do you handle this constant aggression?

 KPL: I spend a lot of time online, which means that at least once a day I read something that implies that as a black woman I am genetically, intellectually or otherwise inferior. In comparison to having my humanity routinely litigated, the attacks on journalism and climate science aren’t even background noise that I have to filter out. It’s like white noise; it just helps me focus more. Intellectually, of course I recognize that these types of attacks are bad for the country; there’s a reason freedom of the press is enshrined into the Constitution. But I don’t take it personally. Climate journalism is what I do, it is not who I am.

ODP: Climate change is becoming an increasingly important and relevant part of our national discourse. While most newspapers have a dedicated climate beat, cable news still lags in covering the effects of a warming planet. Since most Americans get their news from tv, is there room for increased collaboration between television reporters/anchors and print media journalists to better inform tv audiences about climate change?

KPL: I know that some news anchors are on record saying that they don’t report much on climate change because when they do their ratings tank – viewers change the channel. It’s easy to be critical and say they’re just catering to ratings, but if viewers are changing the channel they’re also not getting the message, so I see the tension.

Climate change is a hard topic to report – people avoid it because it makes them feel bad. I understand the impulse to avoid news reports that say “you’re killing the planet and ruining it for future generations.” Television has an extra hurdle, which, unlike print, they absolutely have to show instead of tell. But climate change is invisible, mostly we can see the effects, and we’re only just beginning to see them in a significant way.  I’m a text journalist, and so it’s hard for me to criticize out a medium that I don’t wholly understand. That said, I think Wyatt Cenac on his show Problem Areas has done a good job of bringing up climate change in a way that is funny but poignant.

ODP: Since so many local newspapers are either going out of business or having their climate beat cut, what role is there for a large publication like the New York Times to ensure that coverage of climate and the environment doesn’t become skewed toward national issues or is this just inevitable?

KPL: In my first year with the Times I covered small communities in Northern California, and a small community in North Carolina. My coworkers have gone to India, to Alaska, and done amazing graphics projects that let people see how much climate change has warmed their hometown. In other words, we’ve told local stories. I don’t think national reporting can ever supplant local reporting  – there’s importance in being in and of a community. But because climate change is invisible, it’s only the impacts that we can easily see, that means telling local stories; I don’t see that ever going away. And while local newspapers are struggling, there are still some making it work: the Texas Tribune is doing amazing work, The Charleston Post and Courier in South Carolina reports on climate change. At the same time, because climate change is a global problem, what happens on the national and international level does matter. It’s important to report both.

ODP: Newsrooms are still overwhelmingly white (77% according to Pew) and we know that this leads to important facts and angles being missed. When it comes to climate reporting specifically, how can increased racial diversity in newsrooms enhance the coverage and breadth of stories?

KPL: Anecdotally, science and environmental journalism are even less diverse than journalism as a whole. I do think that means entire lines of reporting get ignored, connections don’t get made, or stories are reported less sensitively.

I did a story last year, that looked at the impact of segregation on air pollution – basically the more segregated a city, the higher its overall levels of air pollution. When I first started looking into the issue, Rachel Morello-Frosch a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, mentioned that when she talked to reporters they often reported on the fact that communities of color have higher pollution levels compared to white communities, but that the segregation aspect of her research is often left out. But it was the segregation that I found fascinating – in the absence of integration, everyone suffers more. I think it’s that kind of nuance that gets left out.

ODP: Out of all the beats out there, why did you choose climate and environment?

KPL: I’ve been interested in environment and ecology since college ­– my senior year I took a class on Environment and Society, and it all seemed to click. It took me a while, like more than a decade to realize that this wasn’t just a side interest, and from there to deciding become an environmental journalist. There is of course the sense of working on something that matters, but also from the perspective of someone who is perpetually curious it’s also a practical choice: environment and climate touch on science, policy, economics, and sociology, so there’s always a new facet to explore and keep me intrigued.

ODP: Is there a story you’ve written in your career of which you’re most proud, and if so, why?

KPL: I wouldn’t say most proud of, I think that’s a fairly high bar, and like a lot of journalists I struggle to reread my work without finding things I would have done differently. But there are two that stand out in recent memory. The first was an article on the loss of kelp forests due to climate change, because I was able to raise awareness of an ecosystem that most people had likely not heard of. I was also pretty proud of the way this piece on Reverend Barber and Al Gore joining forces turned out.  I think environmental justice is a critical issue, but personally reporting this story was hard because I had so many travel hiccups. It’s a nice reminder that sometimes good things can come out of a bumpy process.

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