basics: A primer on taking over the
The great book list:
What every environment writer should read
— or have handy
interviewing from some of the best
spreadsheets: It's not that hard and
the payoff is huge (First installment of two parts)
spreadsheets: Graphs reveal otherwise hidden
truths (Final installment of two parts)
OK, so you can't
write. That shouldn't stop
The beat's basics
A primer on taking over the
By JIM DETJEN
For years you've been hoping
to write about the environment as a
full-time beat. Now, finally your editor
has given you the chance. But you've had
little or no training in this
Where do you begin?
As a starting point, I suggest
you join the Society of Environmental
Journalists (SEJ). Through the
SEJournal, the organization's
web site (www.sej.org), its tip
sheets, its listservs and other
activities, you'll quickly become
immersed in the culture of environmental
reporting. You might also sign up for
SEJ's mentoring program and
become linked with a veteran reporter in
It would also be helpful to
track down former reporters at your paper
or news organization who have previously
covered these issues. Chances are they
will be extremely helpful in discussing
environmental issues and controversies in
your area, giving you the names of key
sources and organizations and helping you
become familiar with the history of
Visit your news organization's
librarian and ask to get copies of
previous articles written by other
reporters about air and water pollution,
land-use controversies and other issues.
From these articles you'll identify key
sources, government agencies,
environmental groups, experts at local
universities and others who are familiar
with the environmental issues in your
Then, begin making the rounds.
Call up these sources and introduce
yourself. Make appointments to meet with
them and when you do, ask them to put you
on their mailing lists to receive press
releases, reports and other newsworthy
Begin compiling files on
current issues and develop a Rolodex of
key sources (including their home numbers
since you may have to call them at nights
or weekends). Also, develop a calendar of
upcoming meetings, hearings, conferences
and other potentially newsworthy
Obviously, many of these
sources will have their own agendas and
often strong points of view. But you'll
also find knowledgeable experts (such as
former environmental officials now
working at a local university) who are no
longer involved in the fray and who can
provide you with perspective and guidance
on key issues.
Read! Read! Read! In some areas
of the country, some excellent books have
been written about the natural and
environmental history of your
When I began my career as an
environmental reporter for the
Journal, I read and reread
Robert Boyle's excellent book, "The
Hudson: A Natural and Unnatural
I also read histories of the
region's politics and folklore and read
many articles from other newspapers and
magazines in the region.
Absorb everything you can. Make
it your goal to become an expert on the
environment in your region. When
interested readers see that you are
covering environmental issues, they'll
call you up and offer you suggestions and
ideas. Many of the best stories I've
written have come from tips given me over
the phone by knowledgeable
Make it a point to learn about
the requirements of key local, state and
federal environmental laws by
interviewing officials in environmental
agencies. You'll quickly find that these
laws require companies and other
organizations to submit extensive
paperwork to government agencies and that
these agencies keep extensive files on
the pollutants discharged by these
If you learn to comb these
files on a regular basis, you'll soon be
breaking stories that few other reporters
in your area have reported about or
written. If the Alpha Manufacturing
Company has been fined $50,000 by the
state environmental agency for violating
clean water laws, go to the agency and
ask to review all their files. Check
their permits, inspection reports,
notices of violations of agency
regulations and other documents. Become
friends with the secretaries and clerks
who maintain these files and they'll
often become valuable sources of tips for
In most cases officials at the
state agency will suggest that you speak
to the media officers at the state agency
to obtain the information you are looking
for. You should meet with these officials
and make sure you receive all of their
But resist the temptation to
rely on media officials exclusively.
Remain independent and ask to review the
complete files on a company or a
polluting organization. You'll often find
nuggets of useful information in the
files that never find their way into
agency press releases.
In fact, you may find that a
company has a terrible record of
complying with state or federal
environmental laws and that environmental
regulators have done little to force the
company to comply with the regulations.
Perhaps the agency has lacked the staff
to force compliance. Perhaps politics has
intervened to encourage the agency
officials to look the other way.
If officials are reluctant to
let you look at the records, then utilize
state open records laws or the federal
Freedom of Information Act. You can find
out how to utilize these laws through
state press associations, the Society of Professional
Journalists or the Reporters Committee for Freedom
of the Press. Another useful
organization is Investigative Reporters &
When you file FOIA requests, be
sure to identify the precise individual
to send them to in a state or federal
agency and to be as precise as possible
in your request for information. Read
through state and federal environmental
laws to find out what these laws require
companies to submit and then ask for
Many of the best environmental
journalists use FOIA laws on a regular
basis to pry out of state and federal
agencies information that few other
journalists ask for. Once you start
reporting and writing these stories,
chances are likely that individuals in
these agencies will call you up to
provide other useful information.
Cultivate these people! Meet
with them and get to know them. Many
state and federal environmental agencies
are filled with altruistic people who
genuinely care about improving the
environment. You may discover inspectors
or enforcement officials who are
disgusted with the politics they see in
their agency and who are willing and even
eager to talk to you about the political
pressures they see and experience.
To track the hot issues at the
EPA, you can also check the enforcement
docket or even use FOIA to request all
the FOIAs that have been filed. Multiple
FOIA requests for a particular waste
site, for instance, can signal a brewing
storm over cleanup.
Some regulatory agencies also
use weekly or monthly "activity reports"
that can help you track issues.
Developing sources within
agencies and organizations is crucial for
most journalists. I'm a strong believer
in cultivating what I call "front line
people." These could be inspectors within
an agency, nurses in an emergency room or
neighbors living near a nuclear power
plant or chemical factory. They often are
eyewitnesses to all sorts of activities
and can really tell you what is going
Sometimes important sources
aren't official or even immediately
obvious. When I've written about water
pollution being discharged into a river
by a chemical company, I've sometimes
found it useful to interview anglers,
swimmers or water skiers who utilize the
river to get their views on the
situation. When I've written about air
pollution, I've interviewed window
washers, city foresters and
I'm a strong believer in basing
environmental reporting on accurate
scientific information. It's important to
understand the basics of biology,
chemistry, geology, meteorology, ecology
and other scientific fields. When I began
reporting about the environment I had
never taken a course in environmental
science. But I enrolled in a
"fundamentals of ecology" course at a
local community college.
If this is not possible, at
least buy some basic books on
environmental science, read them and use
them as reference works. Among the
classics are books by Eugene Odom. Other
useful books include "The Dictionary of
Ecology and Environmental Science,"
edited by Henry W. Art (Henry Holt) and
"The Encyclopedia of the Environment,"
edited by Ruth A. Folen and William R.
Eblen (Houghton Mifflin).
Science professors at local
universities can often be very helpful.
When I was writing about toxic waste
problems in Kentucky for The
Louisville Courier-Journal, I
found several chemistry professors at the
University of Louisville who were willing
to take the time to explain to me basic
principles of toxicology and to loan me
useful books and articles to read on the
One helpful University of
Louisville chemist was even willing to
run scientific analyses for me. I needed
to find out whether well water in a
suburban community was contaminated with
toxic chemicals from a nearby factory.
State environmental officials lacked the
staff or resources to carry out such
tests. But the University of Louisville
professor conducted these tests for me
and I was able to use his analysis in
stories I wrote for the newspaper.
If you need to find scientific
experts, consider using the Media Resource Service of
Sigma Xi, a scientific research society
in North Carolina. This nonprofit
organization has compiled a list of more
than 30,000 scientific experts who are
willing to be interviewed by the news
media. They can be especially useful when
you need to track down an expert on
Another valuable resource is ProfNet, which links
journalists with professors and other
experts at universities and research
centers around the world. If you send a
question to firstname.lastname@example.org,
your query will be distributed to public
relations professionals at many
universities who will then assist you in
finding answers to your questions.
There are two easy sources for
information about chemical hazards
available in most communities in the
United States. The first is the local
Poison Control Center. The second is the
local fire department. Both organizations
have access to databases and reference
tools for helping you find out whether
specific chemicals spilled during an
accident or fire are a threat to citizens
in your community.
You can find out some
background information about chemicals in
your local community by calling up www.scorecard.org, a website
established by Environmental Defense. If
you type in your community's zip code
you'll find which companies are storing
and discharging chemicals into the
Another useful site is the
website of the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency which
also supplies information by zip code.
The EPA has other useful information,
including details about
chemicals. You can also find
background information on the toxicity of
chemicals by calling up the web site of
Michigan State University's Institute for Environmental
Toxicology and clicking onto the area
Other useful websites for
environmental journalists are the Knight Center for
Environmental Journalism at Michigan
State University, the National Association of Science
Writers and Bill Dedman's Power Reporting site.
Since scientific knowledge
about the environment is not static and
because new information is being
discovered constantly, it's important to
regularly attend conferences and
educational workshops. The Society of
Environmental Journalists holds an annual
conference, as well
as many regional events.
Among the other organizations
which hold ongoing training programs for
environmental journalists are the Knight
Center for Environmental Journalism, the
Institutes for Journalism and Natural
Resources, and the Marine Biological
Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.
Finally, remember to follow up
both on your own environmental stories
and stories written by your predecessors
on the beat. Environmental controversies
have a habit of receding from the
headlines but in many cases never really
disappear. They merely await the next new
journalist who has been assigned to write
about the environment for the first
Jim Detjen holds the Knight Chair
in Environmental Journalism and is the Director
of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism
at Michigan State University. He spent 21 years
reporting about science and the environment
for The Philadelphia Inquirer and other
newspapers and was the founding president of the
Society of Environmental
**Excerpt from SEJournal, Summer
2003, available here.
Back to the top
The great book list
What every environment writer
should read — or have handy
By SETH BORENSTEIN
From Rachel Carson's "Silent
Spring," the beginning of modern environmental
journalism, to the recently released in
paperback "Nail 'Em!," an anti-media screed
from former Reagan spinmeister and current
corporate crisis manager Eric Dezenhall,
environment books could easily buckle your
shelves, bury a desk or wipe out your social
Some, Rachel Carson's masterpiece is
the prime example, are must-reads. As is most
anything by John McPhee.
Reading McPhee — any McPhee
really — can both inspire and depress
you, but it is a necessity. His prose is so
wonderful that it takes you to places like the
Pine Barrens or Florida orange groves or
Alaska. What's depressing is that there seems
to be no way anyone can match his ability at
If you haven't read any McPhee,
start with "The Pine Barrens," "Oranges," "The
Control of Nature" and "Coming into the
Country." If you want short (for him) pieces,
go for the "The John McPhee Reader." Its
introduction details how McPhee goes about his
work, even his outlining methods. It is a true
Many other books are should-reads.
And more are handy to keep on the desk for easy
references. Unfortunately few are free,
although some people in SEJ are talking about
some kind of book buying system to save
Perhaps the most useful of these
categories is the reference books that any good
environment reporter has within arm's reach (or
at least those of us who still use
Eric Nalder, a two-time
Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter for the
San Jose Mercury News who has worked
on several environmental projects, said, "What
I keep is a horrible mess of papers.''
His bookshelf, while not environment
oriented, provides the good meat-and-potatoes
of any project writer and Eric is one of the
best in the business. His shelf, minus the
esoteric stuff on ship safety, includes:
World Almanac, dictionary, three
different Investigative Reporters and Editors
handbooks, spelling dictionary, thesaurus,
Brant Houston's "Investigative Reporter's
Handbook" and "Computer Assisted Reporting: A
Practical Guide," "Bartlett's Familiar
Quotations," "Say It Safely" by Paul Ashley,
"On Writing Well" by William Zinsser (a
classic!), "Black's Law Dictionary," "The Craft
of Interviewing" by John Joseph Brady, "Get The
Facts On Anyone" by Dennis King, a
Congressional guide and "lots of phone
Nalder emphasizes the usefulness of
good old-fashioned phone books: "State of
California, FERC phone books, any agency I'm
dealing with I've got phone books.''
Getting those phone books, I can
attest, is not easy. I've got some pirated
agency phone books that I guard with my life
(NASA, CDC, EPA).
As far as the traditional
environment writer's reference books, an April
listserv discussion on SEJ-Talk provides an
impressive list of reference books. You get
mine first, along with an explanation.
They are, from closest to the
keyboard to farthest:
"Risk: A Practical Guide for
Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really
in the World Around You." SEJ member David
Ropeik and Harvard think-tanker George Gray
write this 2003 Houghton Mifflin book that
teaches about risk analysis, albeit with a
slightly conservative bent. It has a useful
risk meter that looks at the likelihood of a
problem and the consequences of such a problem.
There are many good books on risk. Jim Detjen
has "Environmental Risk Reporting." Michigan
Sea Grant puts out the highly recommended
"Reporting on Risk: A Journalist's Handbook on
Environmental Risk Assessment." (Sea Grant
sells this $8 book on their website for $3 and
tosses in "Exploring Science Writing" for
"The Handy Science Answer Book" by
the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. It's nine
years old but really has some good dumbed-down,
"State of The World" from
Worldwatch. It's a regularly updated
"The AMA's Encyclopaedia of
Medicine" and "The American Press Dictionary of
Science and Technology." Good find-'em-quick
Several experts guides, Sea Grant,
University of Southern California, Brookings
Institute, Johns Hopkins, American University,
University of Miami, Washington University in
St. Louis. Sometimes expert guidebooks are
easier in print, than on the Web, but that
shows my age.
"How To Use The Federal FOI Act" by
the Reporters Committee For Freedom of The
Press. Until you have it down by rote, a great
"The Worst Case Scenario Survival
Handbook" by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht.
When your editor makes you feel like jumping
out a window, this book tells you how to,
literally. It's a great tension
Books recommended by fellow SEJers,
without much explanation, include these science
encyclopedia: "The OED of Science Terms: Van
Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia," "Grimek's
Animal Life Encyclopedia" (13 volumes and 31
years old), "Oxford Dictionary of Biology,"
"Concise Oxford Dictionary of Botany,"
"Encyclopedia Britannica," "Encyclopedia of the
Environment," "The Environmental Almanac,"
"Encyclopedia of Mammals," "Merck Index" (a
necessity!,) and the "Condensed Chemical
Maps, you need maps, and places to
find birds and other critters and faunas. For
that you should have: "Maps With the News" by
Mark Monmonier, "Dorling Kindersley Reference
Atlas," "American Wildlife & Plants" (one
SEJ member called it one of the most useful
books ever picked up,) "National Geographic
Atlas of the World" and, of course, the Audubon
Reports are important, including the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's
numerous reports, the "Tenth Report on
Carcinogens" by the National Toxicology
Program, several National Academy of Sciences
reports (including favorites "Pesticides in the
Diets of Infants and Children," "Toxicological
Effects of Methylmercury" and "Understanding
Risk",) and "Status and Trends of the Nation's
Biological Resources" by the U.S. Geological
Don't forget Rutgers' "The
Reporter's Environmental Handbook," Todd Davis'
"Brownfields," "News & Numbers" by the late
Victor Cohn, Rodes and Odell's "A Dictionary of
Environmental Quotations," "The Essential
Researcher" by Maureen Croteau and Wayne
Worcester, "Tainted Truth: The Manipulation of
Fact in America" by Wall Street
Journal reporter Cynthia Crossen, Detjen's
"Field Guide for Science Writers," and "Media
and the Environment" and "Who's Poisoning
Phil Shabecoff deserves his own
paragraph for "A Fierce Green Fire," "A New
Name for Peace" and "Earth Rising."
Robert McClure of the Seattle
Post-Intelligencer recommends "Toxic
Sludge Is Good for You! Lies, Damn Lies and The
Public Relations Industry" by John Stauber who
also wrote "Trust Us, We're Experts." He likes
Michael D'Antonio's "Atomic Harvest," "Worlds
Apart" on science writing by Hartz and Chappel,
and "Chemicals, The Press and The
There are libraries on climate
change alone. To me they start and end with
Ross Gelbspan's "The Heat Is On." But there are
many more, including Al Gore's "Earth in the
Balance" and the anti-Gore "Environmental Gore"
by John Baden. "The Change in the Weather" by
New York Times writer William K.
Stevens is thought provoking, or so says the
For unusual perspectives on how
companies can work on global warming, there is
"Turning Off The Heat" by Thomas Casten, who
ran Trigen Energy, and former assistant energy
secretary Joe Romm's "Cool Companies." "The
Atmospheric Sciences Entering the Twenty-First
Century" from the National Research Council may
be a bit too geeky and detail oriented, but it
is useful. And then there are the vocal, often
industry-funded global warming skeptics, such
as Pat Michaels and Robert Bolling's "The
Satanic Gases" and the more recent "Global
Warming and other Eco-Myths" from the
Competitive Enterprise Institute.
No matter what you think of him,
Bjorn Lomborg's "The Skeptical
Environmentalist" should be on your bookshelf.
Another less noticed book looking sharply at
the environmental movement is "Global Greens"
by James Sheehan.
More on the should-read and
must-read category, anything by the
never-before-linked James O. Wilson and Carl
Hiassen (yes, it's fiction, but it's fun and
has healthy environmental themes.) In terms of
novels, go for John Hockenberry's "A River Out
of Eden," which brings Northwest environment
issues into a good thriller and along the same
lines go for "Mean Hide Tide" by James Hall.
"Theodore Rex" by Edmund Morris is wonderful
and gives insights into the start of the park
and refuge systems. If you want water books, go
for Sandra Postel's "Last Oasis." Recommended
health books included: "Exploring the Dangerous
Trades" by Alice Hamilton, Duff Wilson's
"Fateful Harvest" and Jeanne Guillemin's "The
Investigation of A Deadly Outbreak."
Bill Kovacs, vice president for
environment at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,
touts the chamber's book that makes fun of
environmental leaders and purposely takes their
quotes out of context to show how humorless
they are: "The Environmentalists Little Green
Book." On a more serious note, he recommends
Scott Barrett's "really interesting"
"Environment and Statecraft."
Former reporter turned enviro Frank
O'Donnell, chief of the Clean Air Task Force,
recommends: "A Season of Spoils: The Story of
the Reagan Administration's Attack on the
Environment" by Jonathan Lash and "Taken for a
Ride: Detroit's Big Three and the Politics of
Pollution" by Jack Doyle. That brings up the
SUV-tome "High And Mighty" by Keith
Two-time Pulitzer winner —
feature writing and explanatory journalism
— Jon Franklin has two good reference
books for putting science and environment in
context: "Timetables of History" by Bernard
Grun and Daniel Boorstin and the out-of-print
"The Timetables of Technology" by Alexander
Environmental writers, Franklin
added, should make sure they read Eric Hoffer's
"The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of
Mass Movements" because some of us are
(although we shouldn't be) true believers, not
to mention many of those whom we cover. He also
recommends "How To Lie With Statistics" by
Darryl Huff and Irving Geis.
Mostly Franklin emphasizes narrative
writing and storytelling in science with his
must-read list of oldies but goodies: anything
by Nigel Calder, the 1926 science classic
"Microbe Hunter," "The Lives of a Cell" by
Lewis Thomas, 1969's "Life On Man" by Theodore
Rosebury, 1974's "Fever! The Hunt for a New
Killer Virus" and the more modern "Betrayal of
Trust" by Laurie Garrett.
In terms of narrative writing he
recommends "Confessions of a Storyteller" by
Paul Gallico. And I have to add Franklin's own
"Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic
Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize
There's more, but that's a good
enough start for a week's worth of
Seth Borenstein covers
environment, science and health for Knight Ridder
Newspapers' Washington Bureau and has read very
few of these books and should be ashamed of
**Excerpt from SEJournal, Summer
2003, available here.
Back to the top
Tips on interviewing from some of
By ROBERT MCCLURE
Interviewing is neither the first
thing nor the last thing reporters do. But it's
arguably the most important. We asked four
journalists from varied backgrounds for tips.
This is not a comprehensive guide to
interviewing; books have been written on the
But these four journalists offer a
wide range of basic and inventive suggestions
about how to polish an essential skill: the art
of the interview.
Eric Nalder, investigative
reporter, San Jose Mercury News:
Inner interviewing: As a warm-up (maybe during
your morning shower), imagine a successful
interview. Reporters who don't believe they
will get the interview or the information
usually fail. As far as I'm concerned, no one
should ever refuse to talk to me. It works.
When you approach the subject, appear innocent,
friendly, unafraid and curious — not as a
hard-boiled, cynical reporter (even if you are
Play like you know: Ask the official
why he fired the whistle-blower rather than
asking whether he did. The question presumes
you already know, even if you don't have it
confirmed. They'll start explaining rather than
Slow motion: When people reach the
important part of a story, slow them down so
you can get it in Technicolor. Ask where they
were standing, what they were doing, what they
were wearing, what was the temperature and what
were the noises around them.
Liars: If you know someone is lying,
allow the liar to spin the yarn. Don't
interrupt except to ask for more detail. Listen
and take good notes. When the lie has been
fully constructed, go back and logically
de-construct it. Don't be impatient. The
fabricator is now in a corner. Keep him there
until he breaks.
Use your ears: We talk too much
during interviews. Let the other person do the
talking. Listen with an open mind.
Christy George, documentary
producer, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and
former print reporter and editor:
Before you do your first interview, create a
"focus statement" that incorporates the point
of your story, suggesting who the characters
are, what we're going to see in the story,
where the conflict is, the why behind the story
and why it's important. This will probably
change as you go forward, but it helps as you
Ask open-ended, simple questions
such as "Why?" Then wait. Just wait and
Ask, "How did you feel?" It's a
dreaded question, but I find myself asking it
all the time in a nice, respectful,
public-radio kind of way.
The best answers are always in the
first question and the last question. The first
question is when the subject spits out
everything he or she has prerehearsed. The last
question is important because I keep going
until I get something that really pleases
Remember that even extremely nervous
interviewees will get over their nervousness if
you go on long enough.
When you walk out of an interview,
make a mental checklist about the best answers,
the ones you remember the best. This will
provide a guide for you once you start logging
the tape or going through notes.
Tom Meersman, environment
reporter, Minneapolis Star
Get extra names. Ask each interviewee for
suggestions about who else is knowledgeable
about the topic. Even if you don't have time to
call all of them, the names may be useful in
the future. On a recent update story about the
lynx in northern Minnesota, I found that many
sources from my original story three years
earlier had moved on. No problem. I had lots of
extra names of other sources. Some turned out
to be excellent sources for the update.
Get paper. During an interview,
always ask about letters, e-mails, reports,
lawsuits or anything else in the paper trail.
An interview may be incomplete, especially if
the subject is nervous or intentionally wants
to downplay something. Documents may provide
more damning evidence or clearer statements of
what's at stake.
Follow through. Some interviewees
provide lots of facts and history, including
the pros and cons of an issue. That's great for
a reporter who's trying to get up to speed
quickly. But don't let it end there. Ask
questions such as: "Well what do you think
about that?" or "How do you interpret
Push yourself to get one more
interview than you think you need, particularly
on short-turnaround pieces. Make an extra call
or two. It may turn out to be your best
interview. It may change the story
Len Ackland, director, Center
for Environmental Journalism, University of
Interviewing, document research, and
observation are the three legs of the reporting
stool. Good interviewing involves both of the
Always conduct significant
interviews in person. A subject's body language
and work environment can't be gauged over the
phone or via email. Nor can the subject slip
you a revealing document during a phone
Do your homework. Research the
person and topic. Prepare a list of questions
before you call to set up an interview. Be
prepared to do an on-the-spot phone interview
in case your subject is about to leave for a
Tape-record your interviews. When
you listen to the interview you will often be
amazed, particularly with complex topics, at
leads you missed.
Take notes. Not only is this a
backup for technical failure, it also can help
you avert a subject's filibustering. With pen
and notebook in hand, you can rather politely
interrupt and ask for an explanation. Once
you've broken the flow you can redirect the
conversation to the questions you want
Jot down your questions and a
possible order. This helps you choreograph the
interview even though you won't stick to these
questions as if they were a rigid script.
Maintain flexibility when the interview goes in
unexpected directions, but don't forget the
core questions you want answered.
Be stingy in allowing subjects to go
"off the record" or "on background." On the
record should always be the default.
Robert McClure is environment
reporter at the Seattle
**Excerpt from SEJournal, Summer
2003, available here.
Back to the top
It's not that hard and the
payoff is huge
By RUSS CLEMINGS
First installment of two
Computers can seem mysterious, and at times
they are, even to those who have spent years
working with them. At the same time, though,
it's entirely possible to accomplish useful
work with a minimum of study by using some
simple computer tools.
In this Bits & Bytes
installment, we'll look at how one widely used
program, the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, can
help you find trends in a mass of data.
Specifically, we will do some simple exercises
with California air pollution data. The data we
will use can be downloaded on the SEJ website. The
instructions that follow are for Windows users
with Excel 2000; Excel is also available in
other versions and for Macs, but some of the
following details may vary.
The data consists of two tables,
"dlygas10.dbf" and "location10. dbf." The
latter is a list of air pollution monitors in
Fresno County, Calif., and the former is a file
of daily air pollution readings from 1980 to
2000 for 22 different parameters. You can open
both at the same time in Excel by clicking on
"File," then "Open," then choosing "dBase files
(*.dbf)" from the "Files of type:" drop-down
list and, finally, navigating to the files,
highlighting them and clicking "Open."
We won't be doing any serious
analysis with the location10. dbf file, but
let's look at it. First, if some columns are
too narrow to show their contents, you can
expand them by highlighting the entire sheet
(Ctrl-A) then clicking on "Format," "Column"
and "AutoFit Selection." (Here's another Excel
hint: If you make a mistake, you can backtrack
by clicking on "Edit," then "Undo" or just
Once you've fixed the column width,
you can see that each line of this sheet
contains detailed information about an
individual monitor, including its location by
street address and latitude/longitude. The
latter would be handy if we wanted to map this
data, but that's a subject for another issue.
For now, just note the first column, which
contains a location code.
Make a special note of the third
from the bottom, no. 3026, which is the World's
Single Most Important Air Pollution Monitor,
mainly because it is located about two miles
from the modest but comfortable Clemings
Now let's switch over to the
dlygas10.dbf file (click on "Window," then on
the file name, which should be at the bottom of
the menu if you didn't accidentally close the
file.) Format the columns in the same manner as
the other table: Ctrl-A, then
The second column contains the
location codes that we just saw in the
location10.dbf file. Let's extract just the
data for location 3026. First, we will have to
sort so that all of the data for that monitor
is in one place. To do that, just click on
"Data," followed by sort, and select "Loc_code"
in the "Sort by" box. Then click OK.
Now, click on the letter "B" at the
top of the second column, then click on "Edit"
and "Find," type 3026 in the "Find what:" box
and click on "Find next." The cursor should go
to row 36607 in the spreadsheet.
Close the find box and click on the
row number (36607) at until you have
highlighted all of the rows for location 3026.
This will take a while; there are almost 4,000
of them, but when you're done, your cursor
should be on row 40373.
Now let's mark that data by clicking
"Edit" and "Copy" or just "Ctrl-C." A
flickering border will appear around the data.
We can then copy the data to a new sheet by
clicking on "Insert," followed by "Worksheet."
Put the cursor on the first cell in the second
row of the new sheet and click "Edit" and
"Paste" or "Ctrl- V" and our data will appear
on the new sheet.
There's just one problem —
there are no column headings. But we can copy
them from the other sheet. Just click on the
tab labeled "dlygas10.dbf" at the bottom of the
screen to go back to our original worksheet.
Then hit "Ctrl-Home" to go to the top of the
worksheet. Click on the number "1" at the left
to highlight the row with the column headings,
then hit "Ctrl-C," use the tabs to return to
the new worksheet (called "Sheet1"), put the
cursor at the top left, in cell A1, and hit
Now look at the third through fifth
columns of data, columns C through E. These
contain a date for each reading, with the year,
month and day in separate columns. For some of
our analysis, we will need to have the date in
a single column. We can create a new column
that will contain the date, and in doing so, we
can introduce a key Excel feature —
First, place the cursor anywhere in
column F and click on Insert, then Columns.
That will create a new blank column F, shifting
all of the remaining columns to the right by
one space. Give this new column a label by
typing "DATE" in cell F1.
Then, type this string in cell F2
and hit the enter key: =DATE(C2,D2,E2)
(Explanation: The "equal" sign tells
Excel that this is a formula. DATE() is an
Excel function that calculates the data when it
is given, in order, the year, month and day,
which are in cells C2, D2 and E2
That was easy, but the result
doesn't look right. It's a number — 33121
— instead of the date that we want.
That's because Excel stores a date in the form
of a number — specifically, the number of
days since Jan. 1, 1900. So Sept. 5, 1990, is
exactly 33,121 days after Jan. 1, 1900. (To
signify a time as well as a date, Excel uses a
decimal, so that noon on Sept. 5, 1990 would be
represented as 33121.5.)
Fortunately, there's an easy way to
convert that "serial date" into something more
familiar. Just click on cell F2, then on
"Format" and "Cells." A dialog box labeled
"Format Cells" will appear; click on the tab
labelled "Number," then on "Date" in the box
labeled "Category." Now, you can select any
date style you want from the box labeled
"Type." Just click on the one you like best,
and then click "OK" to close the dialog. The
contents of cell F2 will automatically change
to match your choice.
That takes care of cell F2. But we
want to copy the same formula to all the cells
in that column. To do so by repeating the above
steps would take roughly forever, but luckily
that is not necessary. Instead, just click on
F2, then position the cursor over the lower
right corner of the cell, where a little box
appears. When you do this, the cursor will
change from a big white plus sign to a skinny
black one. When that happens, hold down the
left mouse button and drag it down the column a
little bit. Then let go.
Excel will fill in the cells below
F2 with the same formula, automatically
adjusting the row number as it goes, so that
cell F3 is filled with =DATE(C3,D3,E3) and so
on. (If you ever want to override this feature,
just put dollar signs in front of the cell
addresses, like this: =DATE(C$2,D$2,E$2) to
lock the formula on a row, =DATE($C2,$D2,$E2)
to lock it on a column, or
=DATE($C$2,$D$2,$E$2) to lock it on
You can also copy a formula to a
range of cells by using the old reliable
copy-and-paste functions. This can make it
easier to do when you have a large sheet, like
this one. Just put the cursor on cell F2, hit
Ctrl-C or Edit/Copy, then hold down the shift
key and use "Page Down" to scroll through the
entire page selecting the cells in column F.
Hit Ctrl-V or Edit/Paste to copy the formula to
the selected cells.
That's almost the end of this
lesson. But first, let's perform some analysis
on the data using the simple but powerful
"pivot table" feature.
Start by clicking on "Data" and
"PivotTable Report." When the "PivotTable
Wizard" appears, click "Next," then go down to
the bottom of the screen and click on the tab
labeled "Sheet1," which is the worksheet we
just used, and click "Next" again.
Now you can drag and drop fields to
summarize the data. First, drag the field named
"Month" into the box labeled "Row." Then pick
up the field labeled "COMAX1HR," which
represents the maximum one-hour-average carbon
monoxide level for a given day, and drag it
into the box labeled "Data." It will change to
read "Count of COMAX1HR."
Double-click on it to open a dialog
box labeled "PivotTable Field" and click on
"Average" in the box labeled "Summarize by,"
then click "OK," followed by "Next." Select
"New worksheet." Click "Finish." On a new
worksheet, Excel will display two columns of
data — the month ("1" being January and
so on) and the average 1-hour CO value for that
At a glance, you can see that the
winter months — November through February
— have the highest CO levels.
Save your work by clicking on "File"
and Save," then selecting "Microsoft Excel
Workbook (*.xls)" from the "Save as type:"
drop-down box, then clicking on "Save."
Remember where you're saving this file. Next
time we will use the same data in Excel to
create graphs and other things that can help
pick out trends from masses of data.
Russell Clemings did a more
elaborate version of this analysis for the
Fresno Bee's "Last Gasp" project, which can
be viewed here.
**Excerpt from SEJournal, Summer
2003, available here.
Back to the top
Graphs reveal otherwise hidden truths
By RUSS CLEMINGS
Final installment of two
In the first part of this exercise, we imported air pollution data
into Excel 2000, isolated readings for one monitor, manipulated
dates, then used the Pivot Table Wizard to show
that carbon monoxide readings are highest in winter.
This time, we will show how using Excel to create
graphs can help us spot long-term trends that are not readily
apparent from the raw data.
Start by opening the Excel file that we saved at the
end of the last lesson and click on the "Sheet1" tab at the
bottom of the screen. This file has daily readings for 23
different air pollution parameters from 1990 to 2000 for
an air pollution monitor in Clovis, Calif., about two miles
from the modest but comfortable Clemings estate.
This time, instead of carbon monoxide, we will
examine trends for the region's most serious pollutant —
ozone. Two columns in this file (columns "S" and "T")
contain ozone readings. The first, labeled OZMAX1HR,
has the highest ozone reading for any one-hour period in
each day. The second, OZMAX8HR, has the same data
averaged over eight hours rather than one hour. Both are
important because they measure, respectively, short-term and
long-term exposures to this troublesome pollutant.
One question that might be asked about this data is whether
ozone levels by either measure are rising, falling or remaining
steady. But it's almost impossible to answer that question just by
scanning the data. It's just a jumble of numbers. Even if you
examined the entire file from top to bottom, it would be impossible
to figure out the trend.
You can use the Excel Chart Wizard to create a line graph
for the date and one-hour ozone levels. To create the chart, first
make a copy of the sheet by going to the Menu Bar and clicking
on "Edit," "Move or Copy Sheet," "Create a Copy" and "OK."
Now, let's delete some columns. We'll need the dates,
which are in column "F," and the one-hour ozone data, which
is in columns "S," but we can delete everything in
between. Click on the letter "G" at the top of column
"G," then hold down the "Shift" key and use the right
arrow to select all of the columns from "G" to "R."
Click on "Edit" and "Delete" to get rid of those columns.
Now place the cursor in cell F1, hold down the "Shift" key
and use the right arrow and "Page Down" keys to define a block
from F1 to G3768. This is the data we will be using in the graph.
Go to the very top of the screen and click on the "Chart Wizard"
icon, which looks like a 3-D chart with columns of blue, yellow
and red. If the icon is not visible, go to the menu bar and click on
"View," "Toolbars" and "Standard," and it should pop right up.
After you click the "Chart Wizard" icon, click on "Line"
under "Chart Type," then click "Next" three times. Then, in step
4 of the Chart Wizard, click "As new sheet," followed by
"Finish." Your chart will appear on a new worksheet.
If you eyeball this graph, it looks as if the summertime peaks
are edging upward. But it's hard to say for sure. Besides, it's not
just the peaks that we're worried about. There are a whole lot of
values in the middle of this chart that are high enough to cause
problems for the most sensitive people, and it's not at all clear
which way those values are going.
What we need is a way to boil down these peaks and valleys
to a long-term trend.
Here's one way to do that: A 365-day (or annual) moving
average. It's not too hard to explain — for each day, it's just the
average of the past year's daily values. That's why it's called a
"moving" average. If today is June 5, 2003, then the 365-day moving
average for today is the average of all daily values from June
6, 2002, through today. Tomorrow's 365-day moving
average, in turn, would be the average of daily values
from June 7, 2002, through June 6, 2003.
Here's how you write a formula to get that from
Excel. First, go back to your data sheet — it's probably
called "Sheet1 (2)" — and insert a new column by
placing your cursor on cell H1 and clicking "Insert"
and "Columns." Then give the new column a name in
cell H1, such as "OZAVG."
We can't compute the 365-day average until we
have 365 days of data, so scroll down to the 365th day (which is
in row 366; since row 1 has the column names) and type this formula:
=AVERAGE(G2:G366). Hit return. Then select that cell
(Ctrl-C or "Edit/Copy") and, while holding down the "Shift" key,
use "Page Down" to select the rest of the column, followed by
Ctrl-V or "Edit/Paste" to copy the formula down to the bottom.
Now, let's go back to the chart (Chart1) and update it. First,
right-click anywhere in a blank area of the chart and click
"Source Data," then click on the "Series" tab. Go to the box
labeled "Name" and replace what's there with a label for our new
line, such as "Ozone average." Then, in the box labeled "Values,"
carefully edit the cell addresses so that they refer to
$H$366:$H$3768 instead of $G$2:$G$3768. Click OK.
The resulting chart does a good job of smoothing out the data
to show a long-term trend. With this graph, and an explanation of
what a 365-day moving average is, we can say with some confidence
that the 1990s saw one-hour daily ozone peaks edge
upward in Clovis.
At this point in our reporting, we are ready for quality control.
When we did this in real life for The Fresno Bee project
"Last Gasp," we showed our graphs to various experts at the state
and local air pollution control agencies. We also explained how
we did the analysis and asked for their comments on it.
All agreed that the 365-day moving average was a valid
way to show the long-term trend. But one expert at the Air
Resources Board went a step further. He encouraged us
to throw out the winter values and look only at the summer
His reasoning: Although no one knows for sure, it's
likely that very low levels of ozone are not a health
threat. The state's one-hour ozone standard of 0.09 parts
per million is exceeded regularly in the summer. But in
winter, typical levels are far less. And an increase from
0.02 to 0.03 is clearly not as important as an increase
from 0.12 to 0.13. Yet our 365-day moving average
would regard them both as important.
The ARB expert suggested a number of alternative
approaches. We chose one that was doubly elegant,
being both easy to calculate and easy to explain. For
each year, we calculated and plotted just one value —
the average daily peak for the summer smog season,
May 1 through October 31.
Here's how to do that: Go back to the data sheet —
Sheet1 (2) — and put the cursor on A1, then add two
new columns (click Insert/Columns twice). Put the label "Year"
in A1 and "Average" in B1. Then, type the years 1991 through
2000 in cells A2 through A11.
Now use the AVERAGE() function to summarize the values
from May 1 to October 31 in each year. The simplest way to do this
is to look up the appropriate cell references and type them by hand.
So in B2, we need to type
in B3 we type =AVERAGE(
I604:I787) and so on.
After that's all done, select
cells B1 through B11 and
click the "Chart Wizard"
icon again. Click "Line
chart" and "Next," then
click on the "Series" tab.
Click in the box
labeled "Values" and hit
Ctrl-C to copy its contents
into the cut-and-paste
buffer. Then click in the
box labeled "Category (X)
axis labels" and hit Ctrl-V
to paste from the buffer.
Use the mouse (not the
arrow keys) to change the
cells references $B$2:$B$11 to $A$2:$A$11. Then click "Next"
twice, select "As new sheet" and click "Finish."
The resulting graph gives you a clear picture of the long term
trend, which is static at best and may be rising. When we
did a similar chart for "Last Gasp," we added two more years of
data and were able to show
a distinct upward trend
that contrasted sharply
with trends at monitoring
stations in southern
The result of that
analysis became a central
point of our stories: During
the 1990s, smog in the San
Joaquin Valley had become
worse than in Los Angeles.
It was a point that we
couldn't have made, at
least not as convincingly,
without the data analysis.
Russell Clemings did a more
elaborate version of this analysis for the
Fresno Bee's "Last Gasp" project, which can
be viewed here.
**Excerpt from the new
issue of SEJournal, Fall
2003, available here. For information on how to join
SEJ, including the benefits of membership,
Back to the top
OK, so you can't write. That
shouldn't stop you.
By MICHAEL MANSUR
You've reported the basics of a
great story. So you plop in front of a
computer, ready to write something. And this
question pops into your head: What now?
Sure, most reporters know how
crucial it is to write well. But many seldom
take the time necessary to study it. They don't
think well enough about the writing
task at hand, the type of story they are about
Too often, they fake it. They employ
some florid language, an adverb, a scene, a
special phrasing. They look for a descriptive
anecdotal lede. But they've failed to take time
to think about their story as they report. In
the end, a lot of good reporting may be
So here's a few of my own tips,
gathered over 20 years of writing, reporting
and studying how successful journalists convey
what they learn in their reporting.
RULE ONE: Be assured that you
Writing isn't innate. Great writers
are not born. (Even if they are, there must be
only one in a billion. So why bet on that?)
Some may be given a little bit more to work
with up front. But successful journalists learn
to write. And that learning comes only with
hours and hours of study and practice.
Much of that hard work involves what
old-time editors would call "shoe leather"
reporting. You can't describe a scene —
making it vivid to a reader — unless
you're there. You can't really get a subject in
a story to trust you unless you look him or her
in the eye. You can't earn that
"fly-on-the-wall" view of a person's world
until you spend hours with the person.
More hard work involves the craft of
writing. Outlining, transcribing notes,
studying successful stories or writers, reading
as much as you can — including those
how-to books. Some even find that typing a
story you love, every word of it, can somehow
Don't be discouraged when writing
doesn't come easily, especially in a first
draft. Expect it. Count on it. Then deal with
Only journalistic "reports" —
the daily story coming out of a defined event,
such as a press conference or a meeting —
should be expected to be very clear or readable
on first draft. Everything else must be revised
until you're sure it's perfect. Then revise it
again. Just for fun: Experiment with dropping
each word from a sentence to see if you really
Think of learning to write as
learning to be a finish carpenter. They aren't
born, either. Over time, with enough practice
and experience, some tasks come easily. But on
the really fine jobs, the jobs that they'll be
proud to claim later, time and careful,
methodical work are still required. And often
they'll have to throw out a chunk of work and
do it all over.
RULE TWO: Determine what kind
of story you are writing.
This is not to say you should have
some pre-formed idea of what a story is. In
reporting news that sort of preconception would
obviously be a grave sin.
But think about the type of story
you will probably write as the result of your
reporting. And while you're reporting, think
about whether the story form you first thought
of still fits. If you're covering an EPA
announcement about air quality in your
community, know that this will be a
A report is the old reverse-pyramid
style of story that you see by the dozens in
the AP dailies. They begin with the
important news at the top, an explanation of
significance up high, how it occurred and other
details, peppering it along the way with a few
Reports are not "stories" —
pieces that today are more commonly referred to
as "narratives." They delve deeply into an
event or, more commonly, a person's struggle.
The bulk of the story often hinges on a
Jon Franklin, two-time Pulitzer
winner and author of the book "Writing for
Story," describes most stories as fitting this
form: A sympathetic character meets an obstacle
and overcomes it.
Think Cinderella. Think Pinocchio.
Think Bilbo Baggins.
For environment writers, think "A
Narratives, of course, like an
investigative home-run, are a goal. They come
rarely for most of us slight infielders. Most
often we find the time and material only to
write other forms of nonreports. I like to
think of these as "news features."
Usually, they have some news hook
— a person in the news, an event, a
place. And we find some interesting way to tell
those stories, using anecdote, quotes and
painting scenes. Scenes are moments recreated
that make the person, event or place stand out.
I find they are often the moments we tell
friends about later over beers or dinner. So
take the reader to a moment or a place they
haven't been, somewhere they wouldn't know to
go. Strive for the interesting.
A standard form for telling many
stories — all types of features,
including narratives — is to start in the
middle of the subject's life: in media
res, to use the Latin. Then soon after
that scene, step back in time to introduce the
characters more clearly. The story then often
picks up naturally from its chronological
beginning, following it over time back to the
moment where the written story began. It's a
good, easy form with which to start a first
RULE THREE: Know home.
Wherever you write, know that place.
As the great St. Petersburg Times
feature writer Jeff Klinkenberg, author of
"Dispatches from the Land of Flowers,"
explains: Too few people, and that includes us
writers, don't know their homes. They don't
even know the trees in their backyards.
It's crucial, especially for a
nature writer or environment beat reporter, to
learn his or her place.
What are the trees in your
backyard? Which are native? What natural
elements shape your place? In my home, it's the
Missouri River. How was it formed? Who were its
first discoverers? What were its early
"Ideas of place give us the
rudiments of narration: a story, its teller,
and a setting," writes William Howarth, editor
of The John McPhee Reader. "Without
some 'sense of place' we could not describe,
relate, read or write."
Even in your own home, you can go on
journeys. Take readers out with a person who
knows your place, a creature who lives there or
a problem that mars it from being better. When
you go — again, it's most important to be
there — soak it in.
For certain, read the writers of
your area. Who best captures the people and
place? For my home, it's Richard Rhodes, Calvin
Trillin, Evan Connell, William Least
RULE FOUR: Find the telling
details and show them.
Henry David Thoreau wrote that all
things should be seen in the morning with the
dew on them, with early-opened eyes. Try to
look anew at your place. When you go out with
experts, ask them simple questions — or
even dumb questions — about the place or
the subject of your story. It gets them
explaining the basics, thinking anew about the
Get the main character — the
protagonist of your story — to explain
her dreams, her motives, her fears, her
problems. Klinkenberg suggests to ask them
about their "sacred places."
Don't write pretty. Instead of
characterizing a moment: "It was frightening."
Describe what actually happened: "Fagin entered
the room, eyes bugged wide. 'My God,' he
screamed. And he ran."
What did you see? What did you hear?
How did it smell?
Don't write that it was "stunningly
hot." Write that "workers dripped sweat,
lounged under shade trees and slurped water
from a thin garden hose."
Here's the opening to a first draft
I wrote of a series of stories on William Least
Heat-Moon's attempt to cross America by
ABOARD THE NIKAWA — Under
a menacing sky, trees litter the rising
Missouri River like bodies on a bombed-out
battlefield. It's not a good day to be on the
Here's how it ran after several revisions:
But writer and adventurer
William Least Heat-Moon plows
It's the 27th day of his
journey across America by
ABOARD THE NIKAWA — The sky is a mass
of angry slate-gray clouds. Rain splatters
against the windshield. Writer and adventurer
William Least Heat-Moon squints to see the
river as his boat, the Nikawa, motors west
against the current and toward Kansas
The Missouri River is as mean
as the sky. Its current is swift, rolling at
8 to 10 mph. The river rises and spreads,
covering boat ramps, telephone booths and
parking lots. It has ripped big trees from
its banks — root balls, limbs and all.
Once-tall cottonwoods cruise downstream like
submarines on patrol, their limbs waving in
the wind like periscopes. Wet-black branches
the size of a man's leg hurtle past the
Nikawa like torpedoes.
It's the 27th day of
Heat-Moon's journey across America by boat.
He has pushed 76 miles up the Missouri from
the river's mouth, just north of St. Louis.
His timing is lousy.
There's a lot more action in the revised story.
Sentences are punchier, mostly because I'm
describing exactly what I see, not characterizing
it. And "his timing is lousy" has more effect
because it comes at the end of a long sentence,
not early, as it did in the first draft.
To help you find telling details and
quotes, I suggest two practical things. When
you're in the field reporting with a character,
take a tape recorder. You can't take good notes
while you're paddling in a canoe or hiking
along a ridge. But it's at such moments that
important conversations can occur.
Heat-Moon taught me another neat
trick — even neater now in the world of
digital cameras. He snapped pictures of
important people and places as he reported.
Later, he'd spread out the pictures of the
scene that he was writing about. He told me
that the feelings that he had experienced
earlier would come back. Often he would
remember more details, words spoken or even a
It worked for me as well. I also
realized that I often spotted in photos details
I had never noted.
In feature stories, consider sharing
an early draft with the subject. I've found
that more telling details, stories and moments
can come from the subject reading your first
That brings us to the final rule.
And it deserves no explanation.
Michael Mansur is editor of
the SEJournal and a writer for The
Kansas City Star.
**Excerpt from SEJournal, Summer
2003, available here.
Back to the top
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