Hundreds of environmental journalists are coming to Philly to learn how to do their jobs better

By Sophia Schmidt for WHYY – originally published April 2, 2024.

Hundreds of journalists covering climate change and the environment will converge in Philadelphia this week for the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference.

Now in its 33rd year, the conference will focus on journalism’s role in democracy, disinformation and activism.

“It’s a hot topic these days,” said Annie Ropeik, an independent climate reporter based in Maine and secretary of SEJ’s board. “In an election year…  attracting a lot of those political reporters on the East Coast, we felt like we needed to deliver some resources on how to cover climate disinformation and misinformation accurately.”

The conference will be hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center — which runs — and the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media. The conference includes panels, tours of the region, workshops and a keynote speech by EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

SEJ Executive Director Aparna Mukherjee, who previously worked at Resolve Philly, an organization that aims to rethink the practice of reporting, hopes SEJ gives members tools to pursue more community-centric journalism.

“Very credible, empirically researched, fact-based reporting: That has always been the hallmark of SEJ members’ work,” Mukherjee said. “But from the perspective of better understanding what community voice looks like in shaping coverage and thinking about what the impact of coverage could be, this part is very new I think for SEJ.”

The conference will also give journalists a space to think about how their work relates to advocacy, Ropeik said.

“Our ideas about what objectivity means are changing, our ideas about basically what we can say and what voices we center and what balance means are changing,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of those different perspectives in the mix in our membership… It’s a conversation that we really want to have and help people be better prepared to make those decisions about their own journalism.”

Sessions during this year’s conference include covering the energy transition, cutting through greenwashing, working with whistleblowers, finding stories in disaster data and representing rural communities fairly in environmental justice reporting.

Conference planners chose Philadelphia because it “reveals the potential of community resilience” — with residents fighting for trees to protect against hotter summers, neighborhoods free of trash and the right to breathe clean air — and because the political dynamics of Pennsylvania mirror much of the country.

Local residents who will speak during the conference include Youth Poet Laureate of Philadelphia Oyewumi Oyeniyi; journalist, organizer and fishmonger Feini Yin; abolitionist organizer Kermit O; Penn professors Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Michael Mann; and artist Eurhi Jones. Mayor Cherelle Parker and Gov. Josh Shapiro have also been invited to attend.

Meg McGuire, conference co-chair and publisher of Delaware Currents, hopes attendees “have fun and learn stuff” at the conference. She said spaces to socialize and share knowledge are key as more environmental journalists work as freelancers, rather than newsroom staff.

“Trying to find ways to support each other — enhance our commitment to telling people the truth of things as best we know at the time — is incredibly important,” McGuire said.