Environmental Journalist Shares Thoughts on Career, Climate Change
Daniel Grossman, Ph.D., an award-winning journalist and radio/web producer with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, visited Kent State University recently to share his professional experiences with students, faculty and community members. Grossman was one of three panelists who spoke at the Kent State School of Communication Studies (COMM) Spring 2018 Global Issues Forum titled, “Advancing Understanding of Climate Change: The Role of Science and Global Communication.”
With a Ph.D. in political science and a Bachelor of Science in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Grossman contributes frequently to Yale Climate Connections and Yale Environment 360. He has reported from all seven continents, including near both the south and north poles. He has produced radio stories and documentaries on science and the environment for the National Public Radio shows Here and Now and Weekend Edition; Public Radio International’s show on the environment, Living on Earth, and news magazine, The World; the Australian Broadcasting Corporation; Germany’s Deutsche Welle radio; the BBC; and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, among other broadcast outlets. He has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Discover, Audubon, Scientific American, among other national publications. He wrote and produced the app book “Deep Water: As Polar Ice Melts, Scientists Debate How High Our Oceans Will Rise” (TED Books, 2012). He is coauthor of “A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists.”
COMM marketing assistant Mikala Lugen sat down with Grossman to talk about his career in environmental journalism, his favorite types of stories to report on and what he believes is the human impact on climate change.
What made you interested in environmental journalism?
“I studied science as an undergraduate, and basically I decided that I didn’t want to be a scientist. I knew I was interested in science, but I wanted to communicate it rather than perform it. I actually think that scientists and journalists have a lot in common; we’re both interested in seeking out the truth. I get to seek out the truth by seeing what scientists are learning, and I also have discovered that I think being a journalist is more fun than being a scientist. A lot of science is boring. You have to do a lot of setup, make your measurements and do background research. After that you have to do repeated trials and do the same thing over again. As a journalist, I can learn about what scientists are doing and come along as they are getting started or finished with their projected findings and produce a story on it. I get the ‘fun’ stuff about science without all the hard work.
“If you looked at a lot of science journalism, you would probably come to the conclusion that science is about making discoveries and announcing them. That’s not actually what my reporting is about. My reporting illustrates the process of research, not really the discoveries. Science is a process, and I really want to communicate that. I’ve reported on other areas of science like space, biology and health. I’ve always really been interested in nature and the environment, so reporting on climate change is a real niche I found.”
You’ve reported from all over the world for national and international publications. What was one of your favorite experiences of travelling to report on a story?
“First, I’ll say that a lot of people have a bucket list of places they want to go and I have a hard time with that. I actually don’t have a bucket list. Everywhere I’ve gone is because I’ve discovered something fascinating that I wanted to report on. I’m very curious so it’s hard for me to have a favorite. I’m actually conflicted about my travel because I feel like my travel is in the service of something important. I hope that by traveling here to communicate with the Kent State community that I’ve done something useful. I’m now planning a trip to Borneo to do some reporting on a terrible environmental disaster they’ve had there on cutting forests down. The carbon footprint of travel is really serious. It’s one of the worst things we do. Even if we spent the whole year riding a bicycle instead of driving, and then if we travel 10,000 miles back and forth to Borneo, that’s basically ruined everything. We shouldn’t travel unless we have a good reason for it.
“I did a research story around 2002 that was really fun in Australia on animals that existed on every continent 100,000 years ago called megafauna. Wherever humans arrived it seemed like the megafauna went extinct. The megafauna have gone extinct basically everywhere except Africa and Asia. Africa still has elephants and giraffes, but we used to have mastodons on this continent. I went with a guy who was drilling a core in the middle of a crater in the outback in Australia to uncover some sediment that would’ve blown into that crater and stuck there. The sediment would contain the records of the past environment and we could try to understand what changed when the megafauna went extinct. Was there a factored cause or a climate change? There are many people trying to date the arrival of people in Australia, and they are trying to date the relationship of the extinction of the megafauna with the arrival of humans.
“I remember that one of my first reporting stories was one that really made me realize that science journalism is fun. It was a story in Discover magazine on how animals use the Earth’s magnetic field for navigating, called magnetoreception. There was this couple that was doing research in Boca Raton, Fla., and they were looking at how turtle hatchlings find their way to the ocean after they hatch and their migration site in the ocean. They had little hatchlings in lycra suits so they could hold them and attached them to something in an aquarium and sensed what direction the turtles were trying to swim based off of the light source or magnetic field. I wrote the story and also did an audio profile of the turtle hatchlings erupting from the sand.”
What can humans do to lessen our carbon footprint?
“As the skeptics point out that the climate has always changed, if you have a truly geologic perspective at the Earth, you’ll see that the Earth has gone from being molten rock to covered in ice. When we talk about climate change, we need to specifically talk about this period of time and the conditions under which we live right now. Humans no doubt are making a change to the climate. It’s scientifically established with many lines of evidence that point to humans making an impact on what is happening today. Carbon dioxide influences the temperature of the planet, while our scientific instruments can show us the global temperature and carbon dioxide increasing.
“We have to get our priorities straight. I don’t think we need to make a lot of sacrifices in order for us to make a better world to live on. Oil companies are kind of a construct of society; they exist with our blessings. The oil companies fool us about what the results of using all the oil are and prospects about fixing it. Ultimately, we’re going to have to stop using that stuff. We can’t just stop using it tomorrow. We have to ween ourselves off it. The companies are getting in the way of that even though there are billions of us and just a couple thousand of them. We’re all in the same boat. There are solutions but no easy solutions. The whole world cannot live with the standard of living that the United States does right now and we as a country can’t continue it either. We also need to make a more concerted effort to do as much as we can do lessen our dependence on the fossil fuel. There is a lot that we don’t know or understand, we don’t know how the Earth is going to react to what’s happening.”
You wrote the book “Deep Water: As Polar Ice Melts, Scientists Debate How High Our Oceans Will Rise.” Share your thoughts on rising sea levels.
“My book was about another trip to Australia with a scientist. They were looking for deposits of ancient sea level. We don’t know what is going to happen with the sea level because we don’t know what is going to happen to the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. They ultimately control the sea level with their hundreds of feet of ice locked up. A small percentage of that is enough to raise sea level a lot. Are they going to melt and how fast? For millions of years, the Earth has undergone multiple ice ages and warm periods almost every 100,000 years. So 100,000 years ago, the Earth was one or two degrees warmer than our pre-industrial temperature and sea level was 20-30 feet higher. If it was like that today, there would be no Boston, New York, Miami or any East coast cities. One way to understand how much sea level could rise in the future is to study the past.”
What do you hope people will take away from your visit to Kent State University?
“I wasn’t brought here to advocate and preach about climate change. Through my stories I’m not saying that climate change is real. That is background to my stories. If I can explain all the cool research that we are trying to understand given that climate change is happening, then I think I’ve influenced subconsciously to accept this reality. I hope that people really take into account the gravity of climate change. Secondly, I hope that I can influence some people to appreciate the wonder of science. It’s important to understand the natural world. And thirdly, I might influence some people to become science communicators. It’s a pretty refined field and it’s not like there are many jobs in science journalism. If there aren’t specific advertised jobs, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”
Learn more about Grossman's projects at http://dangrossmanmedia.com. Watch the hour-long Global Issues Forum featuring Grossman and Kent State scientists Elizabeth Herndon, Ph.D., and Lauren Kinsman-Costello, Ph.D., online.
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is an innovative award-winning nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting in-depth engagement with underreported global affairs across all media platforms and a unique program of outreach and education to schools and universities. Kent State's School of Communication Studies is part of the Center’s Campus Consortium network of partnerships between the Pulitzer Center and more than 30 other universities and colleges to engage with students and faculty on the critical global issues of our time. At its core, the initiative aims to connect international reporting supported by the Pulitzer Center directly with communities across the U.S., expanding knowledge of the world, sparking conversations across disciplines and inspiring individuals to expand their horizons. These goals are accomplished through campus visits by journalists and international reporting fellowship opportunities for students.