Time was when journalists would describe themselves as “print reporters” or “broadcast reporters.” Nowadays, they all need to be multi-media, and experts underscore the value of visuals and images in effective communications.

LUBBOCK, TX — Reporters struggling to bring the climate story alive need can benefit their audiences by making better use of photos, charts, and drawings. Two photographers, an illustrator, and an editor shared ideas on how to do so at a panel talk at the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) annual conference.

“There’s an old saying in photojournalism. The best camera is the one you have with you,” said photographer and writer Michael Kodas, who moderated the panel.

“It used to be when I was in newspapers that you went out and would work a good part of the day to make one really good picture that could be used well in the newspaper,” Kodas said. “And you might have thousands of also-rans — or other really great pictures, but just didn’t have the space. Now we can put all those pictures online.”

Kodas said writers recognizing a need to also take photographs have to muster some courage. “When I work with writers who haven’t taken pictures before, I find that people just don’t get close enough,” Kodas said. “It takes a little bit of chutzpah to go and shove a camera in front of somebody’s face. Generally I try to teach my students and others to get close and spend a little time getting to know your equipment, and spend a little time developing a relationship with the person you’re photographing, so it’s not an afterthought.”

Bugs … from ‘Smooshing’ to Collecting and Drawing

Emily Coren, a science illustrator, said people love drawings and that art, the old-fashioned kind, can tell a great deal. She launched her project, WalkaboutEm, a daily blog of uploaded field drawings, in Zambia. While carrying a jug of water, she noticed a green bug clinging to her clothing. She stopped to draw it. “The kids in the village went from ‘smooshing’ bugs to collecting them and drawing them in three days.”

On her blog, she uploads her field sketches and paintings, which she does with tiny notebooks and kid-sized paint sets. “It’s really a hook. Everything is uploaded from a smart phone. That is kind of exciting. People like drawings. I don’t know why, but they really like pictures of ants and bugs.”

Coren told SEJ meeting attendees that simple explanatory illustrations and diagrams can help explain complicated enterprises like hydrologic fracturing, or fracking.

Photographer Jerry Redfern said his reporting revolves around visuals — and not the other way around. He spent seven years documenting uncollected bomb “ordinance” in Laos with his wife, Karen Coates. Their book documents four-billion pounds of explosives in Laos starting in the 1970s, about 40 percent of which remains unexploded and in the ground, regularly injuring or killing citizens.

As a Scripps fellow at the University of Colorado for this academic year, Redfern is looking at how best to tell the story of life along the Rio Grande: his approach includes photographs as his medium of first choice, but it also includes maps, or overlays of maps with pictures, using maps freely available.

“I’m moving from telling stories in a particular photographic way and trying to figure out how to tell them in a more open hand-held medium,” Redfern said.

National Geographic environment editor Dennis Dimick, who joined the panel at Kodas’s invitation only as it was getting ready to start that morning, said he had begun making slides with easily available data when invited to speak to a class eight years ago. Then he realized the possibilities of bringing statistics alive.  He prepared the two visuals below on short notice, illustrating how even materials prepared on a moment’s notice can enhance communications and presentations.*

“We’re no longer just writers or photographers. Often what we’re asked to do is go out and talk to the public.” But poor-quality slide shows leave speakers apologizing for their slides, he added, and can contribute to their audiences being less well-informed.

Dimick also said that what seems a problem — not owning big fancy,  and expensive, equipment — can actually be a plus. Individuals being photographed often will freeze up if they see giant cameras, but a decent-quality phone camera can take adequate images these days without making people so apprehensive.

— Christine Woodside

Editor’s note: Dimick tells The Yale Forum that although he’s fairly quick with visualizing statistics using his favorite programs, he hadn’t started from scratch with these slides the morning of the SEJ panel. The two slides posted here came from a set of four he had put together in about an hour last June using Apple’s Keynote software. He used data from a National Geographic September cover story on extreme weather.