Interview: Kenneth Weiss

Kenneth Weiss, a Los Angeles Times staff member since 1990, has covered the California coast and the oceans for six years.

Kenneth Weiss, a Los Angeles Times staff member since 1990, has covered the California coast and the oceans for six years.

This year he won the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting for the “Altered Oceans” series that describes the slow but startling transformation of the world’s ocean – mostly at the hands of human industrialism. He spoke to PRWeek about how to be an environmental reporter without becoming an activist, and sudden influx of green pitches he’s been getting.

PRWeek: Environmental issues can seem so distant and gradual that it must be hard to get the public's attention sometimes.

Kenneth Weiss: Exactly. I knew that if I wanted to tackle something as big as the oceans, and what's going on in the oceans, I needed a way to go in and grab the average reader and get their attention with the science, after we show them what's going on. So we went around looking for opportunities not to tell the story but to show it.

PRWeek: You unraveled quite a few startling figures and anecdotes in your series.  What did you find most surprising and how did you convey that your readers?

Weiss: What shocked me was not that that there are these low oxygen dead zones out there or there are, what people call, red tides. But it’s that it's everywhere; you can't go to a coastline and not find them anymore. And they're proliferating like mad. Until we came and looked at this, [these issues] were often reported as small isolated, often unexplained or mysterious events, and as a local story. But when you talk to the scientists, you realize while there may be slightly different organisms or events, they are all very similar and they are popping up all over the world. So what we really tried to do was show the effect and then ease back and say ‘what's the cause,’ or ‘what's the scientific explanation for the cause.’ 

PRWeek: Did you ever find yourself unintentionally playing the role not only of objective journalist, but also of activist?  How did you set those boundaries?

Weiss: I really relied heavily on the scientists, and for the most part completely apolitical, pure scientists who like to measure changes -- as opposed to a user group or industry that might be affected by some policy implications and have a reason to want to spin science. You will not see one person quoted anywhere in the series who is from an environmental group or some sort of NGO or an advocacy group. It was all scientists who spent their careers studying this.
PRWeek: How did you handle it when there was dispute of the facts within the scientific community?

Weiss: They debate things endlessly and there is always disagreement among scientists, and that actually is the slow-marching pace of science. But sooner or later a consensus emerges, so that’s what I was looking for as much as I could.  And sometimes I’d want to advance that a bit, so I’d talk to the leading advocates on both sides of issues.

PRWeek: How do you avoid falling into the pro vs. con rut with environmental issues?

Weiss: For the series I just stripped away all that “he said, she said,” because there wasn’t room, and also because I think the reader turns off very quickly when they get that. They just throw up their hands and say this is all so confusing, why should I pay attention to this?  But I’m a beat reporter, and one thing that I’ve learned is that all opinions are not created equal. And we’ll use our judgment and hopefully do it dispassionately, but it’s our job to help readers sort out what’s real and what’s contrived. 

PRWeek: What about offering people solutions on what they can do?

Weiss: For the series, I wanted to avoid top 10 lists of things you can do because it trivializes the problem, and also it was a space issue.  And newspapers are a good medium for complex issues, and the solutions are often very messy.

PRWeek: How has the resurgence of green awareness in the last few years affected the way you cover your beat?

Weiss: I have covered environmental issues before, and I have never seen the topic as politicized as it has been over the last six years. It seems to have hit its zenith of enhanced politics surrounding the climate change issue. That got wrapped around supporting the president and the war. But this seems to be on the wane.

PRWeek: Because so much of environmental reporting is focused on climate change these days, do you find it’s harder to get people’s attention to oceans?

Weiss: Yes, I think it is that way and always has been. From the surface it’s very hard to see changes that are going on in the ocean. [Ocean] stories continue to be a tough sell because when you go to that waterfront restaurant for a drink and you look out at that setting sun, everything looks ok. But that’s not the whole story.

PRWeek: What kinds of pitches are you getting?

Weiss: I’m getting a tremendous amount from every business you can imagine extolling the virtues of their green campaign. And I don’t want to sound skeptical because some of this is really important.  What Wal-Mart is doing is amazing -- they’ve really taken this on and they’re building new shopping centers with nothing but LED lights.  That’s a big difference than using incandescent bulbs. I don’t mean to belittle it, but I am hearing from all of sorts of industries I’ve never heard of before.

Name: Kenneth Weiss
Outlet: Los Angeles Times
Title: Staff writer
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