Environmental Journalism With Amanda Griscom Little

Amanda Griscom Little, one of the advisory board members of Sundance Channel’s environmental programming block THE GREEN, is a talented and convivial journalist who understands the importance of asking good questions and listening carefully to the answers given.

Recently, Amanda was invited to guest lecture for an environmental journalism class at Bowdoin College. On the topic of how to run an interview, she cautioned journalism students from going into an interview with their “[environmental] cudgel raised.” Pressuring an interview subject with enormous open-ended questions like, “can Wal-Mart go green?” instantly puts the interviewee on the defensive and closes doors on potential subjects. This is important for a good journalist to keep in mind, because you should always be trying to find new ideas or statements from an interviewee, as this makes your story unique rather than another facsimile of countless other stories. Amanda suggests that students ask a question like, “Will it work to create a hybrid truck fleet at Wal-Mart?”

Amanda Griscom Little is really talking about a two-sided discourse, where the journalist rarely reveals their carefully hidden hand and instead attempts to get a look at all of the cards in an interviewee’s hand. Her advice to the journalism class directly relates to any conversion on the environment. Being puritanical about something, especially when you are trying to get someone to open up to a new idea, is the easiest way to scare somebody away and to make them stop listening to you. It will even get the person to stop listening to him- or herself, as he or she will be reacting to your puritanical questions (or implicit judgments of them) in a defensive manner rather than really thinking about how to answer your question.

This type of journalism seems to be employing a fair amount of the Socratic Method [en.wikipedia.org], where one person leading a debate (the interviewer) asks many specific questions that surround and support a larger idea. These questions aim to expose the individual premises that collectively form the foundational support structure for a larger idea.

The point at which an interviewer should not employ Socratic method would naturally be the end point, where one is less interested in winning the debate than in getting the interviewee to expose the underpinnings of their larger position on the big issue of the environment.

Given the rampant judgmental tone of many journalists in today’s mass media, it seems as if Amanda Grisom Little’s advice to avoid a puritanical approach to journalism is extremely relevant to the needs of media consumers.

This post is inspired by a story on Bowdion University’s Website [www.bowdoin.edu].