Mott-funded program aims to increase diversity in environmental journalism

A young woman kayaks along the banks of a river.
Ashley Zhou, an intern at Bridge Michigan, explores a southwest Michigan river for an article she wrote about a Native American tribe restoring wild rice. Photo: Clara Anne Photos, courtesy of Bridge Michigan

Most journalists who cover energy and environmental issues in the United States are white, even though people of color often are most affected by the issues those reporters explore for print, broadcast and online media outlets.

A new program at Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism aims to change that. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation provided a two-year, $150,000 grant to support the diversity in journalism program.

The program will provide students with scholarships for tuition and professional development conferences, paid internships at media outlets, and on-the-job training at Great Lakes Echo, MSU’s environmental news service. The scholarships are available to MSU students with different life experiences and backgrounds who can help increase racial, ethnic and other diversity in environmental reporting.

Mott’s support for the program adds another dimension to the Foundation’s longstanding efforts to protect the Great Lakes and ensure that all residents of the region have access to safe, affordable water.

Since 2020, the Foundation has provided funding to four nonprofit, independent media outlets to enhance news coverage of water issues and help inform sound policy decisions in the Great Lakes region. Those four outlets — Detroit Public Television, Bridge Michigan, Michigan Radio and Circle of Blue — established the Great Lakes News Collaborative to bolster their coverage of water issues by sharing resources and working as a team. Four MSU students from diverse backgrounds — three are people of color, and one is a Russian immigrant — are serving internships this summer at those media outlets.

“Our Collaborative, while full of talented reporters, reflects the glaring lack of diversity among journalists covering the environment across the country,” said Kelly House, environment reporter for Bridge Michigan. “I see this internship program as one small step to do something about it.”

When going into the journalism world, I want to make sure I have all the experience possible to present myself accordingly and make sure that I not only represent myself, but I represent the Black community as best as I can — whether that’s at Michigan State University or beyond.”
Jada Vasser headshot. Jada Vasser, intern at Detroit Public Television

The energy-environmental beat is the least diverse in the U.S. journalism industry — 84% of those journalists are white, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

“That’s inexcusable,” House said, “and it has consequences for our readers, listeners and viewers, limiting which stories are told, how they’re told, and whose voices are included in stories.”

Kim Gleffe, an Environment program officer at Mott, said increasing diversity among environmental journalists is overdue. She said the MSU program could serve as a model for other journalism programs and media outlets across the U.S.

“Mott is proud to support a project that is increasing diversity at some of the best news outlets in the Great Lakes region,” Gleffe said. “We all stand to benefit from greater diversity in journalism, particularly in a region that is so diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.”

Gleffe said stories told by people who have been impacted by environmental issues are more authentic and can spur corrective action that has greater impact.

Working at the station has made me a better writer and a better journalist. Each day is a new challenge, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
A.J. Evans headshot. A.J. Evans, intern at Michigan Radio

David Poulson, senior associate director of MSU’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, said there is growing demand for reporters with diverse backgrounds, especially those who have personal experience with issues related to the environment and environmental justice. He said that the Knight Center’s mission is to help journalists do a better job of covering the most critical challenges the world faces, such as climate change, and that the lived experiences of students and reporters play a significant role in how they cover environmental issues.

“If you grew up middle class and white, you may never realize that your city has problems with air pollution, toxic dump sites, lead poisoning or a lack of fresh food and produce,” Poulson said. “But if you grew up in a marginalized community within the same city, you may be living amid all those problems. Those two potential reporters have a very different environmental experience of living in the same community.”

Poulson added that he believes the Mott-funded project will have immediate and long-term benefits for media outlets and the communities they serve.

“It immediately makes MSU’s School of Journalism better able to train aspiring journalists to report on the environment,” he said. “It immediately helps the Mott-funded Great Lakes News Collaborative better report on the environment. And it immediately helps readers, viewers and listeners make better decisions regarding some of our most important challenges to the environment.”

Those immediate impacts will become a legacy that can improve environmental journalism in the long-term, Poulson added.

I’ve loved diving deep into issues that impact Michiganders every day and going on-site to interview everyday people for articles.”
Ashley Zhou headshot. Ashley Zhou, intern at Bridge Michigan

Journalists at the four media outlets in the Great Lakes News Collaborative said the interns have brought enthusiasm, curiosity and new perspectives to issues they cover. At the same time, the interns said working with experienced reporters and editors is sharpening their skills.

Laura Herd, projects and content manager at Circle of Blue, said Vladislava Sukhanovskaya is writing articles about invasive carp, creating graphics and generating social media content. Sukhanovskaya, who has a Russian language podcast, also is teaching her fellow interns how to launch and maintain a successful podcast.

“I am a member of the LGBTQ+ community, which gives me an additional perspective on how environmental issues affect marginalized communities,” Sukhanovskaya said. She added that working with Circle of Blue’s journalists has taught her how to be a more effective interviewer and how to use the Freedom of Information Act to extract information from government agencies.

Anna Sysling, a producer at Detroit Public Television’s Great Lakes Now program, said having Jada Vasser as an intern has been a positive learning process for everyone involved.

“Jada’s perspective and enthusiasm has granted the Great Lakes Now team a valuable opportunity to learn about how the next generation of journalists are thinking about the intersections of environmental justice, climate, equity, health and access to natural spaces,” Sysling said.

Vasser said working for the region’s most widely viewed, televised environmental news program has improved her skills, exposed her to new issues and prepared her for work after college.

“When going into the journalism world, I want to make sure I have all the experience possible to present myself accordingly,” she said, “and make sure that I not only represent myself, but I represent the Black community as best as I can — whether that’s at Michigan State University or beyond.”

I am a member of the LGBTQ+ community, which gives me an additional perspective on how environmental issues affect marginalized communities.”
Vladislava Sukhanovskaya headshot. Vladislava Sukhanovskaya, intern at Circle of Blue

Vincent Duffy, news director at Michigan Radio, said his staff is “super pleased” with the work of A.J. Evans, who was writing about sports for print and digital publications before his internship began.

Evans said working at Michigan Radio has made him a better writer and a better journalist.

“Each day is a new challenge,” he said, “and I couldn’t be more grateful.”

House said Ashley Zhou arrived at Bridge with an interest in covering marginalized groups.

“Ashley quickly developed a knack for telling the stories of those most harmed by pollution, habitat loss and other environmental problems,” House said.

Zhou said the internship has taught her the connection between the environment and other issues, and it’s given her a chance to explore important topics.

“I’ve loved diving deep into issues that impact Michiganders every day,” she said, “and going on-site to interview everyday people for articles.”

House said she hopes the diversity internships entice more MSU students to pursue careers in environmental journalism.

“Each of our interns has at least a year of school ahead of them before they enter the job market, and first-time job seekers don’t always get their pick of beats,” House said. “But in five or 10 years, I hope we can look at newsrooms across the country and see some familiar faces covering the environment.”