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Sustain What

Earth Institute Announces Resilience Media Project

by |May 11, 2020
Dale Willman, who will lead the new Earth Institute Resilience Media Project, runs a discussion of resilience journalism

Dale Willman, who will lead the new Earth Institute Resilience Media Project, here runs a discussion of resilience journalism in Miami. Photo: Kate Stein, WLRN radio

To foster communication progress on systemic grand challenges like pandemic and climate risk, the Earth Institute is launching a Resilience Media Project this spring as part of its new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability. Under the initiative’s broader goal of advancing and spreading communication tactics and innovations for sustainability and resilience, the Resilience Media Project will work to smooth the interface between expertise, data and the media, and disseminate effective journalism practices in the United States and abroad.

In this time of pandemic, the Resilience Media Project’s first goal is to give journalists tools to better cover issues surrounding the health-care and economic crisis, and to show them how to better envision stories that look toward solutions. “In these troubling times journalists are the first line of defense against misinformation,” says Dale Willman, a longtime public radio reporter and photojournalist who has run journalism training programs and workshops from South Sudan and Costa Rica to Miami and the Adirondacks. Willman is directing the project. “Journalists help to inoculate the public against falsehoods and outright lies by offering them the truth and telling stories that provide a clear path forward.”

Willman has already partnered with the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia, sending two reporters to cover work the center has been doing in Africa. He has also run three widely watched live, public webinars for journalists — one on economic resilience featuring noted economists Jon Erickson, Juliet Schor and Nate Hagens, and the second on the profound imbalances and justice issues raised by both the COVID-19 epidemic and climate change. The webinar included Mustafa Santiago Ali and noted public health advocate Cheryl Holder, as well as the Earth Institute’s first writer in residence, Mary Annaïse Heglar of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The latest webinar featured photographers from the legendary agency Magnum Photos. They spoke about how journalists can remain safe while covering a pandemic. The next webinar will take place on May 14, when Willman will be discussing with experts, including Michael Burger of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia, the drastic changes in environmental regulation under the Trump Administration, specifically rule changes going into effect during the pandemic. Register here.

Related: The Sustain What public webcast series from the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability is also focusing substantially on media issues and options, from covering the White House to reporting in the world’s poorest regions.

This year’s COVID-19 pandemic is profoundly challenging established norms for everything from health-care systems to the basic tenets of capitalism as we knew it in the 20th century. The situation is no different for journalism and the wider landscape of risk and solutions communication. And, of course, the economic hit from the epidemic is accelerating the implosion of local and regional news media just as the need for effective reporting is greatest.

Once the current crisis passes, the Resilience Media Project will add visiting fellowships, building on a resilience program Willman created and ran through three years at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. The Resilience Fellowship program will boost the capacity of scientists, journalists, educators, students and other citizens to communicate in ways that can speed progress toward a more sustainable relationship between our species, our planet and each other.

woman looks through microscope

A Resilience Media Fellow examines a lake core sample under the watch of professor Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College. Photo: Dale Willman

The goal of the fellowships will be to spread newsroom capacity to go beyond the longstanding habit of reporting on environmental and societal threats mainly after the hard knocks hit. Through field visits and meetings with climate scientists, urban planners, city sustainability officials and communities in harm’s way, participants will come away equipped to convey stories putting meaning into the word resilience, which too often is tossed around as a vague label.

The Resilience Fellowship program will offer established storytellers in any medium an immersive week of learning about the conditions that amplify societal and environmental risk and practices that can boost adaptive capacity in a changing climate. It consists of both online trainings and intensive face-to-face gatherings where journalists learn in the field from leading experts in resilience science.

“There’s never been a more urgent need for such training,” says Earth Institute Director Alex Halliday. “In places rich and poor, humans are building what some geographers call an ‘expanding bull’s eye’ in climate danger zones just as human-driven global warming is getting into high gear.”

The Resilience Media Project and its fellowship program, part of the Earth Institute’s new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability, synchronizes with Columbia-wide initiatives to address climate change, announced in January by President Lee C. Bollinger and led by Halliday.

At Columbia, participating journalists will have access to world-leading experts in climate hazards, climate adaptation, environmental health and urban resilience, policy and planning, disaster preparedness and media innovation.

“I’m thrilled to become a part of the extraordinary team of professionals at the Earth Institute,” Willman says. “Over the past three years I’ve already seen immense success with this type of immersive program for journalists. By moving to the Earth Institute, we will be able to significantly expand the program’s reach and impact at a critical time for public understanding of important scientific information.”

Andrew Revkin, the veteran New York Times environmental journalist who runs the Earth Institute Initiative on Communication and Sustainability, said Willman’s resilience fellowship is a perfect fit with other efforts around Columbia to forge new paths for media impact around climate. These include the Columbia Journalism Review’s Covering Climate Now initiative and a special “Climate + Resilience” Magic Grant offered this year by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the Columbia Journalism School.

“What’s really great about Dale’s project is the community it’s creating, with over 120 participants so far, from across the country and around the world,” Revkin said. Past participants in Willman’s resilience workshops include Talia Buford of ProPublica, Nadja Popovich of The New York Times, Akshat Rathi now with Bloomberg News in London and Leo Lagos of La Diaria in Uruguay.

The Earth Institute also recently launched a related “climate risk school” with the global investment management firm AllianceBernstein in which scientists and portfolio managers are together shaping methods for integrating climate risk into financial analysis. The new fellowship is also complemented by the annual Energy Journalism Initiative of the Center on Global Energy Policy.

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