Interacting with the news media in your community — newspapers, radio, TV — can be a highly effective and efficient strategy to convey information about ecosystem services to a broad audience, both educating the public and influencing policy makers. As a scientist at an academic institution, government agency, or private firm, your expertise and standing in the community put you in a good position to work successfully with your local paper or broadcast media.

It may be helpful to view reporters as professional colleagues who face many serious challenges in their line of work — perhaps the two most important being the very tight deadlines they face and the fact that they sometimes must cover stories they know very little about. If you would like to communicate with the media to reach the public and/or elected or appointed officials, then your job is to make it easier for a member of the press to do a good story on the ecological topics you care about. The information below is designed to help you work effectively with your local media. These tips can also be useful for work with other media, such as national press or radio, magazines and newletters, or your university media service.

Contributing to the Local News

There are several different ways that you might contribute to the local news, thus ensuring that information about ecosystem services is printed in your local paper or discussed on the radio. This "tip sheet" focuses heavily on newspapers; however, because media opportunities vary widely between cities, your best bet is to explore both print and electronic venues in your region to identify the best options for a science story. In some papers, for example, science stories are given very little print space, so an interview on a radio talk show would be more effective. In other areas, the newspapers provide substantial print space on a science story. Some of the most effective, as well as most likely, opportunities are described briefly below.

Write a "letter-to-the-editor." The letters-to-the-editor page is the most read section in a newspaper, and it is reasonably easy to get a concise, timely, and relevant letter published in most papers. Simply monitor your local paper for related news stories, editorials, columns, or even letters by other readers — then follow-up with your letter.
Submit an opinion editorial (op-ed) for publication. After letters-to-the-editor, op-eds are the most commonly read part of the paper and are often clipped by congressional staff and local legislators. A concise, timely, and relevant op-ed is one of the most efficient means of influencing the public discourse on an issue. An op-ed is, however, a greater investment of your time, requiring both discipline to keep on point within constrained word limits and telephone follow-up with the paper to help ensure placement.
Become a resource for a reporter. Identify the reporters who write about environmental and scientific issues and then establish yourself as a reliable source of information — perhaps by inviting them to lunch or to your lab or study site, and then maintaining regular contact. Reporters who find an expert who will work with them and who is easy to understand tend to go back to that source time and again. This same concept will also work with TV reporters.
Meet with the newspaper's editorial board. Editorial boards are available and willing to meet with responsible people having something to say that is relevant to the community. As such, an editorial board meeting is a unique opportunity to persuade a paper to advocate a particular viewpoint. Editorials in regional and local papers are very useful when trying to reach congressional representatives or other professionals influenced by public opinion. Since meetings are relatively rare, choose your opportunities to meet with editors carefully, and schedule your meeting, if possible, before the paper writes on your subject.
Try talk radio and talk-back opportunities. You can get involved in talk radio by being interviewed as a guest or by calling in to talk programs. Nearly half of all American adults now listen to talk radio for at least an hour a week, and many radio, television, and cable news programs provide listeners and viewers time for editorial responses or other talk-back opportunities. Although talk radio cannot be relied upon for factual accuracy, there is nonetheless no better venue for you to educate and inspire citizens to take action — and calling in to a local talk show is a quick and effective way to counteract inaccurate claims.


Tailoring Language and Style for the Media

Once you identify potential opportunities for getting your point-of-view in the local news, you need to think about how best to get information into the hands of the reporter/ newscaster/talk show host. First, recognize that your scientific knowledge and expertise makes you someone that the press, and by extension, the general public, wants to hear from. Reporters generally want to write good stories, and the credibility and knowledge that scientists possess are highly valued by journalists. Here are a few things to remember about the media and how to work with journalists.

Identify your few "main messages" and concentrate on them throughout the conversation/ interview/written piece. (See "Developing Messages for the Media" below.)
Stay focused on your message; don't get sidetracked by tangential topics or questions. During an interview or conversation, for example, if you are asked a question that you don't know, explain that it is not your area of expertise or offer to get back with the information.
Make the connections between your issue and local or national events. Reporters are looking for a local angle — so, for example, you can describe how a local ecosystem services story relates to a national issue or how a proposed development in a nearby watershed affects your city's water supply.
Be timely. Your interaction with the media — whether it be a letter-to-the-editor, an interview, or an offer of assistance — must follow quickly on a breaking news story.
Tell a compelling story that creates a visual image. If possible, help a newspaper reporter find graphics to accompany the story. For a radio interview, use words that evoke images for the listener.
Speak simply but not simplistically. Don't "dumb down" what you want to say, but try to use everyday words rather than scientific jargon.
Don't assume too much background knowledge on the part of your audience, but steer clear of the classroom lecture style.
And finally, a few writing tips:
Keep anything that you write concise; and if it's for television, keep it even tighter and shorter;
Unless you are writing a LTE or op-ed, avoid opinion and flowery language; and
Write in an inverted pyramid style — making your most important and compelling point(s) first, then adding the background and supporting arguments later.


Developing Messages to Reach the Public

Of all the tips described above, the most critical element of success with the media is your main message. You must plan the messages that need to reach the public. Several messages about ecosystem services are listed at the end of this section. Conveying these — as well as the messages in this tool kit's "Key Points" piece — will help increase the public's understanding of and concern about ecosystems and the species and services they support. The more you reiterate these messages, the more they will appear as part of media stories on the natural world — and the more the public will be motivated to take protective actions.

The Context for Your Message
The language used in the messages, below, was chosen with care to reflect what the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ecological Society of America know about the public's understanding and perception of ecosystem services. These messages are the ones that we know will be most readily received by the public. We have learned, for example, that the term "biodiversity" does not resonate with the general public (many people perceive it as a government program!).

On the other hand, we also know that most Americans believe that we have a responsibility to maintain a clean and healthy environment for our families and for the future generations that will inherit the world we leave behind. Indeed, concern about the loss of habitats that clean the air and water and about possible birth defects caused by toxic chemicals in food and water resonate strongly with the public — and relate directly to ecosystem services. Recent focus groups also indicate that the public underestimates the degree to which human actions are responsible for the rapid loss of species and their habitats, blaming nature instead.

[For more information and assistance on the crucial concept of creating your main message and then staying on message, check out Environmental Media Service's piece on successful interviewing at See especially the "message development tool" available near the end of this section. This website is full of useful media information, so feel free to browse around the entire site.]


Messages to Communicate
Natural habitats, such as wetlands and forests, protect human health by purifying our water, filtering our air, protecting against flood damage, detoxifying our wastes, and regulating our climate.
The loss of natural ecosystems and the plant and animal species within them eliminates potentially critical new sources of medicines, crops, and materials for housing and clothing.
Many valuable habitats are being impaired or destroyed by human activity.
The worth of the Earth's ecosystems is largely unstudied and undervalued. Many ecosystem services are performed seemingly for "free" yet are likely worth many trillions of dollars. These services need to be accounted for in our economic analysis.
Protecting natural habitats can in fact be done; and the best way to achieve this goal is to form partnerships between governments, businesses, and citizens' groups, and to ensure that partnership activities are grounded in and informed by sound scientific principles.

Be sure, in any interview or conversation with a reporter, that you include some specific points directly related to the ecosystem service you are publicizing/promoting. For example: "Pollinators — such as bees, butterflies, bats and beetles — play a significant role in the production of over 150 food crops in the United States alone."


Evaluating Media Coverage

To be effective in the rough-and-tumble world of public debate, scientists need to monitor and critically evaluate media coverage of environmental science issues. This regular monitoring will help you understand how issues are covered in your local media, and help you determine what writing style to emulate or how to best frame your letter-to-the-editor or op-ed. To be published or interviewed, your media responses also need to be timely, so regular monitoring helps you stay on top of breaking stories and helps you identify opportunities to exploit. As you critically monitor and reflect on the coverage, you will be honing your own media skills — hearing effective "sound bites," for example, or recognizing how to frame ecological issues for the public to hear. In the alternative, you also "hear" the other side's arguments and learn more about whom they are, thus preparing yourself for the future. Finally, your media monitoring will keep you informed of important public meetings or community gatherings where you may be able to speak about ecosystem services. As you regularly monitor your paper or the radio for news and issues pertinent to ecosystem services, remember that not all news stories will be obviously relevant to the issue — e.g. "Cranberry Crop Suffers from Native Bee Shortage." Look deeper into stories and think about potential long-term ramifications. A news story covering a proposed housing development, for example, may involve the filling-in of wetlands. In addition to tracking how the issues are being covered in your local news media, you should also critically evaluate media coverage of the issues you care about. The following information is designed to help you evaluate what you read, hear, and see in the press and electronic media about ecosystem services.


Questions to Ask
Does the story set a context of "stewardship," reiterating that most Americans believe that we have a responsibility to maintain a clean and healthy environment for our families and for future generations?
Does the story make the connection between natural ecosystems and human health and services?
Does any economic discussion refer to the fact that ecosystems often provide many goods and/or life-support services upon which human civilization depends?
Does any economic discussion refer to the many industries and economic activities, including fishing and forestry, that are dependent upon healthy ecosystems?
Does the reporter "connect the dots" in the story, making the interdependence of nature clear and explaining the links to human well-being?
Does the reporter help the reader understand what an "ecosystem" is and what it takes for an ecosystem to stay balanced? Does the story describe basic ecological concepts such as resiliency/vulnerability or the value of all the species in the system?
Does the story cite the importance of habitat protection to species preservation, including the fact that habitat loss is the greatest threat to biological diversity?
Is extinction described as an inevitable aspect of nature, or as a result of human practices?


Look for Authoritative Sources
It's important to help reporters and talk show hosts distinguish between authoritative sources and "junk science." Listed below are some of the scientific societies, agencies, and publications that provide reliable scientific information on issues related to ecosystem services. Check to see if these or other reliable sources are quoted in a story and follow-up with the reporter if they are not.
American Institute of Biological Sciences
Ecological Society of America
Society for Conservation Biology
National Academy of Sciences
Several US government agencies, including the US Geological Survey's Biological Resources Division, the National Marine Fisheries Services, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Local Universities, government agencies, and research institutions.
Please refer to this tool kit's "Resources" piece for sources directly related to the particular ecosystem service.

Sources on the Web
The World Wide Web is now an important source of both information and misinformation on biological resources. A valuable service you can provide for local reporters is assistance identifying reliable web resources. Among the sites with useful information on both the scientific and policy aspects of biological resource issues, are the following:

Convention on Biological Diversity clearinghouse
Ecological Society of America and
National Wildlife Federation
Natural Heritage Work of the Nature Conservancy
Natural Resources Defense Council's Legislative Watch
Union of Concerned Scientists
??University of Missouri–St. Louis' "Links to Ecology"
World Conservation Monitoring Centre
World Conservation Union (IUCN)
World Resources Institute
World Wide Fund for Nature

[Please refer to this tool kit's "Resources" piece for websites directly related to the particular ecosystem service.]