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Frank Sesno. Planet Forward

Telling the Human Stories Behind Climate Change

February 15, 2024
Planet Forward is inspiring and training the next generation of environmental storytellers – and empowering communities to act on climate solutions

Whether it's droughts or floods, most people experience our changing climate through its impact on water. The Walton Family Foundation believes that communities can adapt to the impacts of climate change and become more resilient. But for them to take meaningful action, they need access to high-quality, fact-based information.

Environmental journalism tells the stories of front-line communities working to protect water amid climate change. It elevates the voices of fishermen, farmers and ranchers and those experiencing urgent public health, economic and racial justice issues. This work is critical to helping us to understand these challenges and look for solutions together. The foundation’s Environment Program Director Moira Mcdonald sat down with Frank Sesno, director of Planet Forward at George Washington University, to discuss his work training the next generation of environmental journalists.

Leading Together: Investing in the Next Generation of Environmental Storytellers
Watch this featured conversation about the foundation’s support for Planet Forward and the work it’s doing to build a unique movement of young journalists telling the stories of people affected by climate change.

Moira McDonald: Tell me about the big picture in environmental journalism today. How is Planet Forward helping grow the field?

Frank Sesno: Environmental journalism is more important than it's ever been because of the multiple crises and challenges that we confront. We see people moving because of climate and water. We see efforts to convert to renewable energy and electrification through electric vehicles. There’s so much going on and it is so profoundly connected to the lives we lead. Environmental journalism connects these developments to people so they can understand how it affects them, their neighbors and their communities. Human stories make it real.

Planet Forward is trying to inspire the next generation of storytellers, whether through journalism, filmmaking or public service to connect, inform, mobilize and lead. Planet Forward is a multimedia publishing platform for students to tell stories about food, water, energy, the built environment, biodiversity and environmental justice. It’s also an inclusive conversation, because as we know, communities of color are on the front lines of climate change. We’ve built a broad consortium of colleges, universities and correspondent students from across the country – from very diverse communities – because this needs to be everyone's story.

Moira: One of the things that the Walton Family Foundation is really focused on is ensuring that communities who are experiencing climate change have a more central role in making the decisions. On the Colorado River, for example, that means ensuring more tribal voices are at the table. I know that Planet Forward has also been working to help bring more tribal reporters into the field, correct?

Frank: That’s right. A few years ago, two indigenous students approached us to develop the Indigenous Students Correspondent Program. They host a series of workshops where they hear from other indigenous experts, storytellers and journalists. They develop stories of buy-in from their communities, tell these stories and share them with a broader audience. We do similar work with HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and others. It’s a very deliberate effort to engage these voices and empower them to tell stories from and about their communities. These aren’t just stories about victimhood and poverty, but of resilience and innovation.

We see environmental reporters as those storytellers who are called to write the future.
Moira Mcdonald

Frank: If I could flip it for a second, why does the Walton Family Foundation invest in this space?

Moira: We believe that an informed public makes better environmental decisions. That's why we're committed to funding independent enterprising environmental journalism. We see environmental reporters as those storytellers who are called to write the future. At the same time, newsrooms covering these issues are increasingly spread thin. According to the Pew Research Center, newsrooms have shrunk by 25% in the last 15 years, and the environmental beat is often the first to go. But we know there’s strong public support for more fact-based reporting on the environment. We think we can help bridge the gap.

Frank: It’s so important. I started my career in local news at a very small radio station where we had full-time news people in a town of 16,000. That doesn't exist anymore. We made every issue real and local. If the river was running over its banks and flooding, if the bridge was collapsing, that's what you do in local journalism. You connect people to their community.

Moira: Beyond local reporting, you were also a White House reporter, and you won an Emmy. From your perspective, why is it important that philanthropy is increasing its support for journalism? How can the audience be confident that the stories they're reading aren't being too heavily influenced by funders?

Frank: I think we have a real problem when it comes to trust in journalism today. The public is very polarized. Broadly speaking, institutions do not win the trust of the public, and the media is right up there in that lack of trust.

So we need transparency across the board. Transparency means that those who are telling the stories explain to their audience where those stories are coming from, who the sources are, whether there's an agenda in a survey or a poll that they're sharing. Transparency also comes from where the funding comes from, whether it's a traditional advertiser or the funding is philanthropic. We just say clearly to people – this support helps us do our job, helps us put these stories out. But there is no influence from these organizations.

These organizations are funding the enterprise of getting fact-based, verifiable information creatively expressed so that people can be aware of it. So I think there's a very important, and frankly, a very easy role for philanthropy in this space to say, we are funding the enterprise, not the product.

Moira: We call it a firewall, creating that distance between newsroom and funder. And we hope the more that we lift this idea up, the more that we can create comfort both for journalistic enterprises and for philanthropy in this space.

Frank: We bring our editorial judgment based on key journalistic premises and principles. Pursue the truth. Attribute information with clear sourcing. Update stories as they develop. It takes resources to do this work. It's time-consuming and sometimes it's expensive. Getting people and transportation and going out into the field to see things. And if we're honest with people, I think they repay that with, we hope, trust.

Moira: Any favorite Planet Forward stories?

Frank: The first is our series of stories on water across all the wards of D.C. – all demographics, all neighborhoods. Part of the series covered how one nonprofit is trying to reshape the community's view of the Anacostia River, which local advocates have gathered around to clean up.

Another story I love came from a remarkable young woman at Cronkite School at Arizona State University, called “Water is Life: Groundwork to Solving Water Inequity on the Navajo Nation.” She looked at the percentage of people who live on the Navajo Nation who do not have running water and what a community organization has been doing to bring tanks and water to families. It was a very visual, beautiful video.

We also travel around the world with students for storytelling expeditions. Last year we went to Iceland. One student did a story on fisheries around Iceland and how climate change, population and commercial pressures have changed them.

Moira: I love how the stories you selected lift up all these different ways in which water is important. Water for wildlife. Water as a critical thing in people's homes. Water for food. Such important vignettes about how water and people are connected so deeply every day.

Frank: I think the water story marks our time. This country was founded and established on this notion of abundance. There was plenty of water in the ground. There was plenty in the sky. But we're now at a place where we have to think very deliberately about water. It’s the canary in the coal mine about how we have to change our brains to live inspired and sustainable lives. It’s an important story to tell.

We believe the best way to achieve lasting impact is to look, listen, learn and lead with our partners and the communities we serve. This series tells some of those stories of change.
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