University of North Texas Nature Writing Symposium talk: “Changing the World One Story at a Time”

April 2007

Copyright © 2007 Wendee Holtcamp –




Suppose you are given a bucket of water. You're standing there holding it. Your home's on fire. Will you pour the cool water over the flames or will you sit there and write a poem about it?

-- Rick Bass on his dilemma to save Montana's Yaak Valley or write about it.


The first time I read that quote I thought, wow, that really captures what I’ve struggled with being both a long-time environmentalist and an environmental writer.  For those of you who don’t know of him, Bass is a well-known nature writer who grew up in TX, but now writes from Montana and he’s published several books and magazine articles. He also has been a fierce advocate for saving Montana’s Yaak Valley, where he now lives.


His quote refers to this dilemma in environmental journalism between getting involved, and merely writing about an issue you care passionately about.




The traditional journalism code of ethics includes “truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability.”


NYT “We tell our audiences the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it


Today I’m going to focus on and pick apart this concept of objectivity; closely related to impartiality, or you’ll sometimes hear it called neutrality.


Specifically, I’m going to talk about a rift among journalists about advocacy vs. objectivity. In other words, is it ok for journalists get involved in advocacy of any type or write advocacy journalism, or does this compromise their journalistic integrity?



I’m going to give some definitions, talk about what other journalists and writers think about it, and then show that not only is objectivity impossible to achieve, but that striving for it may actually fail to uphold the public accountability part of the journalistic code of ethics, for a couple of reasons.


I believe what we need is not necessarily objectivity but rather to consistently uphold the rest of the code of ethics – maintaining INTEGRITY and ACCURACY in your writing, and to be clear about your perspective upfront.


I’m going to talk about how narrative nonfiction writing can make more of a difference in the world than traditional ping pong style journalism.


Last I’m going to talk about my own Rick Bass-like situation - raising awareness of and writing articles about sand mining in Houston’s San Jacinto River.



I said writers should be clear about their perspective upfront…


My perspective overall is that I think the world has too many environmental and social problems for citizens to just simply go to work, go to sleep, and live for vacation or retirement and not do any kind of civic work.


There certainly may be chapters in our life when we need to go to school or focus on our families, but I believe that the best and most fulfilling life is one spent improving society in some way or another.


Although there are a lot of social and environmental problems in the world, I am an optimist and I think it’s possible to achieve a sustainable society, but I think it will require far more civic participation than we currently see.


In the words of my favorite Dr Seuss story, the Lorax, which just may be the best environmental story ever written:


“But now, says the Once-ler,
Now that you´re here,

the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.  It´s not.




So in my writing, I try to encourage that in some small way by writing stories I hope will educate, inspire, and impassion people about issues that I feel are worthy of getting more attention.


The roots of my environmental ethic and my desire to make a difference in the world come from my unconventional childhood. I was raised in part by a hippie dad in a tiny Oregon log cabin with no running water. My dad chose a life of voluntary simplicity and poverty. We caught crawdads, picked huckleberries, listened to Rastafarian music, and did things such as march and picket in protest of a nuclear power plant.


Growing up in a hippie household, as opposed BEING a hippie, what I took from that countercultural era was Question Authority. Question the Status Quo. Think for yourself! I did not ever want to be brainwashed.


So I became a scientist, and only became a writer sort of by happenstance. I earned a Bachelors and then a Master’s degree in wildlife ecology & started writing only after my daughter was born – that was 12 years ago. Now I work full time as a freelance writer, and I’ve published in many magazines, mostly about the environment, wildlife and ecotravel but also about science and faith issues.


I tend to gravitate toward positive stories, or at least solution-based stories. Even in the worst tragedy, there’s always a lesson, and there’s always a way forward.


If we’re lucky, we may write something that helps make a difference in saving a species or ecosystem, or changing a law, or helping improve a person’s life.




So let’s talk about Objectivity, and Writing.


I like to think of environmental nonfiction writing as falling on a sort of continuum. There’s straight journalism like you read in a newspaper (who, what, when, how, why) and then there’s the more literary type of nature writing at the opposite end of the spectrum. Most magazine feature-length article writing tends to be a sort of hybrid of the two.


That includes Narrative nonfiction which is part transmission of fact and part storytelling.


Narrative nonfiction: “combining the immediacy of journalism and the power of true accounts with the texture, read, drama, emotional punch, point of view and broad themes of a novel.” Or a short story as the case may be for magazine articles.


Advocacy journalism: genre of journalism (unlike simple propaganda) that is fact-based, but supports a particular point of view on an issue. Most advocacy journalists reject the supposed objectivity of the mainstream press. – Wikipedia


One journalist I know differentiates between being an environmental advocate and being an advocacy journalist. Mark Schleifstein, with the Times Picayune says that if you start with a preconceived conclusion, that is advocacy journalism. I don’t know if I completely agree with that definition, because I think that good advocacy journalists can and should still delve deeply into a story and find out the facts and not necessarily just be bending everything to suit their needs.


Most environmental magazines are published by nonprofit organizations. For example Sierra Magazine is pub’d by the Sierra Club, which has a particular mission. Likewise with Audubon, National Wildlife, Defenders and other magazines- they are all run by nonprofits. 


What they choose to cover, and how they cover it, is without a doubt influenced by the organization that publishes the magazine. That does not mean the articles are factually inaccurate.


OBJECTIVITY – What is it…?


Some believe objectivity means reporting facts without bias.


Some believe it means an article must be balanced and include two or more points of view.


Others believe it means the reporter must hold a neutral point of view, extending this even to their personal lives.


Some journalists can go so far in their attempts to be “detached” and “objective” that they don’t even vote.


I’m going to read a few lines from the very extensive NYT ethics policy, which is sort of an industry standard for traditional journalists and TV reporters.


New York Times Ethics policy








So they are telling their journalists what they can do on and off the job. They can’t participate in politics, be associated with any cause, serve on any boards, or co-author books with anyone associated with a cause.


The best they can do is to create the “illusion” of objectivity, by barring journalists from participating in civic life, and then the whole thing becomes sort of a farce. You take these techni-color people and force them to wear colorless neutral suits on and off the job. It covers up their true colors but does not remove them.  Journalists all have opinions and perspectives and it WILL influence the writing and coverage EVEN when they’ve cut them themselves off from playing any civic role.


It seems that the policy serves more to protect the interests and reputation of the media corporation than to serve society – or the journalists for that matter. They don’t want their company to be maligned by someone saying Joe Reporter is biased because he’s wearing a Sierra Club t-shirt.


OBJECTIVITY – Impossible goal

As Marguerite Duras said:


“Journalism without a moral position is impossible. Every journalist is a moralist. It's absolutely unavoidable. A journalist is someone who looks at the world and the way it works, someone who takes a close look at things every day and reports what she sees, someone who represents the world, the event, for others. She cannot do her work without judging what she sees.”


Lynching coverage in NY Times example – 1890s



I went on the archives for the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) listserv and there was a big discussion about advocacy and objectivity back around 1998.


Here were some quotes from the discussion


Mike Mansur, newspaper journalist

“I also am not naive enough to think that journalists don't have biases or that we should pretend that we don't. We obviously do. Our struggle, I think, is to recognize them, deal with them and be as fair as we can in every story we produce.”


Jim Schwab, freelancer

“What true professionals do is put analysis first, and come to a position of advocacy only when they are convinced by their analysis that advocacy is called for. … [R]eal maturity lies in the ability to keep listening even if, perhaps especially if, you are advocating.”


Mark Schleifstein, newspaper journalist

As someone who has been labeled an advocacy journalist at times, I can tell you that there is a huge difference in my mind between being that and being an environmental advocate who writes. When we wrote "Oceans of Trouble: Are the World's Fisheries Doomed?", we came to conclusions based on our reporting, and did not write our stories based on our preconceived ideas.


Jason Rylander, freelancer

“We should never shrink from calling a spade a spade”


Karl Grossman, journalist & journalism professor at SUNY:

the owners of media institutions aren't comfortable with journalism as a means of change.”


“Rachel Carson could be regarded as laying the foundation for
contemporary environmental journalism with Silent Spring: an expose in the
finest tradition of investigative reporting. She was accused by the chemical
industry of practicing advocacy -- and admitted she did with Silent Spring.”


Grossman goes on to say that "environmental reporters should be prepared to ask probing questions, to challenge fundamental assumptions, and to make clear connections. Those who have chosen to work at this kind of reporting have an unusual responsibility as messengers who raise issues which directly affect the health and survival of humankind and the biosphere.”


“Superficial, ping-pong journalism doesn't do.”



This notion of objectivity remains firmly entrenched in journalism.


One recent example – it’s not a written example but a network news example – but some criticized CNN anchor Anderson Cooper for his "on screen breakdown" in New Orleans. He sort of angrily called out Senator Mary Landrieu about the politician’s hypocrisy, patting one another on the backs while people were literally dying.


Richard Bradley, former editor at George Magazine criticized him saying: 

“It turns the hurricane story into serial drama, infotainment, rather than a news event to cover… In the long run, Cooper’s tears discredit both himself and CNN because they subvert the ideal of objectivity. Reportorial neutrality may be an impossible goal, but it’s still the best way to be fair, accurate and credible over the long term.


On the other hand, New York magazine wrote, “Cooper’s on-air breakdown was an honest expression of his complicated personality—and a breakthrough for the future of television news.”


Cooper’s boss at CNN said in an interview, “He brings a new dimension to the job, which is a concept of an anchor as a kind of missionary. It’s a new model for thinking about what the anchorperson ought to be.”


I don’t think a story of this importance can be told with the simple he said-she said model of journalism. It simply does not serve the public’s best interests.  It also shows how when people are emotionally moved by a scene or an event, seen through media, they become moved to action. They got fed up with the politicians, and voted them right out of office. 




So now I’m going to talk about why I think that striving for objectivity may fail to serve society’s best interests. I think that the traditional model, in part, leads to reader apathy, which in turn results in social and environmental problems persisting far longer than they really need to.


Healthy democracy requires citizen involvement, but if no one cares, no one is moved to action.




I think that we – and I speak for Americans because that’s what I know best - can be incredibly generous people. And I think we care about the state of the world, and we want to help when we know HOW to help. When 9/11 happened in NYC people wandered around wanting to help – people donated $1 billion to the American Red Cross for the families of 9/11 victims. Back in 1985, when “We Are the World” played on TV, they raised $50 million for famine relief in Africa.





So why do so many social and environmental problems persist?


First, the detached method of journalism doesn’t pass along the full Truth of a story. Truth is more than facts and quotes and sides. Every important story involves emotion and drama. Real life involves emotion and drama. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that we should sensationalize news. 


In contrast, when So you read in the newspaper about Joe Blow getting murdered downtown in your city, and you really don’t care. That is sensational. There’s no context.


Maybe we don’t need to know every time someone gets murdered in our city, maybe we just need to know the stories that have a greater relevance, told in a more narrative format. But if you read a narrative true-crime story of that same murder maybe in Reader’s Digest or New York Times magazine, you begin to feel interested and compassionate about the people involved. You may discover this is a story about drug use, or about domestic violence. It becomes more relevant.


The same is of course true for environmental stories such as global warming. I know for myself, I heard global warming mentioned over and over and I was just mostly apathetic or detached. It wasn’t until I watched Al Gores documentary An Inconvenient Truth that it hit home for me and I realized this is really an important issue. And not only that, there’s something I can do about it.


The delivery method is key. And the documentary form is parallel to the written form of narrative nonfiction.


So I believe that readers need to understand and feel the emotions, and the relative importance of different aspects of a story, to know why we should care. Or in the end we won’t. And if we don’t care, we’re not going to be moved to action. And therefore, social problems persist.


Another criticism of the traditional media - not directly related to objectivity - but which has the same end result of desensitizing people: When you have Britney Spears underwear escapades right there on the same front page with the Iraq war or global warming – issues that actually are relevant to your life and greater society - the public become unable to discern the relative importance of issues, and people just stay apathetic.


PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY Serves the media corporations

First, these policies of “objectivity” seem written to protect the business reputation of the corporations that run the media. They do not want their journalists or their corporation to be maligned by someone else’s criticism of their articles by associating the journalists with any cause one way or another. But I'm not sure that serves society nor journalists.



Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model (first pub’d 1988) that the model of objectivity heavily favors the viewpoint of government and powerful corporations. Fascinating model. In a nutshell, mainstream media is owned by conglomerates that sell a product (readers/audiences) to advertisers. It also says that the media are disproportionately influenced by flak given by powerful people, including politicians.


PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY Removes intelligent ppl from democracy

I’ve always thought it was ironic that some of the most intelligent and critically thinking people are “prevented” from interacting and influencing political and social systems and causes of the day because of the companies they work for. They remove themselves from civic life and try to become “neutral people” so they can write this neutral/objective journalism. It almost feeds into the propaganda model, that they are serving the interests of corporations, though as far as I know this is not actually a part of the model.




So if objectivity is not possible – or even beneficial – then what is the alternative? 


Since objectivity is really impossible to actually achieve, essentially every writer and every publication is writing with some “bias” or influence, whether they try to prevent it or not. We all live within the culture and era we do, and hence are influenced by the cultural norms and mores of the day, as are the publications we write for. The NYTimes in the 1890s by thinking it was reporting with utmost neutrality, for all intents and purposes it was giving the message that lynching was ok, rather than a moral outrage. That would not be tolerated today. If what is considered neutral changes; there is no true neutrality.


So what I’m saying is that all writing is advocacy to some extent or another.


But in any writing you do, I want to stress the importance of accuracy and integrity.

An advocacy article may be persuasive in nature, but it should be written accurately and should present facts in a truthful manner - not deliberately exaggerated, or out of context. When you skew facts, or take quotes and facts out of context writing becomes propaganda. That is not good!


Every piece of writing should still seek to find the unvarnished truth to the best of your ability. I just don’t agree that truth is as simple as objective journalism makes it out to be. I think that everyone has their own perspective on what truth is, and so long as the writer is clear about their own perspective, and seeks to present the facts and the entire picture of truth, then it’s up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.


ADVICE TO STUDENTS: We’re not going to do away with newspapers overnight, but if you’re a student wanting to go into writing as a career, I encourage you to write for magazines or independent publications. Try your hand at narrative nonfiction – a method that allows you to use facts but also tell them in a more powerful and effective way.

Alternative publications have advantages in independence, focus, and access, which make them more effective public-interest advocates than the mainstream media.”

– Sue Careless

To READERS, I say it always is beneficial to stay aware of who is writing, what their perspective is, and what the publications influences are.



In an April 2000 address to the Canadian Association of Journalists, writer Sue Careless gave the following suggestions:


PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY – Power of the Media to Effect Change

A healthy democracy requires citizen action.


It’s only by becoming aware of issues that citizens get involved. And where do people learn about issues?


According to an NSF study, the majority of Americans learn about science and the environment through media.


So writers play a very important role in influencing what I call the “global marketplace of ideas,”-- which ideas circulate about in the world and hence become the “national conversation” and ultimately the national agenda. In other words, what are people talking about, what’s on people’s minds, and what’s going to be done about it.


Compact: One example of the power of the media– A group of 10 friends in SF who got fed up with consumer culture, they were tired of the wastefulness of society, and wanted to do something beyond recycling. They decided that they were going to form a Compact and not buy anything new for a year, except for consumables like food, etc. They started a Yahoogroup forum, and then SF Chronicle did an article about the concept and the group. After that, the group took off and had about 3000 people. A year later, with more media coverage – they were on the Today Show then some radio shows and Money magazine, and now the group has over 8000 members, with subgroups springing up all around the world, from Hong Kong to Finland and of course all over the US.


That just exemplifies the power of the media to take a small local project or idea and spread it to where it becomes part of what I call the “national conversation.”



So let’s take this back to Texas, and back to the environment.


An article of mine was published in the December 2006 issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, “ Many Bayous, One River” about sand mining on the San Jacinto River.


I’m going to read a couple of paragraphs. It starts

One of my favorite photos shows my two young children on the riverbank, laughing, wearing nothing but mud. Living on a tributary of the San Jacinto River for years, my kids awoke every morning to sunshine sparkling on its surface. When I felt the stress of life, I would walk outside and sit on a log, watching the river under my feet, remembering the words of Winnie the Pooh: “Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”

In the San Jacinto and its tributaries, my family has kayaked and caught crappie and watched beavers play. We have piled a tent, sleeping bags, a camp stove and two kids into a tandem kayak and camped on an island in the middle of Lake Houston, the impounded San Jacinto. A bald eagle swooped down and captured a fish in front of the kayak. The river has helped raise my two children in the same way the Oregon woods nourished my spirit as a child.

Nature writer Rick Bass wrote: “Suppose you are given a bucket of water. You’re standing there holding it. Your home’s on fire. Will you pour the cool water over the flames or will you sit there and write a poem about it?”


I used a first-person voice as I went out in the field with the biologists who did a study on how sand mining impacted the fish in the river, but I made it personal by showing how the San Jacinto River has influenced my life and my children’s as they’ve grown up on its edges.


My involvement with the San Jacinto started about 7 years ago when TPWD biologist Andy Sipocz said to me, everyone talks about this mountaintop mining in the Appalachians and mining in the west, but no one ever talks about the sand mining in our back yards – in Houston. He said, why don’t you write a story about it? It took me 7 years, but I finally did.


First, I started a nonprofit group, San Jacinto Conservation Coalition, and we had Andy come talk to a group about sand mining. That was about it. Our group did other stuff but nothing related to sand mining. Then in 2005 I looked at some aerial maps and realized how fast the bottomland hardwood forests along the river were being destroyed by the sand mining.


So along with Legacy Land Trust, I nominated the river as an American Rivers Most Endangered River. And it got selected. I thought, now the media will pay attention.


I tried to get others to cover the issue, such as the Houston Chronicle, because I was concerned about this whole advocacy thing. But no one would.


I went to TCEQ and showed them aerial photos of the violations, but they never followed up. 


So finally I pitched the article around and my editor at TPW magazine said let’s do it. And it came out last December.


A couple weeks before the conference my editor to say the TX Senate had requested 20 copies of the magazine with that story in it. They are currently considering a bill to require reclamation for any mining on the San Jacinto River – extending a law that currently only applies to a portion of the John Graves Scenic section of the Brazos River.


So if I had not gotten involved, and made an issue of this, and then written about it – maybe nothing would have happened. Maybe the bill still won’t get passed, who knows. But I’m not afraid to say that I hope it does. (Update the bill passed the Senate but died in the House, but I’ve heard it will be reintroduced next session).


I end the piece with, “…Houston has many bayous, but only one river.”




Yaak Valley, Montana
"The future's so random, and so mobile, there's no way you're going to get to your vision of what you want your community to be just by chance alone. I really believe you have to let people know, to use your voice, to say, 'this is what I like about my place, I want to keep it this way, this is what I think can be improved, this is what I disapprove of.' That's the only way you can have a part in shaping the future." -
Rick Bass