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How to become an environmental journalist

07 Dec 2023 13 min read

As IEMA’s digital journalist Tom Pashby prepares for their next role in journalism, they explain how they came into the role at IEMA, and find out about other environmental journalists’ routes into the profession too.

Photo of woman being interviewed with a microphone outside a building
When I was asked to write this article, the brief was for me to explain my journey to becoming IEMA’s digital journalist. Knowing that my own route was non-traditional, I decided to bring in other voices beyond my own.

Some careers have clear-cut routes which track from formal qualifications or training, into professional roles, such as in medicine or law.

In the environment and sustainability profession there are dozens of roles, as you’ll find on this website, which have formalised routes to success, be it through higher education, apprenticeships or on the job training.

Environmental journalism is slightly different, in that it sits at the intersection of several skill sets and qualification requirements.

My career journey

You will be reading this after I have left IEMA. My career path now leads me to a busy news floor and a new role as a senior reporter at New Civil Engineer. But I didn’t set out from an early age to become a journalist.

I’ve spent most of the past decade as a politician, and policy and communications professional in the environmental movement. During this time, I realised I was good at writing, and I enjoyed it too.

I completed my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science in 2014 and finished a masters in Global Political Economy in 2022. I then decided to make a career transition from politics to journalism, so I studied for a diploma in journalism in the 2022/2023 academic year.

I had the technical knowledge about environmentalism and climate science, but was lacking skills in news writing, interview technique and media law.

Man writing into notebook with laptop in front of him.

My first foray into journalism was writing for the student newspaper on my undergraduate degree programme, but it was not with the intention of becoming a journalist. I’m glad it inadvertently led to where I am today.

Esme Stallard, Climate and Science Journalist at BBC

Esme Stallard, now a BBC climate and science journalist, also took an unconventional route into the profession. Her journey started with an undergraduate degree in Geology and latterly a masters in Sustainable Environmental Development.

Esme said: “I worked for about four years at a consultancy and engineering firm. I specialised in climate change. Part of my job was that we would have city governments or country governments come to us and say ‘We want to make a commitment to reducing our emissions.’ I would do the technical bit behind that.”

On developing communication skills, which she would later use in journalism, she said: “I spent a long time reaching out and doing consultations with people in the community. I realised there was a big gap in terms of understanding and a level of arrogance from people, myself included, working in the sector to expect everyone to understand the technical aspects of climate action.”

Esme initially joined the BBC as a researcher working in support of journalists writing for publication.

“The premise of that role was that when a journalist was reporting on something related to climate, I was responsible for helping them to understand the complexity of it and helping to simplify it for the audience.”

Asked how she made the transition to become a journalist herself Esme reveals: “My intention was never to be a broadcast journalist or have my name in print. It was to assist journalists and help with the storytelling. I just found myself really enjoying writing and getting a lot better at it.”

Steph Spyro, Senior Political Correspondent, and Environment Editor at the Daily Express

Steph Spyro studied Journalism at Kingston University in London and does not have any formal environmental qualifications.

When asked why she decided to pursue journalism, she said: “I knew that I just had an intense curiosity. I love asking questions. I thought, I can hold power to account. I can be nosy. And I didn’t have to sit at a desk all day. I love writing and current affairs, so those are fantastic reasons to be a journalist.

“When I joined the Daily Express, I started off as a general reporter. And while doing that, I started shadowing our former environment editor, John Ingham, who’s been incredibly supportive. He then started taking on our special projects, and I began doing the daily environment stories. I fell in love with the [environment] beat through that.”

It’s worth noting here that ‘beat’ is journalistic jargon which refers to the area a journalist covers, which could be geographical, such as a town or region, or a subject like diplomatic affairs or crime.

When I asked Steph about her environment related qualifications (or lack thereof), she said: “I did biology and chemistry up until the equivalent of A levels. But I think that helps in the job because a lot of our readers aren’t experts, right? And I’m not an expert by any means. But I speak to the experts. And if I don’t understand what they’re telling me, my readers won’t either. Sometimes not being an expert helps me to relay things to readers more effectively.”

Aerial view of dense trees in a forest

I press her on why she chose to pursue environmental journalism, and she says: “Nature makes me feel great. I love how I feel when I spend time in nature. I understand why it makes people feel so good, with the fresh air, active exercise and all the science behind that.”

There are numerous routes into journalism. The traditional routes are drying up because of severe job cuts across the sector. One route I hear being touted repeatedly is to do a journalism or related higher education qualification like an English undergraduate degree, and to then go to work for your local newspaper.

Many local newspapers have a small team or have shut down completely. Local newspapers are not necessarily people’s primary source of news, with social media and new media platforms leapfrogging traditional media. This creates a barrier for people to switch to journalism later in life if they can’t afford to take a big pay cut and start at the bottom.

I asked Steph to share what advice she would have for someone trying to get into environmental journalism. She replies: “Everyone’s got a relationship with nature. There are thousands of stories out there. If there’s something that you’re passionate about, start a blog about it.

“There are so many people, like campaigners and business people, who are happy to speak to you and share their stories with you.”

You can read about more career case studies from IEMA’s Green Careers Hub.

This is a guest blog written by Tom Pashby for the Green Careers Hub.

Image credits: Shutterstock

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IEMA is the membership body for environment and sustainability professionals