Metcalf Institute: A pioneer in environmental reporting

Metcalf Institute fellows conduct fieldwork during the 2018 workshop.
It was front page news in 1998 when dozens of nations signed the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That same year, creation of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting garnered far less attention, but 20 years later its impact is greater than ever.

“No one could have predicted that Metcalf’s mission would be even more important now than it was 20 years ago,” said Executive Director Sunshine Menezes, a clinical associate professor in URI’s Department of Natural Resources Science, College of the Environment and Life Sciences, where the institute is based.

The following year the Institute held its first weeklong Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists, aimed at improving reporters’ science literacy and reporting. Since then, more than 225 journalists from across the country and 45 nations have participated, and the institute has become a science communications leader.

“No one could have predicted that Metcalf’s mission would be even more important now than it was 20 years ago,” said Executive Director Sunshine Menezes, a clinical associate professor in URI’s Department of Natural Resources Science, College of the Environment and Life Sciences, where the institute is based.

The following year the Institute held its first weeklong Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists, aimed at improving reporters’ science literacy and reporting. Since then, more than 225 journalists from across the country and 45 nations have participated, and the institute has become a science communications leader.

Initially, the annual workshop offered up to 20 fellows the chance to dip their toes into a variety of subjects: analyzing water samples, taking part in a fish trawl, using profiling tools to understand the shape-shifting properties of beach erosion.

Metcalf has since refined that approach, limiting enrollment to 10 fellows to enhance opportunities for one-on-one learning and adopting a thematic focus. The 2018 workshop addressed Global Impacts: Climate Change and Extreme Weather in light of last year’s devastating hurricanes. The Metcalf workshops now begin with Menezes and other URI faculty leading a discussion on the building blocks of scientific knowledge, from understanding the funding and peer review processes to the role of scientific uncertainty.

“Most journalists don’t have a scientific background. This really fundamental information about how science gets done represents the black boxes of understanding. We can then present the workshop’s environmental topics in the context of the scientific process,” she explained.

With up to 150 applicants for 10 spots, choosing Metcalf fellows can be tough, and Menezes believes the right class makeup is critical. “The group itself is really part of the educational experience. They learn from each other,” she said. Participants represent small and large news outlets, various media platforms, geographical locations, races, ethnicities and gender.

“We hear all the time how the workshop is career changing,” said Menezes. “Afterward, some participants get science degrees, or they change how they approach their reporting. Some become editors and guide environmental coverage, or they write books.”

Read the entire Metcalf story, which I wrote for URI news.

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