Our students with Nina Ignaczak, a SEAS graduate and journalist, who served as a judge giving feedback on student presentations about their work in the course.

When students take the environmental journalism course taught by Emilia Askari and Julie Halpert, they are welcomed into a network with a big impact on public conversation about climate change, environmental justice, and other environmental issues. The professors’ colleagues work at smaller newsrooms, like Planet Detroit, as well as the nation’s most influential news outlets, like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal

Halpert and Askari’s course has been a popular offering in the Program in the Environment (Environ 320) since the program’s founding. The course also is listed as an English course (English 320) and a Communication and Media course (Comm 305). In 2022, the professors shared PitE’s Outstanding Instructor Award. The same year, two of their former students – Jena Brooker of Bridge Detroit and Bella Isaacs-Thomas of PBS Newshour – were among 12 early-career journalists chosen for a prestigious national fellowship. Askari and Halpert’s former students also have won numerous other awards, from organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the university’s own Sweetland Center for Writing. Many former students of Askari and Halpert work at news outlets, ranging from The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press to Ideastream Public Media and The Betsie Current.

“I came across ENVIRON 320 during my junior year of undergrad when I wasn’t yet sure how I could turn my passion for writing and science into a career,” Isaacs-Thomas wrote in a text message. “Seven years later, I’m a digital science reporter at PBS NewsHour. The class sparked my interest in science communication, taught me the basics of reporting and served as a kind of crash course in many of the most topical environmental issues facing Michigan. I deeply appreciated the additional opportunities Professors Askari and Halpert offered us through field trips and one-on-one advising. They also gave me the chance to attend a Society of Environmental Journalists conference the following school year, which was an invaluable professional development experience during my final year of undergrad. I can say with confidence that this course put me on track to reach the career milestones I’ve achieved thus far.”

Our students interacting with a guest at our final meeting last year.

In this experiential learning course, students critique journalism and also collect data from primary sources as they report, draft and revise their own news article on an environmental or public health topic of their choice. Using narrative techniques borrowed from fiction – such as scene-setting and dialogue – students spend months polishing their writing. They practice conducting interviews, analyzing scientific articles and finding credible statistics. They also develop an introductory knowledge of the “grammar” of photojournalism. In addition, a team project invites students to describe innovative approaches to solving problems with environmental information. Weekly mock press conferences with notable guest speakers are popular. Often, two guests have opposing opinions. This allows students to practice asking questions in challenging circumstances, and highlights the importance of seeking diverse perspectives.

Halpert and Askari both have long lists of journalism prizes and fellowships, plus dedication to teaching. Halpert, who was an English major while at the University of Michigan, writes for some of the nation’s most widely respected news outlets including: The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, AARP and National Geographic.  In addition to the environment, she covers a broad range of topics, ranging from the way that boomers are reinventing retirement to advances in caregiving among the fast-growing aging population, the mental health challenges faced by young adults, the transformation of the auto industry and technology breakthroughs in the fields of science and health. Askari, a former environment reporter for the Detroit Free Press and a former Knight-Wallace Fellow, has master’s degrees from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism as well as UM’s School of Information plus a PhD in educational technology from Michigan State University. In 2023, she won a best paper award from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication for her research about teaching civic communication with social media in collaboration with a Flint high school teacher. This year, Askari chairs the judging panel for Columbia University’s famed Oakes Award in Environmental Journalism

2022 Society of Environmental Journalist conference with fellowship-winner, Bella Isaacs-Thomas (left), Emilia Askari (middle), fellowship-winner, Jena Brooker (right).

Askari and Halpert played leadership roles in the founding of the Society of Environmental Journalists, or SEJ. Today, the two friends continue to collaborate not only on teaching UM students, but also on their continued volunteer service to the professional community of environmental journalists. At the 2024 SEJ conference in April, you’ll find Askari and/or Halpert leading discussions on engaging new audiences for environmental journalism; serving on a closing plenary panel about the future of environmental journalism; and convening a workshop aimed at increasing the financial sustainability of small environmental news outlets. Askari also serves on several SEJ committees, including the editorial board of the society’s journal.

Halpert and Askari’s deep and wide experience as environmental journalists allows them to help their students publish news stories written as class assignments on sites run by professional news organizations and universities. Anna Barr published her story about young Michigan hunters in Bridge Michigan. Maica Maori published her story on teaching about climate change in k-12 on the site of Columbia University Teachers College, Center for Sustainable Futures. Natalie McMyn published her story on treating algal blooms with ozonation in Environmental Health News. Astrid Code, an English Department student, published her article on controversy over responses to lake erosion in Great Lakes Now.  Brooke Callahan published her story about advances prompted by CRISPR in Lateral, a publication that explores the relationships between science and society. Numerous students have published their stories in The Ann Arbor Observer as well, including Madeline Stoney-Wheatley, who wrote about the University of Michigan's sustainability plans, Julia Paige, who about chefs using unusual parts of the animal in their cooking and Ben Meyers, who wrote this article on a bionic eye.

“This course was extremely valuable for me and expanded my interest and skills in environmental journalism,” Code wrote in an email. “Students get detailed personal feedback and the chance to workshop their articles with the professors. The class also provides amazing opportunities to learn from and get mentored by professional journalists, as well as practice interviewing guest speakers. Professors Emilia Askari and Julie Halpert truly encourage and help each student to grow.”

To sample student news stories and news innovation ideas, visit the course website. Comments welcome!