Citizens Guide to Environmental Investigation and Private Prosecution


Communication with the public through the media is a key skill for environmental activists and organizations. Media coverage represents an opportunity to communicate with supporters, educate decision makers, bring environmental issues to the attention of the general public, and find allies. When using this form of communication, be guided by the watch words “creativity,” “integrity,” “quality,” “content,” “energy,” and “patience.” In developing a media presence, bear in mind the following considerations:

• A designated spokesperson on particular issues can help maintain a consistent message and limit the demands of media communication. Ensure that you select spokespeople on the basis of their knowledge of the issues and quality of judgment, and not simply because they aspire to see themselves in print or on screen.

• Develop a reputation as a source of reliable and useful information. Hyperbole, exaggeration, and extreme analogies are off-putting. Quality research, good historical records, and knowledge of the issues boost your credibility.

• Keep current lists of media outlets. Track media coverage and follow up with corrections if needed. Keep track of the strengths and weaknesses of particular reporters and circulate clippings or electronic files of stories.

• The news media report events. When working on an issue, look for, or create, events that get attention. A press release that bears the headline, “Landfill site leachate concerns residents,” will go nowhere. A press release that uses active language and imparts a news angle, as in, for example, “Toxic emissions from landfill site, new study reveals,” is more likely to get coverage.

• News “hooks” are critically important. An event that you did not initiate (for example, a scheduled speech by a government minister on some related issue or the publication of a financial report by a company operating a hazardous facility) can provide an opportunity to release a public statement or new information that might not receive coverage on its own but can become part of stories on that event.

• An important announcement or event such as environmental charges being laid, an accident, or the release of a major study can draw attention to a particular subject. Once public and media interest is piqued, a demand for follow-up or related stories often increases in subsequent days.

• Letters to the editor and opinion page columns are a useful but time-consuming method of presenting and defending ideas.

• Don’t overlook the potential value of smaller media: campus radio stations, community newspapers, and newsletters issued by groups such as cottager associations and local ratepayer groups.

• There are a range of legitimate approaches to journalism. Some reporters may become personally involved in a compelling issue, other reporters only want the facts and have no interest in being drawn into an issue. It is reasonable to expect from the media fair and accurate reporting, but not necessarily allies.

• Columnists and editorialists in the print media can look at news items not only as events but also as issues. The more thoughtful among them will want to understand the background, context, and significance of the issues. Take this opportunity to explain your interest and perspective. Only exceptional reporters look at news stories as projects. Freelancers pitching stories to magazines and investigative journalists can take on the research and examination that complex stories often require, but freelancers are generally poorly paid and good investigative journalists are very rare.

• Cultivate friendly media contacts. They will be worth their weight in gold.

• Journalists compete with one another. Playing favourites can undermine your success in the long run. Journalists frequently get information that is incomplete or that they cannot address immediately. If they come to you for help, ensure that you are upfront with them.

• Do not initiate off-the-record discussions with journalists. If embargoed information becomes public, it will likely be impossible to confirm after the fact which aspects of previous discussions were off-the-record and which were for public consumption. Released information can never be re-contained.

• If the issue you are working on is leading to a legal action or has become one, work closely with your legal advisers. If you are taking on a highly contentious subject and a litigious opponent, seek legal advice about defamation law. Learning the basics of defamation law will help you stay out of court. The best defence against potential defamation actions is to only say things you know to be verifiably true. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) are a risk.

8.1 Style

There are a wide range of potentially successful press strategies. Greenpeace has demonstrated the communicative power of dramatic, direct, physical confrontation. Cycling safety groups and various antiwar groups often use arresting visual metaphors, ranging from “die-ins” to grim reaper masks. Many groups, including EBI and Ecojustice, rely on more conventional, serious, facts-oriented communications.

8.2 Press releases 

The style and content of any press release or press conference should respond to the needs of your audience. Press releases generally begin with an attention-grabbing headline designed to capture the key message of your news item. The lead (the first sentence) then explains the headline. The following paragraphs fill in the who, what, where, when, and why. Include a few quotes from interested parties, which reporters can use. Journalists may then call to get original quotes or more detailed information. Depending on the complexity of your message and the background knowledge of your target audience, successful press releases can be as short as a few hundred words, or as long as 700 words, but one page is optimal.

Reporters working on more than one story are under pressure from their editors to be mindful of quality and quantity issues. By providing reporters with complete information packages and the knowledge that you have gained while investigating your case, you simplify their work. For example, when announcing the results of laboratory tests on landfill leachate, you should include the contact names and phone numbers for your group’s spokesperson, the laboratory you used, the manager responsible for operating the landfill site, and the local government environmental inspector.

See Appendix F for an example of a press release.

8.3 Timing

Keep the following tips in mind:

• Assignment editors usually tell daily news reporters what to write about or give their approval of reporters’ ideas. This process often takes place in the morning to allow the reporters a few hours to research before they script, produce, and edit an electronic story or write a newspaper article. To get your message out, try to fax or e-mail information on the story (a news release or press conference announcement) to the target media overnight or early in the morning, so that the story gets picked up and assigned to a reporter.

• Media outlets are deluged by press releases. It is essential that you follow up all press releases with phone calls to ensure that your story gets covered.

• You should schedule press conferences no later than early afternoon and endeavour to make them as convenient as possible to get to. On-site press conferences (for example, at the gates of a landfill site or where contaminants are entering bodies of water) may be extremely valuable since they provide the media a firsthand look at the situation you are trying to raise awareness about. As a result, reporters may relate better to the issues and want to learn more about them which, in turn, enables them to produce more accurate, knowledgeable and gripping stories.

• Monday newspapers are usually the thinnest edition of the week because the reporters working on Sunday have little material. If your news item does not require reporters to obtain comments from people who are only available during normal working hours, consider releasing your news item on Sunday.

• Fridays tend to be very busy news days, making it difficult to capture the attention of reporters. On the other hand, for most print media, Saturdays attract the largest audience, so getting a story out on Friday can be advantageous.

• Beware of the day before a long weekend. Members of the press are as distracted and anxious to leave work as any one else, making it difficult to obtain coverage.

• Radio and television news often follow print coverage. The reverse is much less common, particularly if a story is difficult to capture in pictures, so in your first media attempt, consider focussing your attention on the print media.

8.4 Media interviews 

One of the most important skills to develop in responding to interviewers is the ability to answer questions directly. Qualification and clarification of answers is often necessary, but if you start the interview in this way, you sound as though you are avoiding the question, a behaviour journalists universally abhor.

Focus on your case’s goals, not on negativity toward the other side; aside from potential charges of defamation, attacks may turn people off and diminish your support base.

One particular challenge for an interviewee is a question that contains a presupposition that makes the question seemingly unanswerable. Hostile journalists often adopt such an approach. For example, during an interview concerning sewage pollution, a reporter might ask, “Since there is no perfect way to deal with sewage and many communities discharge waste into this stream, why should the taxpayers of this town have to pay for the cleanup your group is demanding?” Your first instinct might be to challenge the question but it is often worthwhile to answer as directly as possible first, and challenge the question second.

In an interview, it is important to determine at the outset what the journalist needs. Some interviews are superficial, others are substantive. Journalists with little interest in a story, those who already thoroughly understand an issue, or those who are trying to meet deadlines may only require a sound bite. If so, make it crisp and clear. Remember the admonishment of the great stylists William Strunk and E. B. White: “Omit needless words.” If the occasion permits, explain the issue’s context. Serious journalists working on complex stories will usually want help to understand the issues. Be helpful.

Prior to doing any interview, make a list of three main points that you want to make. Also, consider what questions you would prefer to avoid and prepare good answers to them. Don’t say anything that you don’t want to see in print, unless you have an established relationship with a particular journalist, whom you trust completely.

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