How student journalists, local news org partner to meet NC environmental news needs

By Katelyn Chedraoui

There are very few — if any — classes at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media where one can expect to hold a falcon. But for junior Caleb Sigmon, MEJO 562: Environmental and Science Documentary Television, has brought a lot of new experiences.

The falcon, a Harris Hawk named Lagertha, belongs to local falconer Richard Shores. Sigmon and the rest of his group were filming an interview with Shores for their video journalism story on falconry in North Carolina.

a student holding a falcon delicately on his forearm
Sigmon with the Harris Hawk named Lagertha that belongs to Richard Shores, a falconer that lives in Apex, N.C. Photo courtesy of Caleb Sigmon, photo credit to john gove.

Environmental reporting is a beat that’s often understaffed, especially in local newsrooms, according to this list identified by Report for America. Helping to fill that gap is a partnership between UNC Hussman and PBS NC’s Sci NC, which helps NC residents learn more about the ecosystems around them while training student journalists.

Professor Tom Linden’s class consists of a semester-long project in which students partner with Sci NC to research, pitch, script, film, edit and produce 5-7 minute video stories on a current environmental trend or issue in North Carolina. The stories are then posted online and eventually air on PBS NC.

“The stories are really good, and they’re really well researched,” said Frank Graff, director and executive producer of Sci NC.

PBS NC, which also participated in the UNC-Knight Table Stakes program, uses the class to expand its coverage of the state, he said. “They get us to areas of the state that we might not have gone to very often, and they’re usually interesting angles that most people would say, ‘Oh, OK, I didn’t know about that.’”

As local newsrooms have shrunk or declined in recent years, journalism students have increasingly been asked to fill in gaps in local coverage. A May 2022 Pew Research Center report found that 1 in 10 U.S. state capitol reporters are students. University classes in states such as California and Georgia produce local newspapers entirely in class.

But these partnerships can come with challenges. A study by two journalism educators at Endicott College and Georgia College and State University looking at some of these “news-academic” partnerships found that faculty running these classes often face the same challenges as traditional editors: burnout, high workloads and low pay. Additionally, delivering professional-level journalism from students who are still learning can be a challenge.

Linden and Sci NC’s partnership has stood the test of time; the first class kicked off in 1999, and the current fall semester class is the largest group yet with 13 undergraduate and 4 graduate students. Under Linden’s guidance in the past 23 years, the students in the class have produced 50 or so documentary-style video stories for UNC TV, or as it is now known as PBS NC.

When asked what advice he would give to professors looking to form collaborations with local news organizations, Linden said to be aware of the time needed to establish the relationships at the beginning to ensure the partnership “is for the benefit of all concerned.”

“It’s not just for the students’ benefit,” said Linden. “There are real benefits to the news organization and real benefits for the people with whom you’re interacting at the news organization.”

The class is designed to give students an idea of what it is like working in a truly professional setting, Linden said. In preparation for the fall class, Linden works with Graff and videographer Bob Gunter to define the overarching theme for the semester, based on Sci NC’s current news needs and trends. Then, the students spend the first few weeks of the semester researching specific stories that could fall under that theme to pitch to Sci NC.

Graff wanted this year’s Sci NC to focus on animals and creatures. The four student groups then developed stories about creatures with North Carolina ties, including the endangered bog and box turtles, the invasive spotted lantern fly and a local NC falconer.

Students work very closely with Sci NC’s Graff and Gunter. They come on campus to hear students’ pitches, work with them on script critiques and videographer Bob Gunter has come on three of the four shoots already, as well as helping guide the editing process.

“I got to admit, it’s something I look forward to every year,” Graff said. “I love meeting the students because they’re excited about it. You know, this is what I made my career (doing), and it’s fun to be able to teach that to kids and to explain why I still love doing it.”

In addition to the professional guidance and mentorship, working specifically with Graff and Gunter has been a fun experience, current student Caleb Sigmon said.

“They are just a positive presence. Like Frank will often joke around. And this kind of makes it seem like this might be work, but it doesn’t have to be stressful. You can have fun doing it.”

Sigmon is one of many students over the years who utilized the partnership to strengthen his professional journey. After hearing about the class around the Hussman school, he reached out to Linden, and Sigmon actually interned for PBS NC before officially enrolling in the class this fall. The class’s former students have also used what they learned in the class to land documentary and multimedia roles; Sci NC’s current producer Rossie Izlar is a former student as well.

Looking back on the class, former M.A. student Patrick Mustain said the class was his first exposure to putting together a story package of that length and magnitude. His 2012 project on Gorges National Park was the longest project he had worked on at the time and thinking through the planning and logistics of it was great exposure to multimedia production.

“The most valuable thing was thinking about ‘What is the story we want to tell?’ and then building out the narrative arc,” Mustain said.

From there, being part of the planning of a story gave him an appreciation for planning, for everything from sourcing to what time of day has the best lighting to film. This appreciation for planning, setting timelines and organizing media logistics is something he uses in his current role as creative director at Oceana.

This year’s documentaries will be posted online to PBS NC Sci NC this spring. Check out the previous year’s projects here:

Correction: An earlier version misspelled Gunter’s last name. This blog has been updated to the correct spelling.