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Riparian buffer zones, parts per million of water pollution, transit-oriented development, petitions for changes in forest management rules... Our critical issues often don't seem simple or sexy enough to easily sell to reporters in today's "if it bleeds, it leads" media climate, even though they are important stories.

How do you turn technical or legal
environmental issues into hot news?

It's crucial to remember that reporters choose what stories to cover based in part on what they think the public will find interesting. In today's news cycles, that often means the more dramatic, colorful or controversial the better. This means we must develop creative ways to "pitch" our stories so that we get the news coverage they deserve without diluting, or "dumbing down" our issues.

This month, we provide an example of how one group successfully transformed a legal petition for rules changes to gain greater protection for the recreational and scenic value of Washington's private and state forest lands into a widespread news story.

Start at the end. In other words, put yourself in Jane Doe's seat watching the 5:00 KIRO TV news. What do you expect to see? Think VISUAL. What in your story lends itself to compelling pictures, video footage, spokespeople? What about your story is likely to grab the attention of consumers, taxpayers, parents, or policymakers? Remember that with the exemption of in-depth documentaries, feature or investigative stories and long format talk shows, news is generally very condensed. Most stories only convey one or two points, leaving out much detail. Remember also, stories are built on the same components of fairy tales and myths--they have a villain, victims, hero(es) and a plot resolution. Pull out the visual, compelling "story" elements of your issue, and you're ready to go!

The Washington Forest Law Center(WFLC), and many forest protection and trails advocates, believe state agencies and private landowners are allowing dramatic damage to public recreational and scenic values from logging operations and clearcuts. To push for change, they petitioned the Forest Practice Board and Public Lands Commissioner for rules changes.

To make the story tantalizing, EMS and WFLC commissioned a report that would expose how logging rules are damaging popular public lands and hiking trails that the public cares about, visually depict these areas, and find interesting spokespeople that would have the credibility to attest to the problem and support changes in forest practices policy. These pieces would form the key components of an enticing news story: villains (the Forest Practices Board), victims (the public), heroes (WFLC), a plot resolution (passage of the petition resulting in better forest practices) and striking visuals.

Next, we worked to develop a timely and appealing news hook--the start of the hiking season--to release a "Washington's Endangered Trails" report.

EMS' tantalizing pitch to reporters?..."Dense snow-pack is not the only thing keeping Washington hikers from enjoying the state's scenic trails this year...It turns out that there's a shocking loophole in state law that allows unmitigated logging and clearcuts to trash our beloved and historic trails..."

A media-friendly report, GIS maps, pictures, statistics, and a fitting location (Northwest recreation magnate, REI) presented with a winning, recreation-oriented pitch, provided just the hook to interest reporters in the issue at large, and the petition specifically. By choosing ten examples of threatened or trashed trails around the state, we provided reporters the tools to localize the story. The press release titled, "Unhappy Trails? Trails Advocates Call for Trail-Friendly Logging Rules" provided supporting comments from well-known hiking book authors, Ira Spring and Harvey Manning. In addition to the press conference, calls were made to key papers, radio and TV outside Seattle, and an op-ed was drafted and placed in two papers.

"Washington's Endangered Trails" report achieved saturation media coverage in Washington and expanded to Oregon, including a live television feed from a popular, endangered hiking area listed in the report. State Department of Natural Resources officials were frequently contacted for comment, and local citizens, inspired by news coverage, sent letters of support for the petition to the Forest Practices Board. Reporters covering the story contacted State Commissioner of Public Lands and Chair of the State Forest Practices Board Jennifer Belcher for comment, prompting a commitment that the Board would look into the designation of a special task force to address the failure of the state forest practice rules to protect hiking trails. The state's deputy commissioner of public lands was quoted saying, "This petition does raise legitimate questions, maybe it's time to move protection of recreational trails to the forefront." Currently, a subcommittee of the Board is considering recommendations on the issue, which will be made to the full Board in May 2000.

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