Oct 3, 2018

Ep 92: Umair Irfan - Reporter, Vox

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Show notes

1 - Energy and Environmental Journalism

Bret Kugelmass: How long have you been writing and researching in the climate and energy space?

Umair Irfan: Umair Irfan has been a reporter on climate and energy for close to six years. He has a Master’s degree in journalism, but his undergraduate degree is in biochemistry. Ifran liked the overlap between research and reporting, but reporting is more about trying to write a narrow subject for a broad audience. The ability to write about a diverse array of topics; if something peaks a reporter’s curiosity, they can do research and report on it and become an authority on a subject. When writing as a reporter, one must think about the reader. A reporter doesn’t know whether or not it has gotten traction until after it’s published. In academic writing, precision is extremely important. Reporters must present technical information without losing the audience. At Vox, reporters assume the audience is necessarily curious, but not necessarily plugged in or well-informed. Their job is to bridget the divide between people who are intelligent, but may not have been following the issues at a level that policymakers follow it. Irfan’s editor reads over his work and reviews it from the shoes of the audience to identify things that he assumes the reader already knows. Vox has a fair amount of metrics about what types of stories get traction, what search trends are, and make sure that the basic questions are explicitly answered in articles. Irfan works with one other reporter on climate and energy and answers to the general science editor, allowing a broad spectrum of research and writing.

2 - Explanatory Journalism at Vox

Bret Kugelmass: What was your slice of the pie when you were at Energy & Environment (E&E)?

Umair Irfan: While at E&E, Umair Ifran worked at a publication called ClimateWire, mainly climate focused, and covering the Department of Energy and technology. He aimed to find out if society could invent their way out of climate change. In journalism, a general question can be applied to any topic, or there may be an underlying question that informs a specific piece. There is not a technology-only answer to climate change. A lot of technology optimists will claim it is a political problem. If renewables were deployed or a large amount of nuclear energy was rolled out, a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions could be displaced, but the money has to come out of something else in order for that to happen. When Vox was launched in 2014, Umair Irfan was intrigued by the model of explaining the news or providing context or backdrop rather than simply trying to break information or deliver scoops. E&E was more of a newswire service in which reporters were trying to get the best, newest, original information. Vox tries to think more about the bigger picture and greater context and the style of writing is different. Vox does not have subscribers and is competing against the open internet, which creates a different set of pressures. The core of the Vox brand is explanatory journalism.

3 - Sourcing Information on Uranium Enrichment

Bret Kugelmass: Do you aim to have any of your articles be the definitive resource for a topic on the internet?

Umair Irfan: Umair Irfan leaves room to cover breaking news events or developments, but also chalks out topics in editorial meetings that are ready for full backdrop stories that act as definitive explainers. Vox tries to follow search trends, but also background interest in certain topics. A big, lengthy explainer presumes a high level of interest, but a low level of knowledge. The definitive articles tend to get better traction and more readers to engage with them over a longer period of time. Irfan recently wrote a definitive explainer on uranium enrichment. He knew there was going to be ongoing nuclear discussions with Iran and North Korea, creating a base level of interest. This led him to write an explainer that explains the ins and outs of enrichment at a technical level so the reader could understand why it is hard to intercept or obstruct, or why the provisions of the deal are significant. Knowing there is a level of demand means Irfan could invest more time in his article so it will stay relevant for a while. Occasionally, Vox will republish articles if they are relevant again to refresh a topic. Irfan did a lot of cold calling for his uranium article, including talking to exports who were involved in the nuclear negotiations or recommendations for advice from people adjacent to them. He also utilizes a lot of the current academic literature to find someone who has done the most interesting or most robust research on the high level topic. Irfan aims to be right when everybody else is wrong, or trying to be straightforward when everybody else is trying to be misleading.

4 - Climate Change and Market-Based Mechanisms

Bret Kugelmass: How do you deal with sources in the industry who might have inherent bias?

Umair Irfan: Reporters can still talk to experts in a specific area, even if they might have an inherent bias, but with the caveat that this person has a vested interest in the problem that exists or a vested interest in trying to solve the problem. For every view, there will be someone who disagrees, and people who disagree have their own vested interest as well. Reporters have to keep in mind that, to an extent, everybody has an agenda and has an idea that they want to promote. Reporters can let themselves be convinced, especially after doing research themselves and being honest with their readers. Vox allows their reporters to have an opinion in their writing, as long as they are honest with their readers about content that is an opinion based on research. Umair Irfan finds himself going back and forth on many different topics after completing extensive research, such as the role of a market-based mechanism to fight climate change rather than a top-down approach. Top-down regulations for chlorofluorocarbons worked at an international level with a major treaty led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The Montreal Protocol was a big international agreement that Conservatives could get behind and it was not an ideological issue at that point; it was not partisan or tribal to the extent it is now. The Montreal Protocol has done more to avert heat trapping gases than any policy in the world. Climate change is getting more traction and tangential issues, like wildfires, are starting to come up more and get state officials and reporters talking about climate change.

5 - Social Justice Aspects of Climate Change

Bret Kugelmass: Do you have any opinions that you feel like only you and a small percentage of people feel, and do you pull punches because of that?

Umair Irfan: Umair Irfan doesn’t pull punches, but there are opinions he holds right now that he doesn’t know if he could substantiate with facts. Irfan has more than one view about nationalizing the nuclear industry to fight climate change in the United States. He doesn’t have the economics background to justify that opinion, but just requires a little more research. People that stand to suffer the most from climate change are the ones that contributed least to the problem. Addressing climate change at a global scale would also be a massive wealth redistribution. Moving money and resources from some countries that benefited most from fossil fuels would be moved into countries that are literally losing ground to rising sea levels or natural disasters. A lot of readers have already made up their mind about nuclear and throwing more information at people doesn’t necessarily change their mind, but may instead entrench their viewpoint. Anytime nuclear is written about, Irfan feels the ball is not advancing, so he tries to write something that would add something new to the nuclear discussion. Umair Irfan would like to learn more about the market side of nuclear to understand how energy markets work as they are now and how they can be improved. If externalities are politically priced in, Irfan wonders how can the market be restructured. Climate change has global consequences and every aspect of life will be influenced. The moral case is the strongest case, but is not talked about often enough.

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