‘Truth is everything’: a reporter’s credo

Peter Hannam has been reporting on the environment for several years, after working Mongolia and China.
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Being open-minded and getting it right are two things environment reporter Peter Hannam believes in. He talks to Environment editor Angus Delaney.

“Be curious,” is journalist Peter Hannam’s advice to the next generation of reporters.  

Hannam spent eight years covering the environment for The Sydney Morning Herald, before moving to The Guardian this month. 

You’ve had lots of experience in Australia and overseas, how has your career developed over the years?

It’s a long path. I do environment reporting now, but I’ve only been doing that about eight years. I started in ABC radio … that would have been in like 1989. After the ABC I went off to Mongolia and I worked there as a freelancer for Reuters and AFP. [Then] I went to China, and I opened the Bloomberg office there, [before I] came back to Australia and worked in business at The Age and then environment at The [Sydney Morning] Herald. 

Most of your experience is covering business, why did you decide to make the switch to environmental reporting? 

A lot of financial news is extremely ephemeral. In a newswire situation like Bloomberg, it’s especially ephemeral, very much instant. 

The environmental things, especially when it comes to extinction, are as permanent as you get. 

'Truth is everything': a reporter's credo
Peter Hannam in this role as reporter on the environment. Picture: Twitter.

If it’s gone, it’s gone.  I’ve always been interested in environment issues. You could say I saw the light, or I always knew this was the important thing. I would say the kind of work I’m doing now is as important as anything I’ve done in the last 30 odd years. 

Is reporting on the environment important because what occurs is permanent or for other reasons?

That’s part of it yeah. Interactions with the natural world, from the bits that we haven’t destroyed or depleted, establishes a kind of a connection there, so we should be interested in the environment around us. You know clean air and clean water are important for day-to-day activities. You can see how climate change looms as a massively disruptive force.  Down the track it will do more probably to dislocate societies, upend communities then maybe the immediacy of war. 

Reporting on the environment can be a depressing job at times – how do you cope with being bombarded with bad news?

It’s definitely depressing, most things break in a negative way. 

There’s not many obvious wins. Of course, that isn’t a reason not to report it or pretend it’s not there. I have an advantage, somebody’s paying my salary, but so many people I speak to who have sacrificed a lot and you think, “what am I complaining about?” That’s a bit of an antidote to the negative. 

How much scientific knowledge do you think you need to have to be able to be a reporter on the environment? 

There’s a famous cartoon of like, you know, some guy with the dart looking at a whole wall of Post-It notes of all manner of things and saying, “what am I going to be an expert in today?”‘ There is some of that in journalism. 

'Truth is everything': a reporter's credo
Cartoon: from Non Sequitur by Wiley

There is an element in journalism which is finding people who know and are able to tell a story. Sometimes you’re more a porter than a reporter. You’re moving information from one place to another. So, you need to know where the information is and also ensure that that person is credible knows what they’re talking about. The journalist is a kind of a distiller. 

[However] it definitely helps to have science, but a bit of economics is good too, because so much in life comes down to numbers.

Do you have any mistakes that stick out your or learning opportunities that you had where you realized a different way of looking at things? 

Sometimes the mistakes are not that things go out, it is things that don’t go out. Things that you thought twice about and decided not to pursue and then of course it’s a big story. 

When I was in China, somebody rang me up who had inside information on a rate cut that the Chinese central bank was going to introduce and I was busy with various things and I decided not to write it, but that would have really surprised financial markets. 

Do you have a professional motto as a journalist? 

I don’t really have a credo, but truth is everything. Be as open-minded as you can. Be as curious as you can because you know there’s such an amazing world out there, not just in environments but individuals. Be curious. It’s the two-word slogan I would take away.