Perspectives: Journalist Bob Marshall

Editor’s Note: For our “Perspectives” series, which talks with New Orleans-based journalists, pod-casters, documentarians, and photojournalists about their place and role in the journalistic world, Renee Peck was interviewed by Talia Abed. Talia and  Renee discussed Renee’s work as a journalist and editor at the Times-Picayune and how that led her to co-creating the arts and culture publication, NolaVie.  

Bob Marshall, journalist. (Photo courtesy of: Bob Marshall)

Who: Bob Marshall

What: New Orleans Environmental Journalist

A quotable quote: “A journalist can write incredible exposes, and it won’t make a difference if the people who read it don’t act on it. It’s hard for me to say that we would make a big difference.”

Q: Alright, well, we will get right into it. What are the themes that tend to draw you into a story? What do you make of these topics relations to your own experiences?

BM: Well as a journalist, there are some checkpoints to what makes a good story. First is news. If it’s not new, then it’s not news, and it’s not going to be a good story. Second, it has to affect a lot of people. If it’s a good story, it has a wide human impact. The third thing is, if we’re talking about in-depth news features, there has to be a sense of conflict. And that doesn’t necessarily mean people fighting each other, but there has to be dramatic tension. Maybe there is a goal involved, maybe there is a law that is being enforced, it could be someone on a mission, but you want to have this tension and this sense of conflict. Obviously, it could be a conflict between two opposing sides, but you want that sense of dramatic tension to carry the reader through the story, and hopefully, they’ll find out how it ends. On a personal level, the last thing would be humor. Humor is always good. Maybe your story doesn’t have one of the other items I mentioned, but it has humor — that will attract a lot of people to the story.

Q: When following your subjects, how do you take notes? Are there ways the journalist can be too invasive when gathering information?

BM: I teach journalism in the summer in Italy for a couple of months and so when I’m on a story I always record. And I tell my students, or, if there is a reporter working for me, in this day in age, especially when you are dealing with scientists, or public officials, you need to introduce yourself. You say, ‘thank you for taking the time to talk to me, do you mind if I record this for the interview, it won’t be broadcasted.’ And the reason you want to do that is, you want to make sure that you get accurate information. If you are dealing with public officials or even athletes, they have a tendency to say they didn’t say that, or they were taken out of context, and then you have the support right here in the recorder.

When you are dealing with scientists, which I often do in my work, words are to science what numbers are to math. If you change a number in an equation you don’t get the right answer. And the same thing in science — if you change a word, if you don’t remember a word or put it in differently, then you can change the whole meaning. Also, as you’re doing science reporting, you often have a job as an interpreter, to get scientific language into Layman’s terms, so you want to record everything they say, and you want to make sure you get every word right, or else it could be totally different.

Q: How do you define alternative? And how do you see your work fitting, or not fitting into the definition?

BM: I’m a strong believer in you want people to read your story, and I’ve been doing this for a long time, more than 40 years now. I grew up in an era of new journalism. People writing for the new Esquire, Rolling Stone, things like that. It revolutionized the way that interpretive and narrative journalism came along. Before that, it was just pyramid style — straight news. And that was fairly revolutionary. I think the framework of what makes it a good story, what makes a readable story, really hasn’t changed much.

In feature writing, you have a lead. You want the lead to be something that pulls you into the story. It could be one word, it could be a great paragraph, it could be several paragraphs, but it’s something that’s going to take the person’s attention, and keep it there. Then there’s a nut graph, which is typically a synopsis of what’s coming. After you grab their attention, you transition to this nut, the ‘nut’ of the story. It contains a preview of what’s coming so they’ll keep reading. You put the story in perspective, key points of what’s going to happen, and then transition back to your narrative — and the reader knows if it’s well written each paragraph leads to the next one, that kind of thing.

Are there alternatives to that? Absolutely. Alternative to that traditional format of a feature is fine, if that type of writing is defined to the publication you’re in. If it’s a quarterly journal or a monthly magazine, and I pick it up and I know what I’m getting into, then I’ll have a lot of patience. If I’m going to pick up a publication and I know that’s the type of writing I’m in for, that’s fine. But if it’s in for news, then I don’t think I’m going to spend my time looking for why I’m going to read this story when I can just go on to the next one.

Q: The next few questions I have are more focused specifically on your work. How does a journalist’s work bring awareness to environmental issues in Louisiana and where would we be without the coverage?

BM: We’re the eyewitness as well as the the police in a way for the average person when it comes to what’s happening with the environment. If journalism is doing its job, if the newsrooms are doing their jobs, they’re letting people know if their environment is safe, if it’s being managed properly, and if there’s laws being followed in their interest of being seen to. In our coastal crisis, it’s not just the marshes and the swamps, but it’s also the higher, drier land that we have — it’s sinking. At the same time, the sea is rising, so this is one of the most threatened and endangered landscapes, not just in the states but probably anywhere in the world, according to many scientists who do this kind of work. So, it’s our job to make sure that people who live here understand just what the risks are, what the dangers are, and what that means to their present as well as their future.

Where would we be? I would love to say that we would be in much worse shape and be in a lot greater risk without the coverage, but that would be a little bit conceded. However, there’s two types of journalism in my mind. I like to say that there’s preventative and forensic. Forensic journalism is perhaps what people remember the most of. Something terrible happened, there’s an explosion, there’s a hurricane, there’s a fire, there’s corruption, there’s a murder, an assassination, etc. And all journalists show up and they start digging into the story, and we find out, for example, the reason the city flooded wasn’t because the storm surge was too strong for the levees. Its because they weren’t built properly. And they collapsed. In 60 different places. And, the engineers didn’t do their job. Or as another example, the reason there’s cancer going crazy in these river communities is because the state and the federal agencies aren’t monitoring the emissions from these chemical plants and people are dying at a higher rate. So that’s forensic journalism – we go in after the event, and try to find out why it happened. People win a lot of awards for that.

Then, preventative journalism is: you see the problem developing, and you expose the dangers before they happen. So what serves the greatest benefit? Preventing the disasters from happening? Or coming in afterwards? For forensic, you could say that you’re preventing future disasters. In fact, in my estimation, one of the reasons why Katrina happened was the papers hadn’t been doing their job. I went back and did research on the coverage of the New Orleans Levee Board, and there were lots of times where they just took handouts — they didn’t even cover the levee meetings; they didn’t do any kind of over site on how these levee’s were being built. The things my colleagues and I discovered when we dug into this after Katrina were shocking. Had the papers done their jobs as that first system was being built, a lot of this would not have happened.

The other thing is, you have to have a response from the citizenship, from the readers. There has been tons of reporting on just how threatened we are by the rise in sea level, which is caused by greenhouse gas emissions, which is all part of global warming. And people in this state, outside of New Orleans, even in these parishes that are sinking, they continue to elect Republicans for congress, who vote against any type of regulations on emissions — who even until recently denied that there was global warming. So, a journalist can write incredible exposes, and it won’t make a difference if the people who read it don’t act on it. It’s hard for me to say that we would make a big difference.

Q: What would you tell the people who continuously decide to ignore these issues, or even to the people who continuously believe the issues of global warming are the results of different factors?

BM: I would say that I report on the science. As simple as that. I just report on the science, and science is based on facts. Science has the numbers, has the research, and has the information. So I just point them to the research. There’s something called bias reinforcement. It’s very common, I’ve done a lot of research on it. It’s been proven that if someone has a cultural bias on something — a group bias — the more evidence that you give them that they’re wrong tends to strengthen their beliefs and their biases. And so I just tell them, look, here’s the information. I’m not going call them names or anything; I’m just gonna say, ‘Look, I understand, and I hear what you’re saying, but that’s just not what the science or research shows.’ Your work speaks for itself.

Q: What do you feel like you have achieved with your work as a journalist, and what is something that you wish you had or still want to achieve?

BM: The great thing about journalism, or at least it used to be, is there’s a lot of ego satisfaction. And by that I mean that people know what you’re doing. I was about 24 and going to my son’s Wiffle ball games, and guys in their 60’s would come up to me and say ‘Are you Mr. Bob?’ And I’m sitting there like, ‘yep.’ I was rafting once and this lawyer, a millionaire lawyer said, ‘Oh, I wish I had your job,’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, I wish I had your pay.’ So, all throughout your career, whatever you were doing, people were consuming it. And whether you make jewelry, whether you’re a doctor, insurance agent, you’re helping people, you get a sense that people care about what you’re doing. I think I’ve made a difference for the fish and wildlife management here in New Orleans. I helped or was responsible in some ways for some of the research they did, some of the agency reshuffling and some of the corruption that we exposed there. I may have helped change the levee system, but, like I said, it’s hard to tell. You’d have to be pretty conceded to go around thinking you made all these differences. I’ll let someone else be the judge.

I think more than anything else, it’s the ability to tell stories. I love storytelling; I’ve met a lot of interesting people. I’ve had people tell me that this or that story made a difference — people who maybe changed laws or regulations because of the story. So that was a good feeling. But other than that, I’ve gotten to meet tons of interesting people. Now, many of them don’t like me, well, professionally. But you meet a lot of great people. It used to be you could disagree with people, and then go have a beer or something, and in the sporting community, it’s still pretty much like that. Outside of it though, not so much.

Anyways, what would I do differently? People say all the time, ‘Why’d you stay in New Orleans the whole time?’ I did have many chances to leave, but I kept creating jobs here. And I’m not really one for looking back. I pretty much did what I wanted. I was my own boss for 40 years, and editors would call me when they were looking for someone to do what I do. They’d say, ‘Well, we’d offer you a job, but we know we couldn’t dynamite you out of there,’ and I’d say, “Well, how much dynamite?” But they meant the freedom I had, the projects I was doing, the people I had working for me.

So hopefully it makes a difference, but who knows. It’s not for me to judge. I mean there’s been tremendous scientists. People say, ‘You’re an expert on wetlands and global warming,’ and I’d say, ‘No, I’m an expert at asking questions.’ That’s all I’m an expert at. Getting information. Everything I know and everything I write is from the information that I’ve gotten on interviewing the real experts.

The people who make a difference and who are the heroes are the ones who are plumbers, doctors, welders, lawyers, whatever, who have a job, and then when they come home at night they get involved with these issues. No one is paying them to do that! People have given me awards for environmental stuff and all that, and I’m like, ‘I was writing about what you guys are doing! You guys deserve this award.’ I’ve always said this: It’s not me, it’s what I cover. When I leave, the next guy who covers the Saints, or the outdoors, or the environment, will be the hero. They won’t remember me. And the smartest people I’ve known on TV all knew it. I mean people come up to me today actually, and they say ‘Bob?’ and this is true — the last time I covered the Saints was 1980. They say, ‘Bob, man, I still miss you covering the Saints,” And I’m thinking 40 years!? You remember me from 40 years ago? Mostly though, they just forget about you. It’s not you, it’s what you cover.

This interview was completed for the class Alternative Journalism taught by Kelley Crawford at Tulane University. The interview has been edited and configured for publication.

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