Q&A: Monica Samayoa on Climate Coverage by and for Communities of Color

Environment reporter Monica Samayoa shares how she “fell in love” with climate journalism, her tips for finding undercovered stories, and advice on covering climate and environmental impacts on communities of color.

Each month, Covering Climate Now speaks with a different journalist about their experiences on the climate beat, their reporting tips, and their ideas for pushing our profession and craft forward. This month, we spoke with Monica Samayoa, who is the environment reporter at Oregon Public Radio and serves on the steering committee of the Uproot Project, a network for environmental journalists of color. The Uproot Project, which launched last spring, aims to bring a greater diversity of voices to the forefront of the climate and environment stories. At Oregon Public Radio, Samayoa has covered clean energy, extreme weather, and the growing climate and environmental justice movements in the Pacific Northwest. Our conversation has been edited for clarity. Follow Samayoa on Twitter.

Tell us a bit about the Uproot Project. What gaps in the industry does it aim to address?

We’re a newly-launched network of environmental journalists of color, created by environmental journalists of color. We saw the need for a space where we can come together, to share our experiences, talk about the stories we’re not seeing, and figure out how we can help do better. We want to encourage more journalists of color to get interested in the environment and climate beats. Climate change disproportionately affects communities of color and lower-income communities, but these stories really get overlooked; because of that, the climate crisis is not seen as a crisis by everyone. By encouraging journalists of color to work on these stories, we want to make clear, “Hey, this is already happening. It’s not something we’re expecting in the future. The climate crisis is here.”

We also want to work with news organizations so that they will hire more journalists of color to cover these issues. From big news organizations down to small, local ones, we always hear, “Well, people of color aren’t applying” or, “Oh, we can’t find people of color to report these stories.” But they’re not really looking. At the Uproot Project, we have so many members—nearly 200, and we’re continuing to grow—so that’s just not an excuse anymore.

To my knowledge, I’m the only journalist of color in Oregon working full-time on the environment beat. And that’s sad. There needs to be more—and again, that’s why the Uproot Project is so important. I see where the gaps in coverage in this state are, and I hope that when there are open positions, as more news organizations realize they need to fix this, that they’ll know where to look and that I’ll know where to point them.

That said, at Oregon Public Broadcasting, my colleagues have really stepped up. We recognize that our audience is predominantly white—but we’re trying to figure out how we can bring in more audiences of color. We want our coverage to reflect the actual demographics of our community.

What led you personally to climate journalism, and to the Uproot Project? 

Covering climate and the environment wasn’t on my mind when I started out as a journalist. I was interested in tech and also immigration, because of my Guatemalan background. I was looking for a job, and having such a hard time getting my foot into any door. Finally, after I applied for a job I didn’t get at Oregon Public Broadcasting, they reached out about an open science and environment reporter position. I thought, “Oh my god, I don’t know anything about the environment.” Back then, I thought of science reporters as these people who are all super smart, they all have masters degrees, they’ve been thinking about this stuff their whole lives. That’s not who I am. But something in me said, “Do it.” So I did—and, in my first two weeks of covering the environment in the Pacific Northwest, I fell in love with it.

The environment and climate beats really intersect with every other beat, and they’re only going to keep growing. So, when I think about where I want to be as a journalist in five or ten years, the climate crisis is the most important story I could be covering.

Through Uproot, I can share my passion for covering climate and the environment. I love to help younger, early-career journalists. I’m still learning myself, but with the few years I have under my belt I can still pass on knowledge and contacts. I can help young journalists of color network, so it’s easier for them to break into the industry than it was for me and others before them. I want to open doors.

Tell us about your process of seeking out undertold stories in Oregon.

I always want to keep in mind that Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color often don’t get the coverage they deserve. And I want to cover solutions-oriented stories first.

It’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to climate, and there are a lot of great things communities and organizations of color are doing. There’s a predominantly Latino community in north Portland that was recently fighting to shut down a recycling plant. You’d think, “Hey, it’s recycling, that’s a good thing.” But the smokestacks at this plant were emitting toxic pollution into the air, which was having a really negative effect on this community. I wrote that story late last year, and there have been changes since—when public agencies saw people were pushing for this, they stepped in, which was a big win for people in the community.

A problem with climate change is that every day there’s a new disaster somewhere in the world to pay attention to. We forget that people are still suffering from past disasters. In the 2020 Labor Day wildfire in southern Oregon, for example, more than 2,500 homes were burned down by a fire that just ripped through these small towns. It burned a lot of affordable housing and a lot of mobile homes, affecting a lot of families from the Latino community. I checked in months later, and many families were still struggling to find a place to live. But that wasn’t getting any attention.

It’s important to look at these things as journalists, because in the future any of us could be affected by a climate disaster. We’re going to need to figure out how to help those in need.

What guidance would you give to reporters for covering climate and environmental impacts on communities of color—especially to reporters who come from outside those communities?

Reach out to organizations and communities to introduce yourself before you have an assignment. When I first took this job in Oregon, my goal was to represent my own culture as a Latina, but also other cultures, as well. I didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot, so I made sure to build relationships with local organizations early—so that when I reached out I wasn’t just saying, “Hey, I need a voice, do you have anyone?” I wanted people at these organizations to know I care and that they can come to me with stories.

Knowing your information is also important. In Oregon, for example, there are many tribes. Journalists should be aware of where those are located and the issues they care about. If you can’t figure something out, you don’t need to walk on eggshells—just say, “Hey, I’m new, and I want to learn more information about your community.” I had a situation here once where, in a story, I focused on one tribe without naming the others involved. Another tribe’s public-affairs representative contacted me to say I should have included them. At first, I was mortified. But they were understanding; they shared that there’s just such a lack of coverage of their tribe, and so much they felt they needed to teach reporters. Now, they’re a contact of mine, and whenever I need help in that community there’s somebody I can go to.

Part of reporting on undercovered communities is, unfortunately, also needing to convince editors sometimes that these stories need to be told. 

One thing it comes down to is simply hiring more editors of color for environmental positions—and more editors of color in general—who will understand the importance of these stories. There also needs to be more training for white editors. It’s sad to say that. But I think if there’s more focus in newsrooms on diversity, equity, and inclusion, we can have better conversations, instead of just getting the immediate response from editors of, “Hmm, is this really a story?” I’ve had that happen, pitching stories about Latino communities, and it’s devastating. We shouldn’t have to keep fighting and repeating ourselves for these stories to be told.

How have people responded to the Uproot Project since you launched? What do you and the team hope for in the year ahead?

We’re definitely getting a lot of, “Oh my god, I’m so happy there’s this network.” Because there’s just not that many journalists of color on this beat, and that can be lonely. We’re happy that we can offer a free and safe space to share ideas and talk about our experiences.

At the Uproot Project, we want to make sure this year that what we’re building is sustainable. We’re all journalists, and we all work full-time, so right now we’re volunteering a lot of time. We’re looking for a director to help Uproot continue to expand. We’re also launching a bimonthly newsletter soon, to keep members up to date not just on what we’re working on but what our members are doing. As we continue to expand, we also want to be a place for journalists of color who do get that “No” from editors to connect with others in the industry who might be willing to pick that story up. We hope this can grow.