Is a climate writer an activist? Not in Kendra Pierre-Lewis’ book: ‘I’m just reporting the science’

By Hayley Leitzinger

KENDRA Pierre-Louis is a science journalist and this year’s writer-in-residence at York College. 

She talked about a number of topics when she met with the members of The Spartan on March 3, including about climate change, pollution and the Arctic. There was plenty of conversation about writing, too.

Among the questions asked was how she got into writing. Pierre-Louis responded by saying she’d been “writing forever.” She said she started out with blogging, then “…somewhere along the line, I got an idea for a book proposal. I pitched it.” From there, Pierre-Louis said she began freelancing and got a copy of the Science Writer’s Handbook. 

She said she had always been interested in the environment and it’s what she gravitated toward when she wrote. Pierre-Louis also said she tried travel writing, but once she realized how unsustainable our current methods of travel are, she decided to stop because it just “…wasn’t green.”

She has done two travel excursions, one of which was in Iceland.

Per her bio, she has a master’s in Science Writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in Sustainable Development with a focus on Policy Analysis and Advocacy from the SIT Graduate Institute. She also has a bachelor’s in Economics from Cornell University and a Master Composter Certificate from The NYC Compost Project.

Kendra Pierre-Lewis spent four days talking to and working with York College students last week as part of her writer-in-residence visit. (Kendra Pierre-Lewis website)

Pierre-Louis was also asked how she kept improving her writing. She responded by noting how the process any writer uses – whether at the college or professional level – is the same. She said, “You write, rewrite, then somebody critiques your writing, and that’s literally what happens every day when you’re a journalist, right?” 

She added that reading helps as well to expand vocabulary and see different writing perspectives. She also said there are workshops that journalists can attend; for example, the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), NICAR training for data journalists that is put on by Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), to name a few. 

Aside from writing about climate change, Pierre-Louis also has an interest in food. She was never interested in “fancy food,” but the culture and science behind the traditional dishes of different countries. For example, when Pierre-Louis spent time in Iceland, she ate a lot of their traditional rye bread. She said it was different from our rye bread, and it led her into exploring why we don’t eat rye bread the same way the people in Iceland do.

Among the many topics that were discussed, Pierre-Louis also offered her opinion on political journalism and what it was like to write about this subject during her stint at the Times. She was asked if scientific writing had become harder to write about, because it has become so politicized in recent years. She responded by saying, “I don’t think it’s more difficult.” She  remarked how specifically writing about climate change might be perceived as more politicized when it’s portrayed as an activist issue. She said when she was at The Times, they did “…one or two eco-justice stories.” She said the Times did this because “… climate was seen as an activist issue.”

“So we were already on the fringes, and race was considered an activist issue. So you’re taking two activist issues and putting them together and it was super weird to me.” Pierre Louis stated that “I’m just reporting the science…” and this is what she has always wanted to do. Report the science without any political bias. 

Pierre-Louis was also asked what her opinion was on political journalism. She replied, “It often treats politics, like a sporting event, or…this team against that team, and who’s up and who’s down. It can often be very difficult to understand what the underlying issues are…” 

Pierre-Louis also remarked that she did a few political stories when she was at the Times, but “…there were such fights to actually bring the kind of nuance that I thought the stories deserved, and I just didn’t want to keep fighting.” She remarked that with politics, there’s so much bias that it’s hard for one news station above the others to stand out in offering unbiased reporting. She mentioned that she thought Vox did this well. That’s because they do a lot of stories on the issues themselves and not on what either side wants to come out of the issues, she said.

Pierre-Louis takes inspiration from many sources for her writing, whether it’s from the Arctic and its polar bears for her climate stories down to simple rye bread, and puts special effort and meaning into everything she writes. 

Deciding to become a writer was not her first career choice, but she stated that writing became her “…natural pattern and it took up more and more time and then I realized I don’t have any free time. I’m either at my job or writing so maybe I should make writing my job.”

Hayley Leitzinger is a freshman at YCP and her major is currently undeclared. She is considering Occupational Therapy and is tailoring her classes this semester towards that career.

ALSO READ: Where does YCP’s writer-in-residence get her story ideas? As a climate writer, they come from all around her

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