Non-Profits, Web Video

Telling the COAL Story

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Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that the US coal industry is heading downhill due to decreasing demand, higher costs, and tougher environmental regulations. Meanwhile, natural gas – a cleaner power source alternative – is quickly taking over, with trend reports indicating that it could be a permanent shift.

In July, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated an unprecedented $50 million to the Sierra Club, a national environmental protection agency, to boost their Beyond Coal campaign. The funding will allow the project to grow from 15 states to 46, and hire about 100 new staff for grassroots and social media efforts. Though not a new issue, the announcement has once again put coal into the spotlight as well as public interest. I have seen a surge in talk surrounding the issue and campaigns against it. Its been argued that compelling stories about environmental issues are few and far between – most orgs can’t find a way to stray from tradtional, cliche models. So I wanted to talk about a few  visual storytelling techniques that have taken plain old lumps of coal to a whole new level.

Sierra Club: Beyond Coal

With Mayor Bloomberg’s help Beyond Coal has been able to build a very comprehensive campaign illustrating the hazards of coal on people and their land, but also offering several clean energy solutions. From its launch in 2002, it now has its own website independent from the Sierra Club – which unfortunately removes the Sierra Club from being directly correlated in a sense – that is clean, colorful and bold, just like the coal-free world they believe in. The campaign has very successfully capitalized on Mayor Bloomberg’s donation – and reputation – by putting him in the forefront as a spokesperson, however still keeping the youthfulness of the site (which is critical considering the strong supporter base of young people + environmental issues). The intro video is colorful, fast-paced and effective in bringing together media, politics, public figures, grassroots supporters, and the issues themselves (essentially saying “This is a big deal, pay attention!”) in under 3 minutes.

Earth Justice: An Ill Wind Blows
An Ill Wind is a 5-part short documentary telling the story of the Paiute Indians living on the Moapa River Indian Reservation in Nevada. For decades, the Paiute community has suffered health hazards, and in turn, a lower quality of living as a result of the sandstorm of coal ash that drifts from a nearby power plant.

The 5 videos are housed on a mini-site within Earth Justice’s main website and embedded in a great interactive map of the Moapa River Indian Reservation. The entire film is just under 8 minutes, but splitting them up into shorter videos is a really effective way to break up the issue and make it more digestable for viewers, not to mention allowing viewers to choose which parts to watch instead of starting the longer video, losing interest and clicking away before it ends. The story itself is compelling because it puts you in shoes of the people who are effected by the coal plants – people who are just trying to live their lives in health and peace like you or me. The mini-site allows for additional resources and more ways to get involved with the campaign without directing traffic elsewhere and losing the sense of Earth Justice’s ownership. And the map is a creative visual piece to really give the viewer a bird’s eye view of the land, the environment, and the proximity to which the Paiutes live to the coal plant – and therefore, an instant visualization of the entire issue at hand.

UNC: Coal: A Love Story
Powering a Nation
is an on-going project of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism. For the last 3 years it has used experimental journalism techniques to “investigate the political, economic, and scientific tensions behind US energy through advanced reporting to engage citizens and inspire informed decision-making.” The 2011 project is an interactive film called Coal: A Love Story, which received 2nd place in the first ever World Press Photo Interactive Multimedia Production competition.

It also lives on a simple, but beautifully designed mini-site with interactive components, a blog, and additional resources. The parts can be viewed together as one film, or separately broken up into topic areas. Each part leads into the next, so it works best to watch it all at once.

Because Powering a Nation is a journalism project, both sides of the issue are covered – families in defense of the coal industry because its their life, their living, their livilihood, but we also hear from others who are suffering the health hazards of black lung and asthma, and communities who feel oppressed by the polution taking over their neighborhood. Its less about offering a solution and more about allowing us to see perspectives that may conflict with or challenge our own.

All three projects are great examples how differently a single issue can be shaped and illustrated. A common theme, however, is connecting the issue to people – we all share universal values and if you give your viewers something to relate to, it will no doubt move them. But keep it unique too – what is your org doing that no other org is? How is your story different? Whose voice haven’t we heard yet? There are many sides to the coal story – tell them all.

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