We’re diving deep into a topic that’s been swept under the rug for far too long: the media’s coverage of water issues – or lack thereof. Are journalists dropping the ball, or is the water sector failing to make its case?
with 🎙️ J. Carl Ganter – Managing Director at Circle of Blue
💧 Circle of Blue is an award-winning team of leading journalists, scientists, data experts, communications designers, and facilitators that reports challenges and solutions to global resource issues with emphasis on the fierce and growing competition between Water, food, and energy in a changing climate.
What we covered:
📺 How Mainstream Media Misses the Mark: Unveiling the shocking gaps in water crisis coverage that you won’t believe!
🚰 Why Flint is Just the Tip of the Iceberg: The untold stories of water crises that mainstream media ignores.
📰 What Circle of Blue is Doing Differently: The game-changing approach to water journalism that’s making waves.
🎤 How the Water Sector Struggles with Storytelling: The narrative missteps that are costing us dearly.
🎥 Why Winning Over Journalists is Crucial: The insider secrets to getting media attention for water issues.
📢 What You Can Do Right Now: Actionable steps to make a real impact and hold the media and water sector accountable.
🌍 Why This is the Biggest Story of Our Lifetime: The interconnected web of water, climate, food, and energy that’s too big to ignore.
📚 How to Educate Yourself and Others: The must-read resources and platforms to keep you informed and empowered.
🛠️ What Tools and Strategies Work Best: The proven methods for effective communication in the water sector.
🤝 Why Collaboration is Key: The partnerships that are changing the game in water journalism and advocacy.
🎯 How to Frame the Water Narrative: The storytelling techniques that resonate with everyone, from policymakers to the general public.
🌟 What Makes a Story Stick: The elements that turn a water issue from a headline into a movement.
🔗 Have a look at Circle of Blue‘s website
🔗 Come say hi to Carl on Linkedin
🔗 Check out today’s sponsor: Sciens Water
is on Linkedin ➡️
Table of contents
- What we covered:
- Full Video:
- Teaser – The Childhood Cancer Cluster in Nebraska that may stem from Water
- Editorial: Screaming on TV won’t get Water Professionals popular
- Introducing: J. Carl Ganter
- There are more losers than winners in today’s Water Story – time to turn the tides?
- How can we better cover Water so that its story gets heard?
- How to personalize a water story in concrete steps?
- The heartbreaking story of the community in Nebraska that suffered a childhood cancer cluster due to polluted groundwater
- How does anyone become a water storyteller?
- Getting the “middlemen” on board of the water story train
- Applying the Movies Industry’s recipes to Water Stories
- The 6-Step Framework to make your Water Story Haunting
- What is Circle of Blue and what do you do specifically?
- An actionable advice to craft perfect water stories
- Other Episodes:
Teaser – The Childhood Cancer Cluster in Nebraska that may stem from Water
Editorial: Screaming on TV won’t get Water Professionals popular
- So you two think that we have a water problem? That’s concerning, because Water is Life!
- Water is life?
- Oh come on! Not that bullshit once again! A) We still fail to deliver Water to All, which is a non-sense on all levels, B) We still massively dump untreated sewage in natural water bodies, C) We totally accelerate towards the Water Scarcity brick wall that will displace up to 700 million people, D) We criminally under-invest in our water infrastructure which leads the World to progress backward towards water security, E) Floods are here to stay, F) We will struggle to feed humanity
- Calm down, calm down!
- Don’t tell me to calm down! F*** this b*******, I’m out!
- Wow, someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. You, the quiet and polite water nerd, are welcome back whenever you want, but that screaming crazy lad, no thanks!
Does that sound familiar to you? You’ve got mainstream media on one end that doesn’t seem to “get it” and water experts on the other one that lose their shit and get desperate, disillusioned, and sometimes straightforward angry.
The problem with that is that it can easily end up in a lose-lose unless we take specific steps to correct that path. Do you want to tell better water stories that lead to positive impact and increased attention from mainstream media, decision-makers, and ultimately public opinion? Then meet Carl Ganter.
Introducing: J. Carl Ganter
Carl is the Managing Director of Circle of Blue, an award-winning team of leading journalists, scientists, data experts, communications designers, and facilitators that reports challenges and solutions to global resource issues with emphasis on the fierce and growing competition between Water, food, and energy in a changing climate.
Antoine Walter: You’re arguably a much more vetted media professional than What is your vision of the way the media covers Water?
Carl Ganter: So the way the media covers Water today, I think we’re missing so many of the big stories.
It’s almost like politics. We cover horse races, or drilling a well, or helping a community, or Flint, Michigan, we have a crisis. But we’re missing the nuances. And with Water, we have probably the greatest story, greatest, I mean, most complicated, but richest story. In civilizations, history, right? I look at Water as a drama.
The water story has heroes, victims, villains. Has new technology, has innovation. Embedded in that, it does have winners and losers. And it’s part of our role as people in the water space to hopefully make sure there are more winners than losers.
There are more losers than winners in today’s Water Story – time to turn the tides?
As of now, it’s, unfortunately, pretty safe to say that we see more losers than winners. We see floods, we see droughts, we see crises, and we see pain. But in order to not sound too much like the angry guy in today’s introduction, it’s critical to look at those events differently:
Carl Ganter: It actually comes down to seizing moments. If we do a story about a solution for, say, the Colorado River Basin in the middle of a drought, but we do that in March, or we do that right after it’s rained.
Every taxi driver or water progasticator doesn’t know any details. They say it’s raining. Oh, so we must be out of the problem. One is that we have to realize that Water is nuanced. We also have to realize that it can’t wait, which means we can spot these big trends and we can identify kind of the crisis moments, when they’re actually going to happen, or the opportunity moments.
That’s when we publish. So, why should we publish into a vacuum? Well, let’s say, we know there’ll be floods, we know there’ll be droughts, and we know, with climate change, they’re likely going to be worse than we’ve ever experienced, at least in our lifetimes, if not recent history. When there’s a flood, and say, uh, in Africa, somebody like Peter Glick, who’s a great science communicator, the next day, he had an op ed in the Washington Post, saying, here’s what happened, and here are some of the solutions.
Where, typically in the water space, or a lot of other spaces, It takes months for a communications team or for a major news media to say, Jenkins, go cover water. There are these moments that we know are coming, or trains that are running late, or derailing, tragically. We know that will happen, and so from a media perspective, That’s where we need to be prepared.
And we need to understand that this is truly Water flowing through the nexus of Water, climate, food, energy and equity. I mean, that’s really kind of a nexus. This is the biggest story of our lifetime and we can’t just kind of run and cover it like we’re covering a fire or a natural disaster or a city council meeting.
How can we better cover Water so that its story gets heard?
So, if we agree that this is, indeed, the biggest story of our lifetime, the question now becomes, how do we cover it. Right now, we have statistics on one hand, like when we say that at the current progress speed towards SDG 6 goals, in 2030, 2 billion people will still be living without safely managed drinking water, 3 billion without safely managed sanitation, and 1.4 billion without basic hygiene services.
And on the other hand, we have stories. The story of floods in a given region at a given time, the story of dams becoming hazards, the story of water networks that are of almost ever decreasing quality…
Carl Ganter: There are many stories, yet there’s not a narrative. That’s probably the biggest question the water space, our water friends here, should be asking.
What is that water narrative? And it’s not a meme, and it’s not a one sentence, Water is life. Because a narrative is cumulative. I think one thing that the water sector, anybody in communications and needs to understand that whether you’re talking about infrastructure or you’re talking about pollution or groundwater depletion, there is a person behind that bullet point.
How to (Finally) craft a Water Narrative
You look at a moment in history at when, when something changed, whether it was the Vietnam War, two photographs, moments changed that. War and they were a single people. One was an execution on the streets of Saigon. Another one was a young woman running from a burning village. That young woman could have been somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister.
There was a relation there. Behind every bullet point that we see at water conferences or presentations. is a real person. And that’s something that I’ve really strived to do as a former television investigative reporter and also a photojournalist. And I used to work for Time and National Geographic.
And so, how do you personalize a story, get right on the ground, but then also take it up to a point so that city council person or that prime minister actually sees themselves in the picture? A little bit of left brain and right brain. Capture the heart. Oh, that could be me. That could be my neighbor. Oh, and then here’s the other side.
This is the data point. This is why we care, and this is the justification why we need to act.
How to personalize a water story in concrete steps?
I bet you’d probably agree with Carl at that stage. We need a narrative, and we need to personalize the story. But how do we manage that?
Carl Ganter: The way we, we manage that. So we stick to the church and state, journalism being church.
So it’s protected. But what we’re doing now is really embedding systems design and thinking when we’re in the field, we have another team that’s actually looking at who needs to read this, who needs to understand this. I see. And, and then we’ll partner with conveners. and bring that neutral table, so to speak, so we can bring people together.
They might not be on the same side of the table, but we’ll give them chairs and we’ll say, here’s what happened and here’s why. Here are the images, here are the people behind the scenes and here’s the data. And then facilitate through a powerful conversation. We actually changed policy, national policy in China by doing that.
It was a lot of work, but it happened.
Turning water facts into stories with protagonists, and codified narratives
I’d like to pick on something crucial in what Carl just explained. When we craft a narrative, we need strong lead characters, and we need to first tell their story. Like it or hate it, that’s the way our brains are wired. When we hear “Once upon a time,” we get on our toes, and we stay highly engaged with the story until we hear “and they lived happily ever after.”
A story has a setting, protagonists, and, hopefully, in our case, a purpose that will double down as its pay-off.
Still too theoretical right? Well, here’s a masterclass.
The heartbreaking story of the community in Nebraska that suffered a childhood cancer cluster due to polluted groundwater
Carl Ganter: We did a series in Nebraska. Brett Walton, one of the terrific reporter, and identified cancer clusters in these small little, call them flyover towns in Nebraska. If you’re flying over the central U. S., you look down and there are crop circles.
There’s a well in the middle of each one, pulling Water from the Ogallala Aquifer, right, for irrigation. And there’s a little town intersection. There’s a water tower, there’s a church, and there’s a football field. High school football is a big deal in Nebraska. But what’s happening is the aquifer is declining and pesticides, pollution from big agriculture is accumulating.
So atrazine and nitrates. After we did that story series about childhood cancer rates, I photographed, it still makes the hair in the back of my neck stand up thinking about it, I photographed a high school football team at their practice and they had little yellow stickers on their helmets for friends who’ve died of cancer from contaminated Water.
And so just heartbreaking. And so after we published that, I sat in the kitchen of families whose children had died and photographed them. I’m a parent, so seeing another parent cry is, I mean, absolutely heartbreaking. Well, I got a call from the former Secretary of Agriculture, U. S. Secretary of Agriculture.
He said this is one of the most important stories around the world. Water and agriculture and agricultural runoff contaminating our Water. And I got a call from a state GOP senator, a Republican senator, very, you know, big agriculture, everything else. But we came at this from the health angle. And he said, I’m going to push for a budget for educating farmers for more buffer zones to try to keep this Water from reaching the groundwater.
That’s powerful. And that was a health framing. It wasn’t a climate framing. It wasn’t another extraction or us versus them or ag. It’s way into the conversation.
How does anyone become a water storyteller?
Okay, but now, if you’re like me, you may think. Sure, Carl knows how to do that. He’s a legend! He was already working for National Geographic before I was born, and I’m not that young anymore! So, for anyone who’s not worked for NBC, the World Economic Forum, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Huffington Post, or the OECD, how does one do that!
Antoine Walter: You mentioned the water sector has to do its part. Does the water sector have the capability to do that? I mean, we’re not good in Um,
Carl Ganter: we all do. So you can go, if you’re a water user, you know, water and wastewater services, right? You see something, you can call. We don’t have to wait for a comms department to call us and say, Hey, there’s a great story.
We can’t wait and just say, put out a press release and think that we did our job. And we put it out there. Or we got a blurb in the, you know, whatever local newspaper or national newspaper. This is a persistent battle to drive that narrative that Water’s important. Everybody’s empowered. It doesn’t mean just, you know, go post on your social media.
But it means sit down and do a, you know, widely listened to podcast. It means take every moment, whether it’s in your neighborhood or whether it’s nationally, and push the water issue. And I’ll give you a quick example.
Applied water storytelling: piquing a US Congressman’s curiosity
I was sitting on the plane on the way here, and I was sitting next to… a U. S. congressman. So he asked, so what do you do? And it turns out he really doesn’t talk about climate much. And I said, I work in water security. And I leave it at that. So, five minutes later, he asks, so what’s water security? And I say, no, so you kind of ticked down. Well, it’s, what is water security? So are we talking about Water in the Middle East?
Or are we talking about me, or you, or your family having enough Water to survive? Or to thrive? It was very ironic. He went back to doing his work. And then, in the airport, he came back up to me, and he said, Well, you know the next wars, they won’t be fought over oil, they’ll be fought over Water. And I leaned in and I said, Well, you know, they already are.
And so, I’ll have my staff contact you. So literally, I was just here, at conference here, my phone rang. And it was his staff.
Antoine Walter: That’s an amazing story, actually. So, and a good inspiration, I guess.
Carl Ganter: Well, and it, when it comes down to how you frame it, so you frame it with a Congress person who may be holding the difference between yay or Nay for say, a major infrastructure investment initiative.
true story, right? What you want is you want them to understand how they fit in the picture and they say, oh, yeah, Water’s important. I may not agree with the other stuff, but Water’s important. That’s something I can take back to my family and my voters that I care.
Getting the “middlemen” on board of the water story train
Sure, we don’t all take planes with congressmen; I hear you, fair objection. But we sure all can find an intriguing way to present our jobs to trigger follow-up questions from our interlocutors!
I’m a water jedi for instance. What does that mean? Glad you asked! Share this article around you, and you’ll be blessed with the force to better comprehend the water sector with a big “W” and stand out among the water pros and investors crowd!
Now, seriously, something else that shows in Carl’s example of intriguing a Congressman to get him to act, is that it’s probably too much of a stretch for us, little water guys, to ambition to reach the general opinion
in one go. But we can target instead the middlemen: politicians, A-list celebrities, or probably more straightforwardly, mainstream media.
One powerful tool to do that is actually what I would call news hacking. That may sound gross, expressed that way, but here’s a better definition of the approach:
The right way to local news hack global water stories
Carl Ganter: We know that these tragedies are happening every day and maybe not at that same scale. But then what? The media needs to do, and what the water sector needs to do, is continue to build that persistent story. Because now you have to remember, the media, particularly mainstream media, budgets have been cut, it’s about eyeballs and clicks and, and, and revenue.
What you need is media to go deeper and say, right now they’re asking questions about corruption, about infrastructure, why were these dams not inspected or not maintained, where did the money go? These are big, big questions, but that can also relate to Libya. That’s a long way away. I live in a little town in Michigan.
Why would I care? Great. Great lead for reporter. Call the reporter and say, Oh hey, did you know we have the best infrastructure investment? This is not going to happen here and here’s why. There’s a good news story. Or, our sewer lines are a hundred years old and they’re failing and we’re doing everything we can do to patch them.
Why don’t you come with me and I will show you. It’s not at the scale of Libya, wastewater.
Applying the Movies Industry’s recipes to Water Stories
The strategy Carl proposes here made me think of a framework Phill Agnew revealed on his “Nudge” podcast.
Bear with, but I’d see here an interesting parallel with a sector we all know more or less: the movie industry.
In a world saturated with content, what makes a good movie trailer stand out? The answer lies in a potent blend of psychology, novelty, and familiarity. Trailers like Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and George Lucas’s “Star Wars” have set the gold standard, employing a mix of well-known tropes and groundbreaking elements to captivate audiences.
Marvel Studios has taken this to the next level, mastering the “novel yet familiar” approach and leveraging psychological principles like the Zeigarnik effect to leave audiences wanting more.
And if trailers and teasers have proven to be a game-changer for dozens and dozens of movies, beyond the silver screen, the principles that make them compelling can be applied to our everyday storytelling, whether it’s a business presentation, a social media post, or a pitch to a local journalist to “news hack” a Global Trend.
By understanding the psychology and strategies behind successful movie trailers, we can craft narratives that not only capture attention but also sustain it, making our stories as unforgettable as the films they promote.
The 6-Step Framework to make your Water Story Haunting
And coincidence or not, if you’ve ever followed my advice and read the Worth of Water book by Gary White and Matt Damon – who should know one thing or two about movie trailers – the opening chapter exactly follows the 6-step framework that Phill Agnew lays out.
Time needed: 20 minutes
Craft a Water Story that sticks!
- Identify the Core Message
That’s the narrative we discussed with Carl minutes ago; in the example of the Water.org founders’ book, that’s the win-win-win perspective of achieving Water for all.
- Blend Novelty and Familiarity
In theory, that’s Star Wars combining the Hero’s Journey with Space Opera. In the case of our book, that’s a water charity, but combined with a bank and Nobel-prize-winning microcredit strategy.
- Cast for Impact
Matt Damon, do I need to add anything here? Well actually yes, because it’s not just the impact of a big name; it’s also a blend of novelty and familiarity, as just explained. The well-known Matt Damon, but not cast as Jason Bourne but as an NGO founder with a high drive for impact.
- Craft the Narrative Arc
Remember how Carl explained minutes ago how two pictures ended the Vietnam War? Or the heartbreaking story of the parents of the deceased football player in Nebraska? In Water.org’s book, it’s Matt Damon getting to know Wema along her long road to collect Water for her family.
- Zeigarnik Effect
Don’t close the action; let things open. That happens several times in Matt Damon and Gary White’s story. But we had an even greater example with Carl’s congressman story: when he says “I work in water security. And I leave it at that.” the congressman can’t resist the urge to get to know what happens next.
- Choose the Release Timing Wisely
For the “Worth of Water” book, that was right in time to get people buzzing about it before the UN Water Conference, and guess who then got to feature in the opening segment of that Conference – probably also the only one worth watching? Along the same lines, that’s word for word Carl’s advice of picking the right story at the right time and constantly being on the lookout for planets aligning with that regard.
So here you go, a bullet-proofed 6-step framework to get your local news reporter intrigued or to shed new light on your water innovation’s impact.
What is Circle of Blue and what do you do specifically?
Carl Ganter: Circle of Blue is kind of a hybrid news organization. We combine… Great journalism, frontline reporting, we get out, we get dirty, and then combine that with data, science, research, and then we convene. So we convene around what we find. So in a sense, we’re talking about systems change journalism. You hear a lot about solutions journalism.
Okay, that’s great. We need to know what’s working. But we also need to know what’s not. So it’s a little bit of chocolate and peanut butter. So you need both. You need, as we used to say at Channel 5 in Chicago, You scare them on Sunday and save them on Monday. We have this drama that’s unfolding. Circle of Blue, we use great reporters on the front lines.
We go to India, China. We embed for weeks at a time to tease out the story. Because the water story, not only is it a big drama, but it’s very, very complicated.
So to close today’s deep dive and navigate those very very complicated waters…
An actionable advice to craft perfect water stories
What is a very simple actionable advice you can give to them? Because not everybody has your ability to pick up the right story at the right point in time. Where can they get inspiration, copy paste stuff? What’s the best call to action you can make for everybody?
Carl Ganter: Don’t just be actionable. You can sit by the pool and be actionable.
Right. So get out there and tune in to podcasts like this one. Read Circle of Blue. Read whatever you can and understand. From that, your local backyard up to the global. Take a shorter shower. Good for you. Get active. Show up. Go to city council. Start learning. Figure out where the money’s going. And truly learn about it, and then start asking questions.
Because showing that you care, whether it’s a congressman or a woman, or whether it’s a prime minister, or a water operator or an engineer. They want to know that you care because typically they’re pretty proud of their jobs and they do want to do the right things. So if you can frame it that I care and this is why it’s relevant then we can actually shift.
But if there’s one thing to focus on I think it is truly policy and creating and enabling policies and regulations allow us to be much more innovative and also hold ourselves accountable.
That’s it for today; thanks for staying with me until the end of that episode, and thanks to Sciens Water for enabling it. If that was of interest to you and you’d like to get more content like this in the future, make sure to subscribe, hit the like button down below to help me spread the message, and if you’re interested in some great stories of people that changed the water industry through their perseverance, activism, genius, and inventions, check out this other episode I’m linking you right here, and I’ll see you next time!