Anna Turns is a passionate environmental journalist and author who focuses on the positives. Her book, Go Toxic Free, debunks myths and cuts through the greenwash. She talked to us about why she chose this route, and how she remains positive about our environmental future.
When did you first realise you wanted to become a journalist?
My journalism career has evolved in different forms over the last 20 years. I studied biology originally, and always knew I wanted to do something to do with the environment, but I didn’t want to go into research.
I spend the first 10 years of my career in TV, then magazine journalism, but wanted to bring my biology back into my work. I went freelance about 12 years ago. In that time I’ve built up a national portfolio and been much more focused in terms of the environmental aspects of my journalism. I’ve always been involved in storytelling and communicating to mainstream audiences. So it’s kind of just taken a wiggly route.
As it’s evolved, my journalism has become much more focused on solutions. The whole climate-biodiversity-loss narrative is a very depressing, scary one. What I want to do is amplify the good stuff.
What was your first job in journalism?
My first job was a TV researcher. I worked on lots of people-based documentaries for ITV and various different broadcasters. I also worked on Spring Watch, and some of those BBC programmes.
In terms of written journalism, my first job was a staff writer on Devon Life magazine when I moved down to Devon. It’s lovely down here, but it’s also an extra challenge in terms of a career because there aren’t as many jobs. I’m quite pleased I’ve made it work as a freelancer. I think you just need that extra layer of persistence, especially when you’re not in the hub of a busy newsroom setting.
What was the first story you wrote?
The first one I pitched for Devon Life was about a children’s author who had written a book about a character called Albert who was a seagull. It had quite strong environmental undertones and lots of information about the kind of shells he was finding, the fact that he didn’t want waste in the estuary, all of these kinds of things. It was really about her motivation to write the story and what inspired her. So I wrote that one for them, and within a few weeks, someone left and they asked me to apply for a job. It all worked quite serendipitously really.
How did you get into environmentalism – was there a particular event that sparked your interest?
I think it’s an innate nature connection that stems back to childhood. I’ve always grown up with this sense of wanting to protect my local environment. And I really wanted to make sure I was having an impact in terms of the stories I was telling. I felt that if I showed environmental progress and solutions, it could help inspire other people to get involved, take care, and make those changes bigger and better.
When I was starting out in magazine journalism it was really hard. I remember looking for mentors and I couldn’t find any because there weren’t really very many environmental journalists at the time. There are more around now, but it was a new sort of specialism. This would have been about 2010. There were lots of science journalists, but environmental stuff was this different new thing. And that made me more determined to do it.
Do you see signs of progress and positive environmental change that give you hope?
I’m kind of on the coalface, because I know how bad it is, but I also see lots of glimmers of hope. And I think that the fastest, most impressive change is going to come from big business. Regulation and policy are painfully slow. If businesses help create a different landscape for these things, the ripple effects will come and systems will change. But it’s thinking about it as a system. It’s about having a whole mindset shift in terms of how we use stuff and waste stuff, and this wheel of consumption that we’re in. I feel like we need to take a step back and think differently about it, which is challenging. I don’t think it’s all up to individuals. I think it’s got to have a bit of bottom-up and top-down pressure.
Greenwashing is rife and lobbying is massive, both in fossil fuels and the chemical industry. All of that needs to change drastically. And I think that comes from pressure from people like us, shouting out and shining a light on the injustices, and also demanding more transparency and a better system. But then you look at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for instance, and they’re driving lots of businesses to think really creatively and collaboratively about how they problem-solve, and how they link together. And it’s absolutely possible. All the tech is there. I just think we’ve got to have the political will to shake things up.
What media titles have you worked for during your career?
Oh, lots of different ones, most of them consumer-based. BBC Future, which is their online, climate-focused strand. Also for the BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Positive News. Lots of magazines like Coast, Country Homes and Interiors, Reclaim. There’s a magazine by the Marine Conservation Society, and Wicked Leeks, which is a food, farming and ethical business website for Riverford Organic Farmers. It’s very varied and can be a different combination of titles from month to month.
Do you have a favourite story you’ve worked on?
My favourite story from last year was a piece I did for The Guardian about some new research that had come out. Fishermen were trying to attract more crabs into crab pots to up their catch, and were using these little gadgets that were flashing lights to try and attract them. They discovered that while it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference to the crabs, the scallops really like these flashing lights. I got the exclusive on this and was the first to publish it in The Guardian. And it became this massive viral hashtag – scallop disco. There were little videos of scallops going into the pots, then there were memes about it and it got picked up by NME and got loads of coverage. It was the funniest thing because all these audiences that would not normally be talking about sustainable fishing were having these conversations, and it was really authentic. It was published first thing in the morning and I spent the whole day on social media because it just went crazy. Watching the story evolve was very interesting, because I didn’t really know when I was writing it that it would capture the imagination that much.
It shows that sometimes you have to disguise your message in something else that people are going to be interested in. You can make it fun. You can tell that story in a sentence. And then you can read about the research, and how the tech evolved, but the crux of it is, if it breaks through all of the complicated academic lingo, without dumbing it down, it can reach a really diverse audience.
What’s the most difficult story you’ve worked on?
Probably one of the trickiest ones was when the Bureau of Investigative Journalism asked me to help them with a massive investigation they were doing into the use of soy in the dairy industry, in terms of cattle feed. They had done months and months of research and had satellite imagery from over the Amazon. They wanted to connect it to the Cornish and Devon dairy industry. They asked me because they knew I could work in this sort of world. So I had to speak to a lot of farmers to find out who they were supplying and what feed they were using, and do it all quite surreptitiously. It was a real challenge, as I had to start from scratch and create this in-depth research, without passing on any of my contacts. And when they published the story, it was much more relevant to the to the consumer audience in the UK. It wasn’t far away and alien – it was linked to the Cathedral City cheese in the supermarket and was much more tangible. It was hard, but also really rewarding to work on.
Who’s the most famous person you’ve interviewed?
I have interviewed quite a lot of famous people. Probably my favourites were Michael Morpurgo, the children’s laureate, and Mary Berry. She made me macarons which were lovely but I was too polite to have more than one. And also, some brilliant people within the environmental field, like Philippe Cousteau Jnr, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Bee Wilson and Dan Saladino.
Describe your working day
I’ve got an office at home. I tend to drop the kids off, come back to the laptop and make a bit of a list of what I’m going to do. It might involve interviews on Zoom, or research. Every day is slightly different. I normally try and work on a few different stories at once because often you’re waiting for people to get back to you or things might take a bit longer.
Sometimes I’m out and about meeting people for interviews or going to events. Last week I was in London for three days. I did a talk about my book and went to a couple of parties at the Guild of Food Writers awards. It’s always really varied. Sometimes it’s just about pitching, and thinking about what I’d like to write about and what’s new.
Tell us about your book
I wrote my book in lockdown. It’s called Go Toxic Free, and is about chemical pollution. It’s basically an empowering way to reduce your chemical footprint in your home and call for change in the world. It’s a room-by-room guide where I explain what’s going on in each room in the house and what we can do to limit our exposure, choose better options and waste less. It’s trying to make invisible, scary things, more tangible and easier to understand.
A lot of the book is about debunking myths, looking through the greenwash, being able to read the label, and not being duped by it.
What do you do in your spare time to relax?
I love getting outdoors. I run a lot and swim in the sea. And I gig row, which are wooden rowing boats – Cornish gigs. Sometimes I race but not very often. Exercise is a big thing. And time with family, getting out on the beach. going for walks and getting on the water. I’m very lucky. Where I live is such a beautiful place and that keeps me fairly calm.
I also do ballroom dancing with my husband. You can’t think of anything else when you’re trying to learn the foxtrot. It’s quite a good way of switching off my mind from work.
How can people submitting news stories best grab your attention with their press releases?
I get sent a lot of emails and press releases. The first thing that puts me off is if people start the email saying, Dear sir, or Dear Natasha – my name’s not Natasha! So knowing that it’s been personalised to me means I’m much more likely to read it.
If it’s just a general kind of press release, I tend to think it’s probably not relevant. I’ll have a quick scan of the top line, but often delete it straightaway. Most of the time, when I pick things up, it’s because I know the person or it’s from a university I’ve worked with, or there’s some reference point. Or if they’ve really done their research in terms of the stories I write and where it might fit, and could add something to the conversation – if they’re an expert or have something new and exciting, and timely.
If something’s of interest but I can’t cover it now I keep those emails in my Outlook folder. It might be that I’m asked to write about something in three months’ time and then search and find that it’s relevant. So just because the journalist doesn’t reply straightaway, doesn’t mean they’ve completely ignored it. They might have squirrelled it away for future reference. So don’t feel like completely disheartened.
How important for people to supply photographs/images with their press releases?
They are important. Big publications often don’t have big photography budgets. The companies that invest a bit of money in decent photos will get more coverage, because it will be more visual. They might get more space in a magazine, for example, because of their photos. Monthly magazines don’t really have much budget at all, but they need lovely looking pages. Newspapers can possibly get away with stock imagery, or will send a photographer to take a photo if it was really critical. But it would never be wasted money to do a really good photo shoot and have a few good images – it doesn’t have to be loads. When I send a pitch I send two or three to illustrate the story. It adds to your credibility.
How do you prefer to be contacted by people (email, telephone etc)?
Email is the best way. All my contact details are on my website. If I can’t get back to people straight away, I usually do reply, unless it’s a random press release, and has nothing to do with the environment. But I’m always open to hearing from people and, as journalists, it’s just good to have things on our radars.