Jason Spingarn-Koff joins Berkeley Journalism faculty to transform climate change coverage

June 8, 2023

Photo of a man wearing a green jacket over a checked button down shirt.

Jason Spingarn-Koff

Berkeley Journalism is proud to announce it has hired the pioneering documentary filmmaker, journalist and media industry trailblazer Jason Spingarn-Koff to lead an effort to reinvent journalism about climate change.

After a monthslong, nationwide search, the school selected Spingarn-Koff as the new professor of journalism and Knight Chair of Climate Journalism. Knight Chairs in Journalism are top professionals who bridge the newsroom-classroom divide with innovative teaching, major outreach projects and their own journalism. The Knight Chair was held most recently by Emeritus Professor Michael Pollan.

“Jason’s mandate is to turn our school into a center for reinventing how stories about climate change are told,” Dean Geeta Anand said. “We aim to create new models, forms and narratives of journalism that pierce through the malaise of disinterest, denial and fear to inform public understanding of the existential threat of global warming.”

Spingarn-Koff, an alum of the journalism school, recently spent seven years as director of original documentary programming at Netflix, where he played key roles in bringing to broad audiences many iconic documentaries that have transformed public perceptions of the natural world and our role in preserving it. Before that, he launched and oversaw the pioneering Op-Docs initiative at The New York Times that is credited with transforming the media landscape for short form documentaries.

At Berkeley, Spingarn-Koff will work with Anand and David Ackerly, dean of the Rausser College of Natural Resources, to unite the brainpower of top science experts on campus with the expertise at the journalism school to collaboratively publish stories. He will forge partnerships with media outlets to publish projects produced in these campus collaborations in traditional and new media forms. The goal is to have an impact on public understanding of climate change.

“Faculty, students and researchers all across the Berkeley campus are stepping up to address the climate challenge, and its impact on our society,” Ackerly said. “This new position creates exciting opportunities to meet this challenge and make a real difference in the world.”

Spingarn-Koff said he is thrilled about the challenge of the new role.

“Given the urgency of the climate crisis and the scale of the societal transformation this moment demands, I can see no more important work than this,” Spingarn-Koff said. “I look forward to helping grow the next generation of courageous, innovative journalists and filmmakers who share this mission.”

Spingarn-Koff’s role is vitally important at this moment in time, said Duc Luu, director of journalism at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which funds the Knight Chairs.

“The problems associated with climate change, which are being felt in U.S. cities and rural communities large and small, can only be addressed with credible information — and we rely on journalists to bring that information to light,” Luu said. “That’s why we are thrilled with Berkeley’s decision to raise the profile of this portfolio by bringing in a world class expert like Jason Spingarn-Koff whose charge is to reinvent the way the field covers this critically important topic.”

At Netflix, Spingarn-Koff had a hand in significant documentaries that transformed public perceptions of the natural world, such as the Emmy-winning landmark series “Our Planet,” the Oscar-winning film “My Octopus Teacher,” and the Peabody Award-winning film “Chasing Coral.” Projects he commissioned or oversaw at Netflix also have given voice to communities suffering the dire effects of global warming (“Fire in Paradise,” “After Maria”), exposed powerful interests harming the planet (“Rotten,” “Broken,” “Dirty Money”), showcased climate solutions and innovators (“Abstract: The Art of Design,” “Inside Bill’s Brain”), and catalyzed movements for social change (“The Social Dilemma,” “The Edge of Democracy,” “Athlete A”). He also co-created and executive produced the long-running series “Explained,” produced with Vox. His work on climate change builds on deep experience covering the intersection of science, technology and society — from early work for PBS’ “NOVA,” MSNBC, Time and Wired, to his independent directorial debut feature “Life 2.0” (2010 Sundance Film Festival), and a mid-career Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT.

Before joining Netflix, Spingarn-Koff worked at The New York Times, where he launched and oversaw the pioneering Op-Docs initiative for short opinion documentaries by independent filmmakers, commissioning and publishing more than 165 short films and interactive works, and winning two Emmys and a Peabody Award. At The Times, he produced stories with leading Op-Ed columnists, collaborated with acclaimed documentarians (such as Errol Morris, Laura Poitras, Roger Ross Williams and Julia Reichert), and championed dozens of emerging filmmakers and artists (such as Dawn Porter, Pete Nicks and Elaine McMillion Sheldon).

At Berkeley Journalism, Spingarn-Koff will build a new multidisciplinary program on climate change by leveraging his expertise in reporting and editing stories on science and technology, as well as facilitating the broadcast of major reporting on the climate crisis. He will broaden the journalism school curriculum to cover the wide spectrum of issues surrounding climate change, including science, technology, sustainability, biodiversity, resource equity and social justice.

Spingarn-Koff said some of the big challenges he is focused on are: “How can we shift the narrative around climate change from doom and gloom to hope and possibility, while also holding powerful interests to account? And how do we also lower barriers to entry and create opportunities to ensure our field reflects the richness of backgrounds and perspectives in our world?”

Spingarn-Koff has deep ties to Berkeley Journalism. He earned his master’s in journalism from the school in 2001, and in 2023 was a co-teacher and thesis adviser in the documentary production program.

“I have yet to meet someone who impressed me as much with their sincere care for students, care for the job and care for this school and this profession,” said Professor Richard Koci Hernandez, who led the search committee that included Professor Edward Wasserman, Professor Elena Conis, Professor Shereen Marisol Meraji, and student member Xueer Lu.

Spingarn-Koff graduated from Brown University with a bachelor of arts degree in history, was an MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow, and is a member of the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

 

 

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