Journalist Peter Prengaman grew up in Eugene, Oregon, in a multicultural, single-parent family, with his mother and three adopted brothers — one from India and two from Brazil. At age 10, Peter accompanied his mother to Latin America for the adoption of the two younger boys. The trip piqued Prengaman’s interest in other cultures and other languages and set the course for his career, during which he has reported from more than 15 countries. He now holds a newly created position as the first climate and environmental news director for The Associated Press (AP), his employer of 20 years. Along the way, from 2005 to 2008, he studied Arabic at UCLA.
Did you always want to be a journalist?
Yes. At Wabash College in Indiana, where I studied as an undergraduate, I wrote for the school paper and majored in English and Spanish literatures. I liked to write, and I liked languages, studying French alongside Spanish. I thought maybe I could be a foreign correspondent. I didn’t know a lot about what that was, but I liked the idea.
What was your first job in journalism?
It was an internship for Wall Street Journal Europe, in Madrid. I had spent the second half of my junior year studying in Seville, Spain, and looking for an opportunity to pursue after graduation. The internship was unpaid, so at night I also worked as a translator for a Spanish newspaper, Cinco Días. I put in 16-hour days, which you can do when you’re 23!
What came next?
Then I came back to the U.S., to Oregon, and worked as the Spanish editor for a Spanish-language newspaper in Portland, El Centinela. I had never written in Spanish, but I figured there’s always a first time. I wrote articles, edited stories from freelancers, worked with a photographer and laid out pages.
Then I decided to go back to school. I earned a master’s in Latin American Studies at Stanford University, focusing on Brazil and intensively studying Portuguese. Some years later, from 2005 to 2008, while I was working for AP in Los Angeles as an immigration and minority communities reporter, I wanted to study Arabic. I enrolled at UCLA Extension for three years, completing 11 terms. By the third term, I was with regular UCLA students, because there just isn’t that much demand for advanced Arabic. It’s a hard language and tends to weed people out quickly.
How do you view the current state of journalism? Do you see bias in reporting?
It depends on the news organization. Reporting the facts is, and will always be, standard practice at AP. We may not always get that piece of it exactly right — after all, journalists are human, and journalism is poetry under fire. But the insistence on fair, fact-based reporting is one of the things that has kept me at AP. We seek to present things without an agenda. I think there are other news organizations that try to stick to that, but the 24-hour news cycle has changed the way news is collected and reported. Traditional media companies sometimes try to match that pace, which can lead to a blurring of the lines between fact and opinion.
Climate change is THE issue of our lifetimes — certainly of our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes.
Why create an entire news division around climate change?
Climate and environment coverage used to come under health and science at AP. But climate change has become so important that it needs to be its own team and have its own focus.
After all, climate change is THE issue of our lifetimes — certainly of our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes. On the scientific side, there’s no doubt about what is happening, with greenhouse gases, the warming of the earth and the effects of those things. Where the clashes come in is what to do about it. You see lots of wrangling at the global summits over the level of emissions that countries will agree to curb, how quickly to change policies regarding dirty yet energy-rich fuels like coal, and whether developing nations should be expected to “go green” when many people in those nations don’t even have basic access to electricity and clean water. There is also a growing debate about whether poor countries, which haven’t contributed to climate change in the way that developed countries have, should be compensated, or at the very least get substantial financial help to adapt to climate change.
How does your fluency in languages come into play in your new position?
My languages and international experience will help me so much, because we’re seeing the effects of climate change around the world. This is truly a global story. I can relate to a wide range of people, and I’ve covered a lot of environmental stories at different points in my career.
Where do you start in addressing climate change?
I think of it in buckets. One really big bucket is emissions and policy around the world to lower emissions. Another is cleaner energy and everything that comes with it — innovation around solar and wind, trying to make both more efficient and less intermittent, and debates about the role nuclear energy may have in a world with lower emissions. Another bucket is inequality. Climate change is a total inequality story. If you have money, you can mitigate the effects. But if you’re poor and your village gets wiped out, or any number of scenarios, you’re in bad shape.
What is the human aspect of the story?
Science is the basis for everything we talk about, but climate change is really a story about people — about inequality; about the scientists themselves and the work they’ve done for decades to really measure and quantify these changes; about people who are innovating, figuring out how to make different technologies more efficient; and, of course, politicians who decide on policy changes. I don’t want our work to be just what scientists say. It’s also what people say, how people are suffering, how people are innovating. At the end of the day, this is a people story. It’s our job to inform, to focus on what people can do, what innovators are doing and on the inequality aspects of climate change. We want to present stories that help make climate change front and center, a part of the public discourse. That is my goal.
When did climate change enter our everyday consciousness?
Scientists have studied this for several decades, but in the last few years, we’ve been starting to see the effects of climate change much more clearly. It’s no longer scientists saying, “Things are going to be really bad by 2050.” It’s happening now. It’s happening here in the West, with the reservoirs and lakes drying up [and] fights over water, and it’s happening in different ways around the world. It’s more in our consciousness, because we see the effects. As the planet warms, there will be more instability, more volatility in weather events. There will be problems with crops not growing, which leads to migration. Nobody knows for sure what will happen in the decades to come, but some of the things scientists have been warning about for decades, like more frequent severe weather events, are happening today.
The most exciting thing about this job, and doing it for an organization like AP, with its presence around the world and its striving to be fair in the reporting, is the chance to work with my colleagues — some of the best journalists in the world — on stories that help readers understand how our warming planet is changing daily life.
Read more from UCLA Magazine's April 2022 issue.