Bring a group of environmental journalists together for a long enough time and it is likely a debate about objectivity and advocacy will erupt.

“Journalists should be objective,” argues one group. “Journalists are stewards of the truth for their readers and viewers. They should report all sides and be as scrupulous as possible in writing a balanced piece, expressing all points of view.”

“Objectivity is impossible,” argues another group. “Environmental journalists should be advocates for changes to improve the quality of the planet. They should educate people about the serious problems that exist and use the power of the news media to bring about changes to improve the quality of the Earth—air, water, wildlife and natural resources.”

Which side of this debate journalists are on is based often upon the media they work for and the country they work in. If they are employed by a mainstream newspaper, news magazine or broadcast station, they are likely to be in the camp of objectivity. If they work in developed parts of the globe, such as the United States, Western Europe or Japan, they probably also support this view. But if they work for an environmental magazine, the alternative press or are a freelancer, they might side with the advocacy school. If they live in developing regions of the globe, such as Africa, South America, and parts of Asia, they might also favor this view.

Sustainable Journalism

Is it possible to support both schools of thought? Carl Frankel, the author of “In Earth’s Company: Business, Environment and the Challenge of Sustainability,” argues that it is. “Contrary to the conventional wisdom, I do not experience these two identities as incompatible,” he says. “Yes, there is a tension between the two, but I find myself able to resolve the tension.” Frankel has called for a new kind of environmental journalism, which he terms “sustainable journalism.” He says that sustainable journalism embraces the following three tenets:

  • It incorporates the best aspects of traditional journalism—diligent research, precise language, and fair reporting.
  • It strives to educate people in a balanced way about the nature and importance of sustainable development or the effort to achieve both economic development and a sound environment.
  • It supports dialogue between people in an effort to find solutions.

“Journalists, in the tradition of the fourth estate, view themselves as in the audience, not the movie,” Frankel says. “But we need to move beyond that now. We all need to be part of the solution, journalists included, and that calls for us to examine the extent to which our current professional practices correspond with how we want the world to be.”

I agree with a lot of what Frankel says. It also echoes the direction urged by proponents of public or civic journalism. If journalists follow conventional news standards, it’s easy to justify giving enormous coverage to scandals, celebrities and sensational crimes. These are deemed newsworthy because they involve conflict and controversy with prominent individuals. But this overemphasis, along with the American media’s traditional heavy focus on local events, has squeezed out of news columns many vitally important global environmental problems.

This issue was examined at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ national conference this fall during a session entitled “Blind spots: Unearthing the taboos of environmental reporting.” Panelists agreed that environmental reporters often do a good job of reporting about environmental symptoms, such as air and water pollution. But relatively few journalists analyze the underlying forces that might be causing these problems, such as population growth and consumerism.

Environment Stories That Journalists Don’t Report

“Consumerism is a story journalists have difficulty in reporting about,” says Ellen Ruppel Shell, codirector of the Knight Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University. “It’s vitally important but it turns editors off.” Americans consume 40 percent of the world’s gasoline and more paper, steel, aluminum, energy, water and meat than any other society on the planet. Recent scientific estimates indicate that if each of the planet’s six billion inhabitants consumed at the level of the average American—four additional planets would be needed.

Similarly, many journalists are reluctant to write about population issues. One reason for this might be because many Americans equate population control with the intensely polarized issues of abortion in the United States or the one-child policy in China. Another might be because most American news media write mostly about local issues and that population is seen as an international topic. Former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day in 1970, has observed that it is also extremely difficult to write about some aspects of the population debate, such as immigration. “If you raise these issues, you are described as a racist,” he said.

Many important global environmental problems, such as growing water shortages, are made worse because of the increase in world population. For example, international water experts estimate that by 2025 about one-third of the world’s population will be living in regions that have water shortages. Because there is a finite amount of fresh water available on the planet as the world’s population climbs, the stresses caused by water shortages are expected to increase. Similarly, most of the world’s ocean fisheries are already being fished to capacity or are in a state of decline. And, based upon current population and deforestation trends, the number of people living in countries with critically low levels of forest cover are expected to double to three billion by 2025.

With all of these worrisome projections, one might think that journalists would be increasing their reporting about ways to stave off such environmental disasters. Unfortunately, this is not the case. A survey by Michigan State University found that reporting about sustainable development is miniscule. This issue ranked 16th out of 24 issues surveyed in the amount of coverage American environmental journalists were devoting to it.

Practicing a New Kind of Environmental Journalism

What kind of journalism is needed to meet the global environmental challenges of the 21st century? This question has been debated at journalism conferences held in recent years at forums in the United States, France, Italy, Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere.

A new kind of reporting, known as sustainable journalism, is needed. Some of the components include:

  • Increased access to environmental information by citizens and members of the news media through the expansion of open records laws and freedom of information acts.
  • Expanded coverage of international environmental issues, such as global climate change. This coverage should provide evidence to readers, viewers and listeners of links among environmental, economic and social issues.
  • New global institutions to make multinational corporations, which own many of the world’s newspapers, magazines and broadcast stations, more accountable about their own environmental track records.
  • Increased coverage of promising solutions to complex environmental problems.

Many experiments are underway to create new organizations and institutions to deal with these international environmental problems. For example, the Center for a New American Dream ( is a nonprofit organization that is attempting to show Americans that our nation’s obsession with consumption is creating enormous stress in people’s lives and damaging the environment. Another example is the Earth Charter Initiative (, a global effort to educate people about the need for a just, democratic, peaceful and sustainable society. This effort, which is an outgrowth of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, has received surprisingly little media coverage in the United States.

The news media need to give much greater coverage to these and many other grass roots initiatives blossoming around the globe. They need to develop and practice a new kind of reportage—sustainable journalism—if they are to help society grapple with many daunting environmental challenges in the years ahead.

Jim Detjen is the holder of the Knight Chair and director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. Before joining the MSU faculty in 1995, he spent 21 years reporting about environmental issues for The Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers. He is the founding president of the Society of Environmental Journalists and served as the president of the International Federation for Environmental Journalists from 1994 to 2000.

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