Global warming. Endangered species. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Arsenic in drinking water. In his first 18 months on the beat as environment reporter for The New York Times, Douglas Jehl found himself square in the middle of some of the hottest stories in the United States. Texas oilman George W. Bush arrived at the White House with a disdain for government regulation and broad support from the energy, timber, grazing, auto and chemical industries, and conservation groups were battling him head-on. By early 2001, network TV news coverage of environmental issues reached a volume not seen since the days of the Exxon Valdez oil spill a decade earlier. From Manhattan to Miami, Seattle to Southern California, newspaper editors wanted the environment on Page One.

Then, everything changed. Within days after the September 11 terrorist attacks Jehl, the Times’ former Cairo bureau chief, was sent to the Middle East. For his editors, the move was “an easy call,” Jehl says, given the historic nature of the events. For six months, he filed stories from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, even from the U.S.S. Enterprise as it sailed the Arabian Sea. “Because of what’s happened in the last year, I’ve been distracted,” Jehl says, having moved back to environmental coverage. He reported an in-depth series in August about water conflicts. “But I think all beats in journalism became a casualty of the imperative of covering terrorism.”

Facing a Mountain of Challenges

Thirty-five years after environmental news coverage began as a fringe pursuit, the craft is now firmly entrenched as a key beat in American journalism. Editors and reporters enjoy a greater understanding of the complex issues and the nuances of environmental stories, are better trained in science, and have the use of computer databases. Readers demand sophisticated articles on topics from urban sprawl to organic food. And environmental stories are receiving more prestige than at any other time—winning 10 Pulitzer Prizes in the 1990’s, for example—compared with just nine in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s combined.

While the terrorist attack threw the environment beat off its high-profile stride, eco-journalism is struggling with a mountain of other challenges. A lingering recession and budget cuts from corporate owners demanding high profit margins have reduced news space, travel and staffing. The Bush administration has clamped down on previously open records, while its environmental officials, led by Interior Secretary Gale Norton, are choosing to fly under the media radar by making administrative changes to arcane rules on everything from logging to endangered species without calling press conferences. Meanwhile, environmental activists armed with high-tech communications gear bombard beat writers with thousands of e-mails, faxes, reports and studies every week—a considerable number of them of dubious news value—giving environmental journalists arguably the most time-consuming beat in the newsroom. And the long-running, touchy question, “Are environmental writers biased?” hasn’t gone away.

“Environment Journalists Don’t Get Much Respect”
– Bud Ward
“There is not the glamour around this beat or the energy that it had a decade ago,” says Bud Ward, editor of Environment Writer, a newsletter for journalists, published by the University of Rhode Island. “But it will come back. I hate to say it, but it will probably take another big disaster like an oil spill or a nuclear accident.”

Statistics bear out Ward’s hunch. During the first eight months of 2001, environmental stories (including coverage of pollution, toxic waste, air and water quality, global warming, endangered species, energy and land use) totaled 596 minutes on evening network news programs, according to the Tyndall Report, an analysis of networknews broadcasts. Top stories were the Bush administration’s energy policies, California blackouts, global warming, and air pollution. But in the last four months of 2001—after the terrorist attacks—the networks broadcast only 21 minutes of environmental news. The pace didn’t pick up much in 2002. There were 187 minutes of environmental news in the first nine months, putting the viewers on pace to see less than half the environmental coverage in 2002 that they saw a year earlier.

“The environment doesn’t make news when green initiatives are going forward, it makes news when they are being rolled back,” says Andrew Tyndall, editor of the Tyndall Report, citing low network totals during much of the Clinton administration. “That’s because conflict makes news,” he adds, and environmentalists tend not to attack presidents with whom they agree. (There are no comparable counts of printed newspaper stories, only anecdotal evidence.)

For Beth Parke, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists, a 1,200-member organization based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, the beat might ebb and flow with the news, but it has reached a point of no return. “In the early 1990’s, people thought it was the fad beat and that it would go away,” says Parke. “In fact, not only did it survive, it grew tentacles. It became established. We have people firmly identified as business writers who are writing about alternative energy, or automotive sections writing about hybrid cars.”

Part of the appeal is that environmentalism emerged as one of the most successful social movements of the second half of the 20th century. A Gallup Poll taken in April 2000 found that 83 percent of Americans said they “strongly” or “somewhat” agree with the goals of the environmental movement. By comparison, 86 percent said they agree with the goals of the civil rights movement, and 85 percent agree with the goals of the women’s rights movement. Others, including animal rights, gun control, abortion rights, gay rights, and consumer rights, trailed. “Environmentalism is firmly entrenched,” says Parke. “People want to know about it if there is toxic pollution in their stream or why farm animals are dying of an undiagnosed virus. If there is a tire fire, they want to know what is in those fumes. It is not just ‘Why was traffic held up for four hours?’”

Environmental Reporters: Who Are They?

After years of guessing about the state of the craft, new research is beginning to unveil some clear trends. JoAnn Valenti, a professor emerita of communications at Brigham Young University, has surveyed all the environmental journalists in New England and the Mountain West states since 2001. Among her findings:

  • Fifty-two percent of newspapers in the Mountain West and 51 percent of New England papers have at least one full-time environment writer. About one in 10 local TV stations in each region employs a full-time environmental correspondent.
  • Environmental reporters often are veteran journalists. In New England, they have a median 15 years in journalism. Their median age is 45, compared with 36 for all U.S. journalists. Similarly, in the Mountain West there is a median 13 years in journalism and a median age of 39.
  • Environment writers struggle to balance objectivity and advocacy. In both regions, about 40 percent said they “sometimes should be advocates for the environment.” But substantial numbers think their colleagues are biased, with 46 percent of New England environment writers saying that their peers tend to be “too green,” and 28 percent of Mountain West environment writers saying the same thing. Only two percent in each group said environment writers are “too brown,” or slanted in favor of business and industry.
  • Most are regularly pulled off their beats to cover other topics. In New England, only 18 percent of environment writers said they spend 67 to 100 percent of their time on environmental stories. And in the Mountain West, just 31 percent said they spend 67 to 100 percent of their time on environmental stories.

Valenti, who expects to complete surveys of the entire country by 2004, contends that reporters on the “green beat” tend to be happier than other reporters. So far, she says she hasn’t seen the number of beat writers cut back seriously because of economic concerns. “I am astonished at how satisfied these reporters are with their beat, with what they do, in spite of all the pressure that is out there, the low salaries, the corporate pressures, the shrinking autonomy,” she says. “These are people who believe that their editors and readers value what they do. They know in their gut these are important stories that need to be told. The challenge is so compelling. And things change because of their writing. They really can help set the agenda.”

Reaction to Differing Kinds of Coverage

Regional papers, such as The Oregonian, which has a team of five environment writers, are showing an unprecedented commitment to telling the complexities of environmental stories, from the decline of salmon runs to the science of forest fires, says Carl Pope, national executive director of the Sierra Club. “The New York Times and The Washington Post have just decided that we’re back in the kind of cold war era where the only sexy stories are global in nature and the remainder of the news hole is for horserace kind of politics,” says Pope. “They do a great job covering September 11 and Iraq, but they are on autopilot on everything else.”

Despite thoughtful, expansive coverage in regional newspapers, environmental groups feel that Bush “has gotten a free pass on the environment,” Pope says, because of international events. “When a story drops off the front page, the public thinks the problem must be fixed.” Conservatives see another problem. They argue that environmental reporters are too gullible. “We need more skeptics,” says Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “I have seen press release after press release from environmental groups just reprinted without questions. It is important for reporters to ask contrarian questions. It makes the journalism more honest.”

Smith says he would like to see journalists learn more about the science of risk and also to publish more environmental success stories. Compared to 30 years ago, for example, the nation’s air and water is dramatically cleaner, toxic releases from industry are down, and recycling is up. But too often the public doesn’t realize the sky is not falling, he says.

In its August 2002 cover story, “How to Save the Earth,” an optimistic Time magazine noted that world population growth is slowing, and the hole in the RELATED ARTICLE
“Missing the ‘Big Story’ in Environment Coverage”
– Charles Alexander
ozone layer is being naturally healed, even as climate and biodiversity remain in peril. The magazine reported that technologies such as wind energy, hybrid cars, and green buildings could be saviors. “So much environmental reporting emphasizes only the problems. We wanted to focus on the solutions,” said Time’s former environmental editor Charles Alexander in that issue.

Some contrarian journalism is on the rise. The Sacramento Bee’s Tom Knudson, winner of a 1992 Pulitzer for “The Sierra in Peril,” last year wrote a blistering series entitled “Environment Inc.,” which looked critically at the fundraising and scientific underpinnings of the environmental movement. Other writers are exploring how technology and corporations might improve environmental problems.

As the beat matures, reporters and editors, sensitive that they not be considered stenographers for environmental groups, have changed their titles from “environmental writer” to “environment writer” or “natural resources writer.” They’ve peeled bumper stickers off their cars and in many cases tried to cover the environment beat as they would police, courts or politics—with skeptical questions for all sides. “If people walk away saying ‘Are they green or are they brown?’ that is a good day for us,” says Len Reed, science and environment editor at The Oregonian. “We can’t have a reporter walk into the office of a CEO of a timber company or the CEO of a nonprofit advocacy group and be automatically perceived as representing a persuasion. Half of environmental journalism is having the story, half is having credibility.”

Frank Allen, former environment editor at The Wall Street Journal, says that communities, particularly in the changing West, cannot make thoughtful decisions about their futures without a long-term commitment from the media to explain difficult issues. A commitment from editors is key, he says. So is more training and encouragement for reporters. But Wall Street-driven bottom lines are not helping the craft. “Dozens of newspapers deserve praise and encouragement. But we have 1,500 daily newspapers in this country,” says Allen, now executive director of the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources [IJNR], based in Missoula, Montana. “From my perspective, not nearly enough of them work at this as often or as hard as they should. They have let their capacities atrophy. They have bought out or let go some of their most experienced and knowledgeable people who have reservoirs of historical perspective and historical knowledge on this beat. Mostly it was to save money.”

Despite the challenges, cutbacks and pressures, many practitioners of environmental journalism remain inspired and plan to stick it out for the long haul. “It takes a lot of knowledge to cover these stories,” says Jane Kay, environment writer at the San Francisco Chronicle and a 23-year veteran of the beat. “Once you learn it, you want to use it. Once you learn about solvents and arsenic and spotted owls and Navy sonar you want to return to those stories. And these are fascinating stories,” she says. “You can be at a redwood sawmill one week and in the Channel Islands the next week and watching the release of a condor the next week, and getting paid for it. Who wouldn’t love this beat?”

Paul Rogers is the natural resources and environment writer at the San Jose Mercury News. Rogers, who has worked at the newspaper since 1989, also works as a Hewlett Teaching Fellow in environmental journalism at the University of California-Berkeley, and as a lecturer in the science communication program at the University of California-Santa Cruz. He was part of the Mercury News team that won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake and in 2002 was awarded the Sierra Club’s top national award for environmental journalism, the David R. Brower Award.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment