Four decades ago reporting on the environment was what Paul Rogers, natural resources and environment writer at the San Jose Mercury News, calls “a fringe pursuit.” He writes that “the craft is now firmly entrenched as a key beat in American journalism.” Even so, there are plenty of journalistic challenges described in stories written by reporters, editors and producers who cover this beat for newspapers, magazines, radio and television.
Philip Shabecoff, who covered the environment for 14 years for The New York Times, addresses the ambivalence “media managers” have about such stories and “their claim on the news hole,” as well as their concerns about how reporters focus their coverage. James Bruggers, who reports on environment topics for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, lets us know how the complexities involved in coverage today make it a tougher beat. Jim Detjen, who directs the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, argues for a new kind of environment reporting, blending the best aspects of traditional journalism with an effort to educate the pubic about the importance of sustainable development to arrive at “sustainable journalism.” And Bud Ward, founding editor of Environment Writer, a newsletter for environment reporters, recalls another journalist asking why the environment beat is “so far down the journalistic pecking order” and provides some answers.
Through words and images, Boston Globe photojournalist Stan Grossfeld relives parts of his worldwide journey to document “The Exhausted Earth.” Charles Alexander, a former Time editor who directed environment coverage for many years, contends that by failing to report in anything but a “scattered, sporadic and mostly buried” way on the “big story”—daily actions and inaction leading to environmental ruin—the “devastation of the environment will be partly our fault.” As the National Journal’s staff correspondent for environment and energy, Margaret Kriz keeps a watchful focus on environment policymaking in Washington, while recognizing the difficulties that beat reporters face in having to become knowledgeable about science, health impacts, government policy, economics, business practices, and civil rights issues. Joseph A. Davis, writer and editor of the biweekly “Tip Sheet” for environment journalists, offers an example of government impeding access to a report that reminds us why watchdog reporting is critical on this beat.
David Ropeik, a former TV environment reporter who is now at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, explains why it is important for journalists to understand how and why people perceive risks as a way of improving coverage of actual risks of environmental threats. Newsday’s environment reporter Dan Fagin, who is president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, explains how issues about reporting on identifiable risk led him to have misgivings about many of the stories about air quality in neighborhoods near Ground Zero. As Fagin writes, “… for journalists who are serious about reporting risk in context, the air-quality issue was difficult, even maddening.”
Michael Milstein, who covers natural resources and public lands for The Oregonian, examines the saturated news coverage of the Klamath River basin and dying salmon to help us see how complexities of environmental issues can get subsumed in tracking charges and countercharges of the effected parties. Natalie Fobes, a photojournalist whose work has focused on salmon, wildlife and cultures of the Pacific Rim, describes her approach as exploring “the increasingly complex relationship between people and the environment.” And Tom Henry, who reports on the environment for The Toledo Blade, shows how he uses storytelling techniques to connect scientific data about the environment to consequences in people’s lives. For Henry, the key ingredients of such stories are power, passion and accountability.
Providence Journal environment writer Peter Lord, who directs the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting at the University of Rhode Island, reminds us that what is happening in newsrooms—budget cutbacks and staff reductions—affects this beat. He urges editors to support professional development for environment reporters. Timothy Wheeler, editor of The (Baltimore) Sun’s environment coverage, describes lessons learned when a large team of reporters (including the paper’s environment reporter) and photographers responded to a downtown tunnel fire in which potentially dangerous toxins were being released. One lesson: the need to protect reporters’ safety.
Natalie Pawelski, CNN’s environment correspondent, describes the storytelling approach she used in “Earth Matters,” a CNN show she hosted. She explains its cancellation and why TV rarely covers the environment anymore. Peter Thomson, former producer of “Living on Earth,” demonstrates why radio works well in environment reporting by sharing the sounds and words from several award-winning stories. Christy George, a documentary producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting, describes the merged business and environment beat that she reported at “Marketplace,” a business radio show. “[T]here exists a fundamental clash between the goals of business and the way nature works,” she writes. “This beat gave me room to explore it all.” Jacques Rivard, a national TV correspondent for Société Radio-Canada, describes his hard fight to keep covering environment stories and the strategies he now uses to get attention paid to critical environmental issues such as global warming.
Gary Braasch, who documents environmental impacts of global warming through his ongoing photographic project, “World View of Global Warming,” shows images from the Arctic and Antarctica and of the impact climate change is having on glaciers. Marcelo Leite, science editor at the newspaper Folha de São Paulo in Brazil, is frustrated by the results of a decade of environmental conferences, and he argues that “artificially balanced” reporting often promotes “anti-environmental positions.” Sun Yu, who was reporter and editor of the Chinese and English editions of China Environment News for 12 years, tells us that despite government control of news and strained finances, during the past decade coverage of the environment has expanded its scope and flourished. And Nanise Fifita, editor for Radio & Television Tonga News, writes about the slow but steady acceptance of environment journalism among people in that Pacific Islands nation.
NASA climatologist Claire Parkinson’s guidance to journalists on the uses and value of satellite images in environment reporting ends our exploration of this topic. She gives an example of the shrinking of the Aral Sea, which is caused largely by irrigation, and says that those who want to report on this story “can vividly portray this shrinkage by presenting side-by-side identically geolocated images from the 1970’s and the 1990’s.”