In a previous issue of Nieman Reports, Paul Steiger, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, objected to what he called “a spate of breast-beating among news media critics on how the press ‘missed’ the Enron scandal.” He pointed out that the Journal, after overlooking Enron’s follies for a while, eventually broke the story big-time.
Reading Steiger’s words sent my mind on a flight of fancy that conjured up a vision of our planet 100 years into the future. Earth is in a real mess. It’s unbearably hot. What were once coastal cities are swamped by rising seas. Fear of mass starvation haunts the globe. Tropical diseases are spreading uncontrollably, and the last tiger on earth has just died at the St. Louis Zoo.
The Nieman Foundation for journalism (still around in the 22nd century) has convened a conference at the new Harvard campus in Worchester, Massachusetts (Cambridge, alas, is underwater) where scholars, broadcasters and editors gather to discuss what role the press played in humanity’s poor stewardship of the environment. Media representatives present evidence that beginning in the late 20th century and continuing through the next, television, radio and print news organizations, not to mention the Internet, carried numerous stories about global warming, loss of biodiversity, forest destruction, overfishing and the like. “We ran the stories,” the media apologists contend, “but the public and the politicians didn’t pay attention.” At the end, participants conclude that “what happened wasn’t our fault.”
But maybe it was. There is a strong case to be made that journalists are missing the environmental story, and if we don’t do a better job of telling the story, devastation of the environment will be partly our fault.
The Big Story
Just what is the story that’s not being told well enough today? It’s about the things human beings do to the planet each and every day and what they are not willing to do to confront the consequences of their actions. Humanity is, without doubt, altering the composition of the atmosphere and almost certainly changing the climate. Humans are wiping out other species at a rate not seen since the demise of dinosaurs. We continue to chop down irreplaceable old-growth forests. We use up natural resources faster than nature can renew them. Population growth is so rapid and our appetites so insatiable that even vast oceans show signs of exhaustion.
Certainly the collective experience and consequences of these activities qualify as a “big story.” While every major network and virtually every newspaper and newsmagazine has covered each of these problems, stories examining the interaction and cumulative effect of these problems are not being brought to public attention in any big or consistent way. News reports about the environment are scattered, sporadic and mostly buried. They are also completely overshadowed by media obsessions with the “big” stories of our time—stories that are so big they need only one name—O.J., Monica and Chandra.
Of course, what happened on and because of September 11 is a genuinely big story. It is understandable that since then media have been tightly focused on the war on terrorism, homeland security, and possible war with Iraq. But environmental policy, with its shortterm and long-term consequences, remains important and relevant to the lives of every American, as well as to every resident of the planet. For example, it is time for the press to find better ways to bring to public attention the fact that a more rational U.S. energy policy—one that would reduce fossilfuel use—would not only help in the fight against climate change, but would also make the United States less dependent on Middle Eastern oil and less vulnerable to terrorism.
As I wrote in Time in 2001, “except for nuclear war or a collision with an asteroid, no force has more potential to damage our planet’s web of life than global warming.” The war on terrorism might be a bigger story right now, but it probably won’t be in the long run. Unless terrorists detonate dozens of nuclear bombs, climate change will someday be a much bigger story, one that could adversely impact billions of people.
By definition, news focuses on what happened yesterday and today. But, as journalists, do we fulfill our obligation if we lose sight of the potential impact today’s actions have on tomorrow? With this crisis, there isn’t the option of waiting until the problems become acute and therefore obvious in the everyday experience of the public. By that time, science can already tell us, the damage will be irreversible.
Giving Environment News Prominence
Let me pick on The New York Times for a minute because I’m a subscriber and spend more time with that newspaper than with any other media product. It intelligently covers every major environmental story and runs many strong pro-environment editorials. My files are full of environmental articles clipped from the Times. But the coverage has little prominence in the paper. There is no environment section, and the stories are scattered all over. They rarely sport big headlines. The paper recently ran an excellent story on the illegal destruction of forests in Indonesia, but how many people stopped to read it, buried as it was in the middle of the international section? Recent exceptions to the low profile were a superb series on water shortages called “Running Dry,” which included several front-page articles and the Science Times’ comprehensive walk-up to the U.N. environmental summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Times should do more of this.
The Times and other media giants have many dedicated environmental reporters, but these writers don’t have the institutional power to give stories the prominence they deserve. Environment will be covered in a big way only when news organizations’ top decision- makers present coverage of these issues and policies in ways that force readers to pay attention, whether they want to or not.
This happened at Time in late 1988. I was the magazine’s business editor and pretty much in the dark about environmental problems, even though I had been a high-school science teacher. Henry Muller, the managing editor, called me into his office and told me I was becoming science and environment editor. Here was the kicker: For the first issue of 1989, instead of Time’s usual Man or Woman of the Year, there would be a Planet of the Year issue containing a raft of stories about all the environmental problems endangering the earth.
After that package of stories appeared—and garnered a great deal of attention—Muller didn’t let up. During the next few years, we did many environmental cover stories—the burning Amazon, ozone depletion, besieged tigers, spotted owls vs. loggers, ivory smuggling, the Rio Earth Summit. I got a lot of credit for this coverage, but it was really Muller egging me on, often supplying the ideas himself.
After Muller became editorial director of Time Inc. in 1993 and left Time magazine, his successors showed much less interest in the environment. Cover stories started to dry up, even if the issues weren’t going away. That was partly my fault because I asked to become an international editor to broaden my horizons. Soon I was spending more time on Iraq than on the environment.
Things picked up again when Jim Kelly became managing editor in 2001. He and his wife had adopted a child, and he told me that being a father had given him a new perspective on the importance of environmental issues. Kelly soon devoted a 15-page cover package to global warming, a courageous move since he knew the story wouldn’t sell particularly well on the newsstands. But even now, environmental coverage in Time is not as frequent and prominent as it should be. During the past five years, the magazine has done three special environment reports (48 to 64 pages each), including one in August, published just before the Johannesburg summit. But this issue was done, in part, because the business side found advertisers that wanted to be associated with an environmental message. When that special support goes, environmental coverage will fight for limited space with the new crop of one-name newsmakers—Osama, Saddam—and business leaders whose greed is grist for headlines.
Moving Coverage Beyond Partisan Sniping
Unfortunately, in this country, the environment has become a partisan, ideological issue pitting environmentalists against a Republican administration. It was not always that way. The first great conservationist President, Theodore Roosevelt, was a Republican. And under President Richard Nixon, Congress rose above partisanship and passed our most important environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Now, environmentalists are considered liberals and attacking them is part of the conservative mantra. Conservative pundits dismiss concerns like global warming in a knee-jerk fashion without exhibiting any knowledge of the issues. Listening to what these pundits say about climate change makes no more sense than asking them whether gene therapy will cure cancer. They are ideologues, not experts. Nevertheless, their opinions have an impact on the kind of coverage this topic receives. Since the environment has become a partisan issue, some editors and news directors feel constrained to cover it in a “fair and balanced” manner, even if the weight of scientific evidence tilts heavily toward the environmentalists’ side.
One of journalism’s darkest hours recently was the undeserved attention given to Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistics professor whose book, “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” dismisses most environmental concerns as overblown. Even The New York Times sowed confusion in its readers’ minds by giving Lomborg a largely uncritical review. But if you read Lomborg’s 352- page book thoroughly, as I did, you’ll see that his main point is that the human race is still growing and prospering. Yes, that’s exactly right—growing and prospering at the expense of other species and the environment. But using up resources and despoiling our environment will eventually backfire on humanity. Lomborg doesn’t even begin to prove that we can stay on this unsustainable path of unbridled consumerism for another century.
There are legitimate debates for journalists to explore about how we can best tackle environmental problems. But no longer should there be any question that the problems are real. Scientists agree that climate change is a serious threat. The only uncertainty is how bad global warming will be. Scientists agree that we are doing major damage to ecosystems throughout the world. What they don’t agree on is how bad the consequences of these actions could ultimately be for the human race. But do we really want to be blind now and find out later? Those on one side of the argument about remedies pose liberal government-oriented regulatory schemes, while those on the other side set forth more conservative marketoriented solutions.
It’s time for the mainstream media to ignore the perennial charges of liberal bias and tell the truth about the environmental crisis, giving it the splash and urgency it deserves. The networks and radio should present heavily promoted “environment weeks,” during which at least half of each nightly newscast is devoted to environmental updates. The New York Times and other major papers should have periodic special environment sections and often run a series of environmental stories on the front page above the fold. For this job to be done right, it can’t be done piecemeal. Links among stories must be made abundantly clear to readers, viewers and listeners to emphasize the interrelationships and totality of the threat.
To top media decision-makers in countries throughout the world, the message ought to be clear: You are missing the biggest, most important story of the century. And the danger is that our grandchildren will suffer for our failure.
Charles Alexander worked at Time for 23 years as a reporter, writer and editor. He retired in 2001 but returned as a consultant to edit a special report, “How to Save the Earth,” the magazine’s cover story on August 26, 2002.