Photographer Andy Dickerman and I left our motel in Nova Scotia at 4:30 a.m. so we could get to the rescue boat that was leaving at dawn. We were working on a series of stories about efforts to save the last 300 or so North Atlantic right whales that still migrate along the east coast. For the next 15 hours, we watched Canadian and American whale rescue experts chase a rare young right whale around the Bay of Fundy and struggle to cut off fishing gear wrapped around its body.
Andy took hundreds of still photographs, shot video for our Web site, and recorded conversations of the rescue team. I took notes and helped with some audio recordings. The team tried again and again to get close enough to the whale to cut away the life-threatening line. The whale—a three-year-old whose sex hadn’t been determined yet—dove to escape and at times swatted its huge tail at those who were trying to save it. The effort was emotional because many of the same people had tried to help another whale here the previous year. She was a big female in terrible shape with an 18-foot rope gash across her back. The rescuers chased her for days and argued about whether their efforts were helping or harming her. They said they’d never seen an animal with such heart. She fought until she died. Now they hoped this young whale wouldn’t end up the same way.
Later that night, I said to Andy: “Can you believe we actually got paid for a day like today?”
Learning Is Integral to This Beat
Such drama doesn’t happen very often. But even absent such an experience, being an environmental reporter can be one of the most important and rewarding things anyone can do. I’ve been covering environmental issues for about 20 years, and every year I find new stories to tell. Since our whale series ran in October 2000, I did a six-part series showing the damage lead paint poisoning does to Rhode Island’s young children. We were told that our pictures and stories finally made legislators aware of the severity of the problem. After four years of failure, the legislature enacted a bill last summer that should lead to greatly reducing such poisonings in the future.
On September 11, 2001, I was sent to Boston’s Logan Airport where I saw fear and confusion sweep through the crowds before police finally sent everyone home. As was the case with environmental reporters at many other newspapers, my assignment soon became coverage of responses to bioterrorism. I wrote about doctors and generals, police and firefighters, as they tried to prepare to cope with mass deaths.
Every story required learning something new. For one article, I studied the life of a World War II hero who was instrumental in saving open space in Rhode Island and even more successful at staying anonymous. Then came the spread of West Nile virus, a chemical spill in our state’s cleanest river, worries about mercury in fish, bitter battles over tighter fishing regulations, and construction of a huge, multimillion dollar tunnel under downtown Providence to capture sewage overflows.
Environmental reporters are doing a better job than ever with our craft, in part because so many of them take advantage of educational programs at EDITOR’S NOTE
See “Training for Environment Writers” for a listing of traning programs »which they learn more about subjects they cover. I help run the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting at the University of Rhode Island, which offers a week-long science program for experienced journalists and sponsors environmental internships for minority journalists. Other organizations offer opportunities for learning that are up to a year in length.
Advanced training is needed, if only to better prepare us to confront obstacles that make our jobs more difficult today. Environmental advocacy groups and company public relations people barrage us with material. One of my biggest challenges is sorting through this stuff and figuring out which issues to focus on. Another is government secrecy that has permeated all arenas—including the environment—in the aftermath of September 11. Add to this the fact that environmental stories aren’t so obvious anymore, and the reporting on them is usually a lot more complex. Simple plot lines are a thing of the past.
Newsroom Cutbacks and Practices
One of our bigger problems can be our own employers. At my newspaper, purchased several years ago by the Belo Corporation, we haven’t had pay raises for three years. A buy-out took away many of our more senior reporters and editors. And a lot of our better younger reporters have moved on. With these departures, we’ve lost all kinds of institutional knowledge. And with many of our positions now filled with two-year interns, there are fewer people who will be around long enough to make use of whatever knowledge remains in our newsroom. My editors still do all they can to promote quality journalism, but they’re doing it in a newsroom cluttered with an alarming number of empty desks.
What’s more unsettling is despite all that’s been lost at the Journal, we’re still one of the better papers in our area. I’ve taught young people who have joined some of our state’s smaller papers, and they tell me they can’t imagine raising families on what they earn. Nor is this just a local problem. Last spring, at the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Tim J. McGuire, the outgoing president, called on editors to join together to combat the tendency of publishers and television station owners to demand ever higher profits at the expense of quality journalism. In 2001, McGuire said, some 2,000 U.S. journalists lost their jobs for economic reasons.
There’s more we can do as individual reporters, too. As environmental reporters, we need to educate our editors to recognize that good environmental stories aren’t always obvious ones. And we should look for ways to help reporters in other newsrooms. At the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), we assist each other with news tips, mentoring programs, and story digests. At other times, we provide moral support. Often if a newspaper has an environmental reporter, it’s likely that reporter is working alone, as I usually do. SEJ has often been the first place I’ve turned for help with a story.
Across the country, powerful environmental journalism is being done at small and medium-sized papers. Many of these stories tackle issues with nationwide implications. Unfortunately, much of this good reporting doesn’t get much exposure beyond the newspapers’ own markets. And when these same newspapers look for environmental coverage of stories outside their regions, often they turn to wire services or wire reports from the national newspapers such as The New York Times or Los Angeles Times.
The result of these practices is that a handful of news organizations end up determining the national news agenda. While journalists can use tools like the SEJ Web site (www.sej.org) to track strong environmental coverage happening throughout the country—such as the stories that recently won SEJ awards (alerting the public to the dangers of fuel transmission pipes, examining problems with Native American logging in Alaska, investigating land speculators in California and pollution hazards in Florida)—a lot of this fine and important reporting is not reaching a broader public audience. And it should.
I’ll never forget the appreciation I saw in the eyes of a young mother with three lead-poisoned children whom we wrote about in our series. “You told my dream,” she said. All she wanted was a safe, healthy place to raise her children. But no one would listen.
People like this woman need journalists to tell their stories because if we don’t, where else can people turn when things go wrong?
Peter Lord is environmental writer for The Providence Journal and teaches environmental journalism at the University of Rhode Island. He serves as journalism director of the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Journalism at the University of Rhode Island and as a board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.