Imagine a news beat in which you report on religion one day and the next you cover business and economics. Later that week, you write a science piece, then you do a story about public policy and arcane government regulations and politics. This is what the environment beat is like today. On some days, journalists who report on environment issues wrestle with all of these topics in one story. And when they’re writing about global climate change, they need to understand international relations as well.

I’m not sure the environment beat was ever an easy one to cover. But it’s certainly not simple to handle now during a time when issues aren’t cast in predictable contrasts. Gone are the days when I wrote mostly about fanciful ideas like whether the state of Montana should bring buffalo back big time to its open ranges—something Ted Turner ended up doing on his own. That debate wasn’t very complicated to understand or convey. Gone, too, are the days when anyone could tell a lake was polluted by skimming oil and other chemicals from its surface. Now the threats are often invisible and exist in tiny quantities.

Journalists who cover the environment are sometimes known in their newsrooms as “the parts per million” folks. And if the truth be known, they are more likely to deal with even smaller traces of chemicals—in parts per billion or trillion or even quadrillion—as they report on potential environmental effects on health.

Changes in Environment Reporting

Stories about such subtle but significant threats come at a time when political and economic interests are spinning the environment beat like never before. Reporters need to work harder than ever to find the mainstream science and economics experts who can center a story and give it proper context. Sometimes science lands in the cross hairs of organizations with competing interests pushing one agenda or another, with journalists caught in the crossfire.

There is too much for any individual reporter to know. Yet good environmental coverage isn’t merely reporting what one scientist says and then finding a scientist who disagrees and reporting what that person says. When they interview sources, environmental journalists need to be able to determine how the information they are being told should be weighted in the context of the story. In an article on climate change that I read last winter in a paper published in a major U.S. city, the reporter cited only one scientific source for his report: a weatherman who spoke against its existence as an environmental concern. This story was not written by that paper’s environmental writer, who would have known how to find and present scientific sources and information about climate change in a more accurate and nuanced way.

These are just some ways that the environment beat has changed during the 20 years I’ve been reporting on it. I’ve changed, too, so sometimes it’s hard to know which change can be attributed to which circumstance. For example, I’m far more concerned now with how environmental problems affect people than I was when I came out of college with a dual major in forestry and journalism. And I find the environment beat more expansive, more complicated, more contentious, and more difficult to manage than it has ever been. I don’t think I’m alone.

The good news is that talented journalists often ride environmental stories to the front page and win some of the most prestigious awards. The bad news is that it appears that the number of specialists covering the beat—at newspapers, anyway—is decreasing. Newspapers that several years ago had four people covering the environment full time now seem to have three, or two. Those that had two now have one. Based on what I hear from colleagues around the United States, some newspapers have eliminated the beat or folded it into a reporter’s other assignments. And there’s virtually no environmental news on television, except for what might appear on the Discovery Channel or CNN when there isn’t talk of war, terrorist attacks, or a sniper investigation. Meanwhile, magazines, books and the Web have opened opportunities for environmental reporting by freelancers.

These are my impressions after spending two decades in the field and five years as a board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists—the last two as president. I can’t provide statistics because I don’t know that anyone has surveyed the field recently.

Many of these changes are likely due to the brutal economic downturn in the newspaper industry that has affected other beats as well. But perhaps, too, some editors have become bored with the topic, though I don’t really believe that is what’s happening. Maybe this downturn in newsroom interest has happened because some reporters aren’t able to take their journalism to the next level by figuring out how to turn what are among the most complicated news stories into compelling reads—and we must never forget that our job is to tell compelling stories.

Environment Reporting Requires More Training Today

At the same time, however, environmental topics are still widely covered. As President Bush has proposed and carried out environmental policy changes, his policy moves have attracted much media attention. But often these stories are covered not by a journalist who specializes in environmental reporting but by a White House or state house reporter or a general assignment or health reporter. Such assignments can make sense since environmental issues touch so many aspects of our lives that there is no way to confine this beat to one person.

When I look at this as our readers might—as people who want to understand the shades of gray and uncertainties that abound in environmental issues on global, national and local levels—I am concerned: Reporters without specialty training might ignore complicated environmental stories altogether or, if they attempt them, the results might be less than satisfactory for readers. That said, I do find that journalists assigned to the beat today do a much better job than we used to do of exploring these gray, nuanced areas of science. Reporters also are more skeptical of information environmental groups try to feed them than they were a decade or two ago.

That so many reporting assignments now overlap with environmental news coverage presents newsrooms with a new challenge: Editors need to make sure all reporters who cover environmental topics—even part time—have adequate training to cover environmental topics accurately, with proper context, scientific grounding, and nuance. I argue vociferously that every news organization needs at least one person who is trained to be able to specialize in the beat. This journalist, who will be unafraid to take on and navigate the most complicated of environmental stories, can also serve as a valuable resource for the entire staff.

It troubles me that newsrooms are cutting back on spending for professional development and training. Continuing education is essential on the environment beat, if only to find one’s way through the beat’s minefield of acronyms such as SMRCA, RCRA, CERCLA, and NEPA. Most recently I’ve been dealing with NSR, or New Source Review, which is a federal program that requires major industrial polluters to upgrade emission controls when they expand. The Bush administration insists that its proposed changes to the NSR that would relax requirements on industry will result in cleaner air. Environmentalists and former Environmental Protection Agency officials dispute this. For a journalist to fairly and accurately present the charges—so that readers might arrive at the “truth”—requires a fairly sophisticated study of the contentions. As coverage of this story evolves, reporters do the best they can to explain these changes so readers have information they can use to decide what they think about them.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen has nothing to do with the environment beat per se. It has to do with downsizing of editorial staff. With newsrooms shrinking, there’s more pressure on individual reporters to produce more copy. Larger news organizations still place a premium on enterprise reporting, going well beyond the press releases and the events and digging deeply. But it’s harder than ever for smaller newspapers to support this kind of time-intensive reporting. And with smaller staffs come editors’ demands for long-term story planning, and this means having to promise to deliver multiple stories at a time, for two, three, four weeks in advance. Breaking news then throws a cog in the wheel of the machine.

The Role Played By the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ)

That this beat is growing increasingly complex was not lost on SEJ’s founders. The association they formed in 1990 has grown into the first stop for journalists who step into the environment beat. I wasn’t among the small group of award-winning journalists, including reporters, editors and producers working for The Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, Turner Broadcasting, Minnesota Public Radio, and National Geographic, who launched SEJ. But I have benefited greatly from its existence. Now with more than 1,200 members, SEJ—with its annual conference, seminars, listservs and Web-based resources—has made it much easier for me to keep pace with advances in science, with happenings in Washington, D.C. and globally, and to combat a feeling of isolation that can come with working on a highly specialized beat.

At the start of the 1990’s, when I was writing about recycling and endangered plants and animals in California, I could not envision that my beat would eventually take in biotechnology and then ultimately bioterrorism and biowarfare. Everything from bioengineered corn to anthrax to West Nile virus is now part of the environment beat. In addition to pollution coming from power plants, cars, tractors, trucks and factories, I now write about genetic pollution, asking scientists about findings on whether altered genes from a farmer’s field will contaminate the crops of his neighbor.

Sometimes I long for those days when I just wrote about buffalo in Montana. James Bruggers covers environmental topics for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. He has previously worked at newspapers in Montana, Alaska, Washington and California, and in 1998-99 was a Michigan Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He has served on the SEJ board since 1997 and in October completed two one-year terms as president. He has an M.S. in environmental studies from the University of Montana and holds an undergraduate double major in forestry and journalism from the same university.

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