When a Tree Falls

Why the Decline and Rebirth of Environmental Journalism Matters


In Camille Feanny’s neighborhood workers busily repair homes and patch or reinstall roofs and windows after drenching storms last fall nailed the Southeast.

As she stares out her window, she’s dismayed: No rush to install new insulation, or solar panels, or double-paned windows.

“There are tax credits for installing and rebuilding your home in an energy-efficient way. The government is pouring billions into this,” Feanny said. “None of my neighbors knows anything about it.”

It’s a bitter irony for Feanny. She lives in Atlanta, home of CNN, where for nearly a decade she had worked on the network’s science and environment unit. That news unit was trimmed back for years and then unceremoniously dumped a little over a year ago, in what is the most prominent example of a science and environmental reporting team getting tossed aside as the traditional news industry sails stormy seas.

“Heartbreaking” is the word Feanny used. “It frustrates me. At a time when, more than ever, the public needs science and environmental news to make informed decisions, the stories are not on the air.”

Indeed, when it comes to coverage of climate change, energy, and environmental issues, the meltdown in mainstream news reporting couldn’t come at a worse time. That shrinking category of news is as critical as ever. But the ranks of reporters best equipped to cover these major environmental and climate change stories at most news outlets, particularly in local markets, are being decimated. The calendar year just ended was in many ways a bleak one for much of the environmental journalism world, but with new journalism models and opportunities popping up, many in the field hope for better in 2010.

9/11 Plus Competition from Fox, MSNBC

Former CNN Producer Camille Feanny

Feanny, now a PhD student in anthropology, provides a window into the evolution of CNN’s science team, from thriving to extinct, which parallels larger industry trends.

She joined the unit as an intern in 1996 and eventually became one of its environmental producers. In its heyday in the late 90s, she says, CNN had a team of roughly 12 full-time journalists, plus interns, covering technology, climate change, wildlife, alternative energy, and more. It traveled the world to do groundbreaking stories and over time produced four CNN magazine programs on environment, science, and technology.

The team lost its key supporter after CNN merged with Time Warner and the network’s legendary founder Ted Turner, an ardent supporter of environmental causes and environmental journalism, became much less of an influence. Later, Feanny says, the 9/11 terrorism attacks and the Iraq War changed the focus dramatically. “We became the technology experts of war,” she said. “All of a sudden everything was about the war and if you could not justify your work, you had a hard time getting your stories on the air.”

Still, the unit made an impact by linking science/environmental angles to the news of the day, including a 2004 story about the devastation wrought by Saddam Hussein’s intentionally draining the marshes of the Fertile Crest. CNN’s coverage gave the story international play. Despite successes like that, “the environment and science unit was destroyed in a large part by the war,” Feanny said, a view generally shared by her former colleagues.

With CNN facing declining revenues and stiff competition from cable rivals Fox News and MSNBC, ratings drove virtually every decision, Feanny said. A perception persisted that the environment beat was too much gloom and doom and couldn’t compete with cheaper, easier to report crime or entertainment stories addressing everything from Chandra Levy to Anna Nicole Smith. Though its role was diminishing, the science team was called upon to help cover major natural disaster stories, like the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

Laid off from the environmental team when it was downsized in a series of staffing reductions in 2005, Feanny worked in other CNN divisions before leaving the next year to pursue her doctorate. After years of whittling it away, CNN in the fall of 2008 disbanded and laid off its entire science and technology staff, including veteran reporter Miles O’Brien and long-time producer Peter Dykstra. “We lost staff, we lost air time, and we lost, eventually, the entire unit,” Feanny said.

A CNN spokesperson explained at the time that the move was not driven by money, but by a desire “to integrate environmental, science and technology reporting into the general editorial structure rather than have a standalone unit.” It was an argument many found unconvincing.

E-Beat Dead Zone

In a relentless economic environment, journalism is becoming another dead zone. Nearly 50,000 journalism jobs across the U.S. have been lost in the past two years. This is on top of tens of thousands in prior years.

According to one “layoff tracker” report, the news industry shed jobs at a 22 percent clip from September 2008 through August of ’09. The overall economy lost jobs at an average pace of 8 percent a month, so journalists may be losing jobs at almost three times the rate of other workers.

Specialized science reporting teams are becoming increasingly rare. As the San Jose Mercury News recently reported, two decades ago nearly 150 papers had a science section. Now fewer than 20 are left, and most usually dedicate their scarce column inches to lifestyle and health. Papers now without dedicated science sections even include those serving significant scientific hubs, like the Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle.

No major metropolitan newspaper is immune from the financial pressures. The New York Times most recently pared 100 employees from its news and editorial departments through early-outs, affecting even the nation’s most prominent climate reporter, Andy Revkin.

A leading professional organization, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), has seen a telling evolution of its membership. SEJ doesn’t track the numbers of jobs lost. Total membership numbers have continued to climb, but for the first time, it now has more freelancers than members working for newspapers. A decade ago, newspaper journalists outnumbered freelancers by a more than two-to-one margin.

A Short-Lived ‘Golden Age’

A study at the start of the decade, called “Environment Reporters and U.S. Journalists: A Comparative Analysis,” found about 37 percent of nearly 1,500 U.S. daily newspapers had an environmental reporter. In TV, the numbers were much slimmer: 10 percent of more than 800 stations. (Some reported on the environment full-time; many juggled the beat with other assignments.) Study co-author JoAnn Valenti estimates half those jobs have since been terminated. No one knows for sure.

“Hells bells, they didn’t realize they were in the golden age,” Valenti said.

The change has left many seasoned pros sidelined at what should have been the peak of their journalistic powers.

Chris Bowman is a prime example. His 32 years in newspapers ended last spring. “I got laid off. I was among 118 employees laid off in one fell swoop,” in the largest downsizing in the 150-year history of the Sacramento Bee, he said.

Bowman’s award-winning career had included a stint in Riverside, Calif., where his reporting sparked a pair of groundbreaking First Amendment cases that went to the Supreme Court. Later, with the Hartford Courant, his work exposed spectacular lapses by inspectors following a fatal bridge collapse.

Bowman moved to the Sacramento Bee in 1985. It was the “fat and happy days of the newspaper industry.” He became Sierra bureau chief, roaming the West, covering conflicts over water, timber, grazing, national parks, Earth First protests, and more. Gradually, his role morphed into the environmental beat. “No one ever anointed me an environmental reporter. I just did it against the grain and eventually it became a fait accompli.”

Bowman specialized in what may be one of the arcane assignments in environmental journalism, the “parts per billion” beat, environmental hazards, tough to understand and even tougher to explain. In that capacity, he became the state’s lead reporter on air pollution.

A tip led to perhaps the most far-reaching story of his career. A homeowner in El Dorado County was using dynamite to build a below-grade garage, releasing naturally-occurring but toxic asbestos into the neighborhood. Bowman’s reporting helped bring about changes in local, state, and national laws. “Before it was asbestos in manufacturing, products like insulation, car brakes, and roof tiles. My reporting documented environmental exposure right in your own neighborhood,” Bowman said.

After being laid-off from the Bee, Bowman initially juggled three jobs to help make up for the one reporting job he long had held. He recently became speech writer for the head of the California Air Resources Board, CARB.

Bruce Ritchie can relate to Bowman’s predicament. A veteran of the environmental beat in Florida, Ritchie struggled with job security while weathering the journalism business’s ups and downs through three dailies, until December 2008 the Tallahassee Democrat. “They dropped the beat,” Ritchie said. At first, “they told me I could cover environmental issues still. Then they laid me off. They’ve lost an awful lot of positions. Generally they were attributing it to the economy.”

Florida journalist Bruce Ritchie

Over the past year, Ritchie has blazed an uncertain reporting path, trying to make a go of it as Editor of the website Floridaenvironments.com, which he launched the day he was laid off from the Democrat. It’s been a one-person operation, covering environmental news from Florida’s state capitol, but it’s opened up online journalism opportunities that might not otherwise have been available.

With reporting jobs being pared back, Ritchie thinks all kinds of stories have slipped through the cracks, particularly regarding issues like land use planning, sprawl, and development, all major elements of climate change. “There seems to be no one covering growth anymore at a state policy level,” Ritchie said. “Almost no one covering the wildlife agencies. It’s hit or miss with the public service commission. There’s just a lot of coverage of killings and the weather and college football.”

Stories going unreported are like a tree falling in the forest. Without someone there to see it, how do we know? “What do we not know that’s happening? What are we not covering in outlying counties?” Ritchie asked. “What are we going to look at five or 10 years from now and say ‘nobody knew what was happening?’”

Those are questions plaguing many as they ponder the uncertain future of mainstream journalism in the digital age, including those hoping online journalism can be at least part of the answer.

Dean Singleton: Spotlight Still On, but ‘Dimmer’

The causes and culprits are many and easy to pick out: declining revenues, rising costs, sharp competition for classified ads from the Internet and the likes of Craigslist. And no one should suggest that journalism is alone in having been adversely affected by the 9/11 terrorism attacks, by the economic collapse, or by both.

But since 2006 revenues for metro dailies are off 40 percent, according to Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews Group, one of the largest newspaper companies in the U.S. It owns the Denver Post, Salt Lake Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, and Detroit News, in all more than four-dozen dailies in 11 states. In an interview, Singleton estimated 30 of the 50 biggest papers in the country have been losing money.

The larger economic reality has hurt coverage. “A decade ago, we might have had two reporters in Denver on science reporting and today we probably have one with others chipping in when needed, and even the one we have probably does other things,” Singleton said. “So the spotlight is still on it, but just not to the intensity it once was. I’d like to say that the downsizing of newspapers hasn’t affected news coverage but unfortunately I can’t say that because it has.”

Dean Singleton:  Smaller ‘Spotlight’

Lost in the slide: nuance, familiarity with the subject matter, context, and proverbial Rolodexes full of expert contacts — each of them among the key elements of responsible reporting on climate change and energy issues.

At many news outlets, “a lot of specialties have been cut back in beats like the environment or cultural reporting. Movie critics, drama critics, book editors, fewer people covering the Capitol,” said Tom Waseleski, editorial page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “There’s a lot of complexity there and you need to have reporters who are on a beat to be able to explain that to the public.”

The withering away of robust science and environmental journalism, particularly in local outlets, has very real implications. A conspicuous example is public ignorance in the U.S. about global warming, with the American public consistently regarded as being less well informed on climate change – and less concerned than citizens of most other industrialized counties. That situation is seen as a stubborn obstacle to effective policy making on the issue.

Beyond the loss of reporters on the beat, coverage of climate change is a low priority for many news organizations. For example, the Tyndall Report, which monitors weekday newscasts of the three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC), ranked global warming/climate change 18th in the Top 20 Stories in 2007. In 2008, the issue didn’t make the list at all. Within the environmental category, global warming in 2008 was deemed less newsworthy than stories about plastic bottles leaching synthetic estrogen hormone and recycling.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the 20 years Tyndall has been following TV news coverage, minute by minute, the most recent peaks for environmental coverage were not, say, in 2006 when Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” came out, but in the late 80s and early 90s, when the scientific community first was sounding the climate alarm.

Similarly, a Pew “State of the News Media” study found in 2008 that the news agenda of the mainstream media was monopolized by the presidential election and the economic crisis, with an occasional “one week wonder.” The report states “even when a major story managed to break through the clutter of the election and economic coverage in 2008, the press quickly seemed to tire of it.” Like a comet, stories about the violent conflict between Russia and Georgia, or the sexual indiscretions of Eliot Spitzer, flashed upon the scene and soon faded.

The Pew study noted that dwindling newsroom resources seemed to narrow the coverage. “Fewer people in newsrooms inevitably pull news organizations to focus intensively on one or two subjects at a time and then move on,” the study explains. “They simply no longer have the resources in reporting power to push a wider agenda.”

Competition from Tiger Woods and ‘Balloon Boy’

No doubt, the hoax of Colorado’s “Balloon Boy” will rank high when the ’09 report is issued. That same week in October, some important environmental stories went by largely unnoticed in many U.S. outlets. They included items about the second hottest September on record, the humanitarian disaster brewing in Africa with the shrinking of massive Lake Chad, and the lead-up to thousands of climate change rallies around the world organized by the group 350.org, led by environmental writer Bill McKibben.

Writer Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org

The December Copenhagen Climate Conference had the distinct misfortune to come in the midst of the torrent of news about the alleged infidelities of golfer Tiger Woods. The white-hot controversy over the hacked e-mails from scientists at the University of East Anglia too siphoned off coverage of the larger issue driving the conference in the first place.

Ted Turner, for one, seems to hunger for a more meaty news menu. In October, Turner told Bloomberg TV he wished he were running Time Warner so he could make changes at CNN, saying he preferred “less fluffy news.”

At CNN’s 25th anniversary in 2005, he had been even more direct: “I would like to see us return to a little more international coverage on the domestic feed and a little more environmental coverage,” Turner said. “And maybe a little less pervert of the day,” adding “I mean there’s a lot of perversion around. I know that, but is it really news? I mean, some of it is. I guess you’ve got to cover Michael Jackson, but not three stories at the lead of every half hour.”

“The journalism is important,” said prominent climate scientist James Hansen, particularly in countering and debunking what he views as “green washing.” Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, attributes much of the U.S. public’s skepticism about global warming to advertisements and funding for skeptics and contrarians by coal and other fossil fuel interests.

According to published reports, the oil, gas and coal industry spent $45 million on lobbying in early 2009 in an effort to kill “cap and trade” legislation. The campaign poured money into lobbying, TV, print, and radio ads, and also campaign contributions to key members of Congress.

“We need to have reporters who dig into it and report it. Report the facts behind the headlines, so that people understand what the real story is,” Hansen said.

Professor John Schellnhuber, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, told The Guardian/UK “the U.S. in a sense is climate illiterate,” citing public opinion polls about understanding of climate change. “Even in Brazil and China, you have more people who know the problem, who think that deep cuts in emissions are needed,” he said.

But climate activist, author, and educator McKibben says he isn’t sure the dearth of public understanding about climate change is linked to the downward spiral of mainstream journalism. “Public opinion lagged scientific knowledge when newspapering was in its salad days. Journalists have done a truly bad job on this, at least in this country,” McKibben said in a recent e-mail interview. “It was the issue that showed just how awry the ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ style of objectivity could go.”

The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes on climate for The New Yorker, agrees. “I think it’s somewhat more complicated than many other issues because the mass media did a pretty bad job on climate change to begin with. I don’t know if we’re any worse off now.”

Illustrating the point, a series of recent polls reveal a distinct gap in understanding between the public and scientists. For instance, a July 2006 poll by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press found just 49 percent of Americans believe Earth is getting warmer as a result of human activity, and 32 percent believe humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes. Vast majorities of the relevant scientists dealing with those branches of science agree with both statements.

Faith in science and scientists itself showed a drop in a December 2009 Washington Post-ABC News poll. It found growing public distrust and political polarization about what scientists say about the environment. It also documented “a widespread perception that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether global warming is happening.”

Green Sprouts and a New Beginning

Despite that cloudy outlook, traditional journalism’s downturn is opening up promising opportunities for new models and new partnerships.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based freelancer Lindsey Hoshaw is one who finds herself on the cutting edge. Her dream was to report and publish a story about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirl of marine litter, mostly plastic, estimated to be roughly two times the size of Texas. The New York Times had agreed to take a look at her piece, but she needed to get there, a $10,000 proposition.

Hoshaw, 27, linked up with Spot.Us, a website where reporters seek donations to fund their stories. If a news outlet buys exclusive rights, donations are reimbursed. She got a boost when first the website Gawker.com, and then Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt wrote about her project and Spot.Us. Within three weeks, the site raised most of the money. Hoshaw called it “unbelievable.”

In September, she made a seven-day journey to the middle of the Pacific. Hoshaw took a flight from San Francisco to Honolulu, and then boarded the Alguita, captained by Charles Moore, with a five-person crew, for the 1,000-mile trip northeast of Hawaii.

Many reporters have written about the garbage patch, but few had actually seen it. Once there, the advantage of first person reporting proved invaluable.

“It was more and less polluted than I expected,” Hoshaw said. The garbage patch looked nothing like the floating mass she expected. Instead, disturbingly, much of the trash, a spectacular array from umbrellas to Popsicle sticks, has been battered and broken down by waves.


View larger image
Lindsey Hoshaw at the Pacific’s ‘Gabage Patch’

Much of it is tiny, toxic multi-colored, particles, “the size of couscous,” which are consumed by fish and birds. “It’s really astonishing,” Hoshaw said. “You’re hundreds of miles from land, from the grocery store or the plastics plant.”

Hoshaw calls her journalistic adventure a win-win for all parties. In November, the Times published her 800-word article and a dozen photos. Her career got a boost and readers got a close-up look at a story they might have missed otherwise. “I think you have to be very entrepreneurial,” Hoshaw said. With donors pitching in funds, “it really becomes everyone’s story. That was really satisfying.”

Spot.Us founder David Cohn sees potential in the direct, small donor-funded model for environmental stories. No single source can give more than 40 percent of the money, which Cohn believes limits donor influence on reporting. “Without a doubt, Spot.Us can help cover the environment,” Cohn said. “That has actually been one of the better topics to fundraise around.”

Universities’ ‘Futurity’ to the Science Communications Rescue?

It’s not just small operations jumping into the pool. So is a consortium of dozens of universities in a project called Futurity. It’s an online research magazine, which publishes, in both print and video form, highlights of the latest discoveries from 44 leading U.S. institutions. The group includes both private and public universities. The program launched in September 2009 and is spearheaded by Stanford, Duke and the University of Rochester.

“We were alarmed by the decline in coverage of research,” said Lisa Lapin, Assistant Vice President for University Communications at Stanford. “We weren’t getting coverage.” Also, dot-com startups wanted to create websites featuring university-generated news releases. “We thought, ‘why should we do that when we can do it ourselves?’”

On its website, readers learn about the latest developments in science, engineering, society and culture, medicine, and more. Much of the content reads and looks a lot like what one used to find, well, in a newspaper. On the front page one day this past fall, for instance, there was a story about behavior in monkeys, as they look at computer-generated images. Another examined new findings about salt intake in humans.

Futurity feeds its content to Yahoo News, the world’s largest news website, with 43 million unique users a month. Lapin said each university pitched in $2,000 to raise $88,000 to hire a full-time editor. Most reports are written by university staff writers, many of whom earlier in their careers had covered the science beat as newspaper reporters.

Futurity has prompted some concerns that the public might confuse its content for that produced by independent journalists. Lapin doesn’t see it that way. “We’re not trying to make money,” she said. “We’re not trying to sell products. We’re just trying to educate people about scientific research.”

That description might apply also to Climate Central, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group of journalists and scientists, based in Princeton, N.J. and Palo Alto, Calif. It seeks to provide “clear and objective” scientific, technology and policy information about climate change and its potential solutions, ideally to become the “go to” source for policy makers and the public.

The group includes Heidi Cullen, the former Weather Channel climate scientist, and Michael Lemonick, who had covered science and the environment for Time magazine for nearly two decades. Climate Central’s website states: “We believe good information is the best foundation for sound choices.”

Founded in 2008, Climate Central now has a staff of roughly 15, with a mix of veteran journalists and scientists.

Climate Central Correspondent Heidi Cullen

Climate Central produces news stories for PBS NewsHour. In the past year, Cullen and her team crisscrossed the continent, producing nearly a dozen pieces, some running as long as 10 minutes. They’ve reported on scientists drilling ice cores in Greenland, trout and drought in Montana, warming and wildfires in Washington, and coal-fired power plants in Georgia.

The group’s website includes an innovative feature: annotated scripts with a link to “Science Behind the Story.” Once there, individual statements in the news story are backed up by specific scientific studies. “Everything is peer-reviewed and we take all of that very seriously, for both our journalistic and scientific integrity,” said Cullen.

Climate Central also provides a wide variety of information to national and local media. It sends edited climate-related stories to local TV stations. When big wildfires hit Los Angeles in August 2009, for instance, the group gave local news outlets graphics, footage, satellite photos, and global climate models.

It’s all about providing relevant information and context, something often lost in the wham-bam, 24/7 news landscape. “This is about learning, not about convincing people of something,” said Princeton University Professor of Ecology Steve Pacala, among the group’s founders. Pacala says an original goal of Climate Central was “to combat the organized campaign of misinformation over the issue.”

“We’re aiming to increase climate literacy,” Cullen said, trying to educate the public about larger, long-term trends, not just the latest tornado, hurricane, or heat wave. “Hopefully, the new journalism will be able to provide this sort of overall climate perspective.”

Promises … and Perils … from Websites and Blogs

Of course, a growing number of websites and blogs cover the environment and climate change, but it is unclear how their impact measures up to that of erstwhile traditional news outlets.

“I don’t see all these other media, some of whom are doing a very good job, making up for the loss of the mass media,” said Kolbert, author of “Field Notes from a Catastrophe.” What’s more, according to McKibben, “there are absurd and egregious denier blogs all over the place, which probably grab more traffic.”

In addition, most independent websites don’t yet draw the broad audience once provided by local news outlets. “The beauty of newspapers and TV news was that you were forced to look at headlines and information that you wouldn’t seek yourself,” said journalism study co-author JoAnn Valenti.

Meantime, the economics of the new news regime for a freelancer like Hoshaw can be downright daunting. The Times paid $1,100 for her story and photos, she said. “The money I made won’t offset what I spent.”

Former CNN producer Camille Feanny believes new journalism ventures and social media are crucial, both for coverage of environmental issues and for the journalists who cover them.

“We’re a dying breed,” she said. “If we don’t change the way we do business we’ll become extinct.” Pacala agrees, seeing reporting about climate disruption as a sustained, long-run proposition, spanning decades.

“Our only hope is to continue to be exposed to information about this,” he said. “Who else is going to do it?”


John Daley is a television reporter in Salt Lake City. He wrote “When a Tree Falls” during a Western Enterprise Reporting Fellowship at Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. His essay “Zephyr to Zion” appears in the new book, “How the West Was Warmed.”

Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Why the Decline and Rebirth of Environmental Journalism Matters

  1. Careful. I cannot see how advertiser supported news media will ever be able to bite the hand that feeds it.

    Leave it to alternative press to do vital, but light pieces like: The 15 Most Heinous Climate Villains

    http://www.alternet.org/environment/144990/the_15_most_heinous_climate_villains

  2. Kenneth Orski says:

    There is a sound reason for the decline of environmental journalism. The general public views environmental journalists as propagandists with a not-so-hidden agenda rather than as impartial, unbiased reporters. For example, what was by far the most important environmental story of the year –Cimategate–was virtually ignored by environmental journalists until it became too big to be ignored. Much of the coverage by environmental journalists (there were some exceptions) was dismissive and defensive. Is there any wonder why environmental journalism has lost credibility?

  3. Ann Scarlett says:

    Excellent article. It informs and educates, and makes clear the difficult times we are in.