Whither, Environmental Journalism? A Panel of Reporters Weighs Next Steps

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A panel of seasoned environmental journalists ponders the past, present, and future of their trade and the potential for effective nonprofit journalism.

San Francisco, CA. – No single reason adequately explains why news of climate change and other vital issues related to the environment are consistently absent from the front pages of most newspapers.

But veteran investigative reporter Mark Dowie thinks he knows one underlying factor: “It’s our fault,” the host and executive producer of Talking Points Radio recently told a packed hall at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. During the decades from environmental journalism’s inception and up until the turn of the millennium, he said, “We offered content that frightened readers.”

“If I were going to do it all over again,” he said of his years as publisher and editor of Mother Jones, “I would make sure that 20 percent of the stories we ran would be positive. Because there are positive stories to report.”

Yet, ironically, one means by which Dowie expects environmental stories will recapture mainstream media attention is through catastrophe. “[Super-storm] Sandy almost did it,” he said. “And I hate to think it’s going to be catastrophe that drives environmental journalism back to the front page.”

Still, dour environment stories tend to linger in the reader’s attention, regardless of the hopefulness conveyed in the positive reports.

A recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, published by the University of Oxford, found that eight in 10 stories related to climate change focused on disaster and implicit risk. Just as many stories also mentioned the uncertainty over exactly how climate change will manifest, but uncertainty was “less salient, and much less frequently a dominant tone.” The news stories studied were based on past reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and reporting on the melting of Arctic sea ice.

Growing Access and Opportunity

The majority of the panel’s discussion focused not on the tone of environmental coverage but on the dwindling resources available to report on the environment. Many watchers bemoan newsroom cuts that have slashed environment and many other specialized desks and beats over the past decade.

Panelist Jane Kay, a veteran science and environmental reporter long with the San Francisco Chronicle and now freelancing for Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate, is an example of those newsroom budget and staffing cuts.

But her fellow panelist Paul Rogers, environmental reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and KQED Science, reminded the audience that all beats have been cut, and decisions to reduce reporting staffs was not “made by men sitting in a room saying they didn’t want news coverage.” Rather, Rogers said, those decisions resulted from the industry’s failure to compete in an Internet age. The newspaper business model “was obliterated by Craigslist and eBay,” Rogers said, echoing a sentiment common among journalism academics and news media experts.

Now What? Prospects for Nonprofit Journalism

Rather than dwelling on these economic realities, the panel pivoted to a discussion of various new and emerging, and mostly non-profit, journalism models.

Panelist James Fahn, who directs the Earth Journalism Network, an organization that provides training in environmental journalism through partner networks in 70 countries, told the Commonwealth Club audience that news media are expanding significantly in many parts of the globe. “There is room for environment and science coverage” in places like Indonesia, Fahn said, describing his task as identifying new ways of telling environment stories.

One way Earth Journalism Network does this is through GeoJournalism, which combines mapping tools with environmental data to visually convey information. An interactive mapping platform called InfoAmazonia is one example of this approach. It uses a combination of maps and text to convey data on mining and deforestation and on issues involving protected areas within the Amazon. This type of journalism requires that, on top of a reporting acumen, journalists also have mapping and software skills, which Earth Journalism Network provides through training.

This kind of training is important, noted Kay, because “new media should not be bad media.” She and other panelists expressed dismay at the poor work — much of it in the guise of responsible journalism — often delivered through blogs and other social media channels. “Would you want a citizen surgeon?” Kay asked, referencing the “citizen journalist” movement. “Why would people read a story if it wasn’t fact-checked and weighed by editors who ask the important questions — like, ‘Is this even a story?’”

At the end of the day, however, the website with the most hits — most “eyeballs” — tends to win, both in terms of readership and revenue. With so many news organizations having turned to non-profit models in which philanthropic organizations and individual readers fund the work, it’s all the more important that responsible non-profit journalism initiatives attract readership and show that their work is reaching intended audiences — social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter have proven themselves to be vitally important on this score.

“Eighty percent of the readership for KQED Science comes through side doors [rather than directly to the website],” Rogers said. “Facebook is the number one entry point.”

Rogers also pointed to public broadcasting as a bright light on the national media scene, giving KQED, where he works, as an example serving Northern California.

“This is the only market in the U.S. where a PBS station [KQED] is the top radio station. Taken together, the 900 PBS affiliates have the power to be the next Associated Press,” he said.

The Challenge of Paywalls

The biggest challenge to any news beat involves getting readers to pay for quality reporting, according to Kay, because the public is now so used to getting a lot of its news for free. The non-profit model is working for some publications, but the media industry is ripe for significant innovation and disruption in terms of how it delivers news and funds newsgathering and news gatherers. (Those disruptions hold promise and also great peril for many newsroom employees long-accustomed to a regular paycheck and benefits such as paid vacation time and health insurance.)

Fahn said one avenue worth exploring involves linking news organizations more directly with donor organizations, or asking readers to pay on a story-by-story basis. A very young startup called Beacon, for instance, hopes to subvert the traditional newspaper model even further, by asking readers to subscribe to specific reporters (to access their stories) for $5 per month.

Covering environmental news does not mean just writing articles, transmitting radio stories, or shooting documentaries, Dowie emphasized to the audience. “Media is all the information that is transmitted. It is poetry, it’s legitimate theater, it’s much bigger than just the press — but the press forgets that. We need to think of every possible way to communicate environmental journalism,” he said…and to do so in the most responsible ways.

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9 Responses to Whither, Environmental Journalism? A Panel of Reporters Weighs Next Steps

  1. cj orach says:

    Environmental “Journalism” Should Stop the Scare Mongering

    “It’s one thing to terrify the populace with apocalyptic rhetoric and images of collapsing ice sheets or tsunamis. It’s quite another to gain ratification of a treaty obligation imposing huge costs on both the future economy and the individual voters.”
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/10/03/ipccs-high-impact-low-probability-risk-media-talking-points/

  2. cj orach says:

    Environmental Journalists “If you can’t explain the pause you can’t explain the cause” IPCC

    “The IPCC AR5 has a new “decadal average” graph designed to hide the statistically insignificant global warming over the past 20 years. Since nobody wants to be accused of cherry-picking starting dates and using a decadal average instead of a decadal trend line, let’s graph the decadal linear trends for each starting year since 1998. This paints a quite different picture than the IPCC decadal average graph, showing a clear halt in “decadal average” and “decadal trend” global warming starting at the beginning of the 21st century.”

    http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com/2013/10/helping-ipcc-with-decadal-trend-graphs.html

  3. Bruce Schuck says:

    I shake my head when I read stories like this.

    On one hand you have reporters admitting they only ran one side of an issue – the scary side.

    And on the other hand you have reporters talking about shrinking readership.

    “Global Warming” was a tremendous opportunity for newspapers to increase sales by publishing both sides of the issue. The greatest debate in history could have taken place on the pages of your newspapers.

    But you blew it.

    I used to read 3 newspapers a day. But thanks to biased coverage of the global warming issue I now read zero.

    You threw away at least half of your audience. And after a 15 year pause, it appears you even picked the wrong side.

    • John says:

      Spot on Bruce, they blew it and it’s virtually impossible for the activist alarmist journalists (and they are the vast majority) to reclaim any credibility. Their careers are over in environmental journalism, the best they can hope for is some sort of career in another area altogether but even then their past activism is going to haunt them because the internet forgets nothing.

  4. Myron Mesecke says:

    Many of the climate scientists that promote man made climate change refuse to release their data so that it can be “fact-checked”. They refuse to allow mathematicians and statisticians to examine the formula used to check for errors. They hide the computer programming so others cannot test their theories and duplicate their results.

    They expect to be taken at their word instead of allowing others to prove or disprove. That is not science.

    • John says:

      The fact that so called environmental journalists were willing to parrot climate ‘scientist’ claims without any attempt at fact checking was one of the reasons why climate ‘scientists’ have got away with refusing to release data.

      This has even been particularly prevalent in scientific journals who have offered a veneer of credibility for some of the most egregious and fraudulent ‘scientific’ claims. Mann’s hockey stick and Trenberth’s heat in oceans being only two examples.

  5. Steven Whalley says:

    It would help environmental journalism if such journalists were open about the provenance of their source material. It is unfortunately common in the UK for science correspondents to copy and paste from environmental pressure group handouts, without explanation to the readers.

    In 2006, BBC departmental chiefs decided amongst themselves to ignore all material counter to the anthropogenic global warming theme, and to push that theme both in science programming and dramatic productions. Since then, no science, natural history, or current affairs items have given space to sceptical views, nor to any factual analysis showing the absence of global warming.

    It is now easy to gain information, of all qualities, on global warming from the Web. If you think that this runs the risk of acquiring some untutored climate knowledge, you may be right. However, when the official journalistic sources serve us so badly, the Web has been allowed to become the new champion of such causes by default.

  6. Pristine Superior says:

    “We offered content that frightened readers.”

    Unless taken in the context of people being frightened of a force-fed diet of advocacy this is evidence that the “veteran investigative reporter” is clueless.

    “It’s our fault”, was a good start for Mark Dowie but the problem is not that people are tired of being scared; rational people are fed up with being treated like fools.

    Sadly there may be even more jobs for non-profit propagandists content with the role of opinion-maker for hire rather than truth-seeking reporter given the deep pockets of various UN groups.

  7. Rich Wright says:

    It appears the environmental journalists in San Francisco concluded it is ethical to knowingly mislead the public, just as long as a higher percentage of the stories are positive, not scary. That would make it OK, somehow.

    Many professions make the act of knowingly misleading the reader an unethical act. It isn’t surprising that individuals in those professions, and others, now look down on environmental journalists. Their reports are no longer credible. They are spinners, not reporters.

    Publishers are now moving away from hiring environmental journalists to cover stories involving nature, science, and public policy. The belief that it is OK to deliberately mislead the public does not sit well with either the public or the publishers of newspapers.