Environment Journalists Don’t Get Much Respect
‘… the environment beat is so far down the journalistic pecking order that if it were alive it would be an amoeba.’
“Greens with press passes.”
Robert Engelman was the first person I heard utter these words. He used them as a way of conveying how he thought he and his environment reporting peers were regarded. A founding member of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), he was at that time an environmental and health correspondent for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C.
Those four words sum up the view—and for many environmental journalists the nagging frustration—that reporters covering the environmental beat often are seen not as environmental reporters but as environmentalist reporters. Is it something they said that earned them such a derisive nickname? Or something they did? Or perhaps something they didn’t say or didn’t do?
Though causes remain undetermined, this perception has become an occupational hazard. And it’s a perception the most dedicated U.S. journalists—swearing allegiance to the practice of independent journalism, not to environmental values per se—find particularly annoying. Especially frustrating to many is that this view often persists in the newsroom itself, not just outside of it. Being labeled a “green reporter” by a newsroom colleague is for many an insult. Plain and simple.
“There’s a perception of bias in the newsroom that seems to be unique to the environmental beat,” one environmental reporter recently complained at the annual meeting of the SEJ in Baltimore, Maryland. No such perception had tainted her previous work on health or other beats, she insisted.
Should There Be Environmentalist Journalists?
Let’s get one thing straight: There are environmental journalists. And there are environmentalist journals. But using the most traditional, conservative, ink-in-the-veins definition, except for those few columnists and editorial writers who write from a “green” perspective, can there also be “environmentalist journalists?” This pairing of words strikes me as an oxymoron. Environmental journalism? The noun trumps the adjective in the hearts and minds of reporters who are most committed to their craft. Environmentalist writers, yes. Environmentalist journalists? Not by the strict definition of journalism. The effort to inform and to separate fact from fiction in the forever-elusive pursuit of “truth” or accuracy comes first.
Reporters who cover the environmental, natural resources, pollution beat at mainstream news organizations would find satisfaction in producing a thoroughly reported, soundly sourced article documenting that how chemicals such as DDT or PCB’s in the environment do more good than harm. They’d climb mountains, burn midnight oils, for a bulletproof piece that contamination of the Hudson, Ohio, or American rivers is good for freshwater fish or, for that matter, good for the local economies. With global warming, any journalist would welcome the opportunity to report a well documented piece in which scientists find that there is absolutely no basis for concern that climate change is happening, that humans are contributing to it, or that it’s a problem worth taking seriously.
Stories that parrot the growing scientific consensus can’t compete when it comes to prime-time, Page One real estate. But produce a well-reported, documented piece containing contrary evidence—and bring on the science journalism awards. Of course, things are not really quite so clear and unequivocal. Like other beats, the environmental one is cyclical. Its well-being—in terms of how its news is reported and played—depends on numerous other factors and events. For example, there is a correlation between times when environmentalists and environmentalism are bullish and when the environmental beat itself is robust.
Want to know when the next boom cycle for environmental coverage will begin? Determine the time and place of the next environmental disaster—the next Exxon Valdez, Love Canal, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Bhopal, India or the next Alar-on-apples scare. (Surely we haven’t seen the “last” major industrial environmental or health disaster this early in the industrial revolution—just the most recent one.)
Then look for environmental column inches and airtime to swell. Are the victims cute and cuddly critters, perhaps even humans, better yet, babies? Are they neighbors or, at least, Americans? Or do they live in some distant country few Americans can find on a map?
The answers drive the environmental coverage, its duration, and its sweep. And to a large extent, human nature plays a vital role as well. Don’t be surprised if cuddly critters outrank distant infants in driving coverage. But if they’re slimy and yucky, even if their value to emerging medical treatments is unquestioned, expect a much smaller spike in coverage.
Environmental Coverage Was Dubbed DBI—‘Dull But Important’
Environmental coverage has experienced several mountains and perhaps more valleys since 1970 when President Richard Nixon anointed “the environmental decade” with enactment of the landmark National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that mandated environmental impact statements.
In the post-Vietnam War, post-Watergate time, marked by the first international “Earth Day,” the American public’s rising interest in domestic issues—and in particular the emerging environmental movement—gave rise to the start of the environmental beat in many newsrooms. Having one of Nixon’s leading adversaries for the presidency be Maine Democratic Senator Edmund S. Muskie—who was labeled “Mr. Environment”—didn’t hurt, either, in fueling newsrooms’ interest.
The decade of the 1970’s witnessed enactment of a slew of sweeping federal pollution-control regulatory programs, with Democrats and Republicans both jockeying for the emerging green vote. When The New York Times White House correspondent Philip Shabecoff left the White House beat in 1977 and sought the environmental beat, the legitimacy of the beat in many newsrooms gained increased credibility. Over time more and more news organizations added the “ecology beat” to their repertoire.
During the early and mid-1980’s, the Reagan administration’s controversial assaults on the nation’s environmental regulatory programs—and in particular its highly visible persona in Interior Secretary James Watt and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Anne M. (Gorsuch) Burford—helped again to focus political reporters on the environmental beat. Their interest didn’t last. ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson, on leaving the White House in the spring of 1989, told The Washington Post’s Eleanor Randolph that he wasn’t just disappearing into thin air. “I’m not walking away, kid,” she quoted him as saying. “No one’s carrying me out or shifting me to the ecology beat.”
Randolph, at the time the Post’s media writer, credited “Subtle Sam” with making an important point “about the way Washington’s journalism establishment views the assignment to cover such piddling little items such as our food, water, air and planet.” In Washington and, to some extent New York, she wrote, “the environment beat is so far down the journalistic pecking order that if it were alive it would be an amoeba.” “DBI”—“Dull But Important”—is the acronym Randolph said many editors and newsroom staff who aren’t on the environmental beat apply to it. Many believe the DBI reputation persists today.
Still, the beat is cyclical, a characteristic it shares with most other newsroom beats. Just months after Donaldson’s broadside, the Exxon Valdez spilled oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, “60 Minutes” highlighted the Alar-on-apples food scare and the 20th anniversary of Earth Day rolled around. Again, environmental issues were front and center with the American public and, therefore, with America’s editors.
Again, the attention wouldn’t last. With “greens” having “friends” in the White House—President Clinton and Vice President Gore—and with environmentalists and the media having no visible national “villain” along the lines of Watt/Gorsuch, the beat waned throughout much of the 1990’s, a descent many feel continues today.
Perhaps burned by too many chemical-of-the-month scare stories and by a feeling—understandable though ultimately flawed—that much of the media was duped on the Alar scare, many editors seemed willing, if not eager, to back away from an always controversial, always complex beat. After all, environmental coverage often angered bottom-line publishers. Competing pressures at many news organizations—from “dumbing down” the news to creating smaller news holes, to devoting fewer resources to enterprise reporting—have made this type of reporting tougher to do.
Today’s Environment Beat
These newsroom decisions are being made, too, in a changed environmental context. Today’s complex environmental challenges are far more difficult to explain, or even to see, than they were in the days of the burning Cuyahoga River or the “headlights at noon” in some of America’s most polluted metropolitan areas in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Today’s environmental issues—desertification, environmental immigrants, water supply, and climate change—require far more time and, arguably, more column inches and air time than many news organizations are inclined to provide.
To report news about global warming in 10 inches of copy presents daunting challenges to even the most knowledgeable and skilled environmental reporter and editing team. But the ways in which reporters and editors, correspondents and producers confront these challenges—the ones inside and outside the newsroom—will have a large effect in determining how Americans and their government anticipate and respond to continuing environmental pressures.
Bud Ward, for many years an environmental reporter and writer in Washington, D.C., is founding editor of Environment Writer, a newsletter for environmental reporters on subjects that are of critical interest to environmental journalism.