Winter 2002

Fighting to Get Environment Stories on Television

A veteran journalist uses fresh strategies with editors.

By Jacques A. Rivard
I have been covering the environment for Société Radio-Canada (SRC), the National French TV News of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, since 1981, first in Montreal, then in Vancouver. Why did I choose that specific area of coverage, and what did I learn over all these years? Here are some answers.

Fifty years ago, I was growing up in Rivière-du-Loup, a small and clean city of 15,000 inhabitants 100 miles east of Quebec City, on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. I would watch my grandfather catch five-foot-long striped bass that were plentiful in the river. When I began working for the CBC as a journalist, I tried to assess how many species of fish were living in the St. Lawrence River. The striped bass and half of the other species of fish that once thrived in the river had disappeared. I tried to understand why. Twenty years later, I am still seeking answers.

In time, I began to also report on how clean the air is that we breathe, where the tons of contaminated waste go, and the cumulative impact of pollution on health and on climate. I covered many United Nations conferences—on ozone depletion in Montreal in 1987, on global warming in Toronto in 1989, on the import and export of toxic waste in Basel in 1989, on environment and sustainable development in Rio in 1992. In 1995, I was awarded a Nieman Fellowship in environmental studies at Harvard University. That fellowship recognized the 15 years I’d devoted to covering the environment but it also acknowledged the battles I’d been fighting to convince my editors of the importance of this beat. It’s an argument that I am still having to make to them today.

Letting Editors Know Why Environment Stories Matter

What have I learned? When a journalist is the first to report on something, it is difficult. When coverage involves reporting on people and their problems, it is even more difficult. And when these problems deal with their environment, it becomes almost an impossible task. Why? During much of this time, I was working in Quebec, where the economy had been adversely affected by the political uncertainty of a possible provincial secession from Canada. In this province, the media establishment believed more strongly than anywhere else in Canada that economic development was the most important story to cover. Environment came last.

That is why I’ve had to fight hard to keep covering the environment, even threatening to resign to make my point. And in that time, I’ve succeeded in explaining the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) syndrome and done follow-ups on international conferences on energy, global warming, ozone depletion, dangerous waste, health hazards, all the while working on the national TV news. Difficulties arose when I tried to explain scientific phenomena such as ozone depletion, or tried to give progress reports on these subject during daily newscasts, when most of the time was devoted only to hot, hard news.

After a while I realized that if I wanted to educate people about the environment, I needed to work in a different format than daily news. My reporting would work better in a weekly program about ecology. Then, an opportunity for this seemed about to appear. Five years ago, SRC created RDI, a CNN-type all-news network. They had planned a weekly show on the environment and even considered me for the position of anchor. But the project did not materialize because the editors thought that it was too costly. They decided instead to create a fashion show.

Now I am the SRC correspondent on Canada’s West Coast, where I use most of my free time to assess the impact of global warming on the environment, mainly in Northern Canada and in the Arctic. In four years of reporting on climate change in the north, in the Yukon and Alaska, I’ve covered a wide range of issues—the impact of the melting of the permafrost on structures, cities and roads; the movement of the tree line north to where there is only tundra, and the loss of newborns in the porcupine caribou herd because of increased snowfall. I’ve also followed the research being done by scientists from Canada, Japan and Denmark on Mount Logan, the highest peak in Canada, to determine through ice cores whether there was a cycle of warmer temperatures 150,000 years ago.

This summer, I visited the Arctic to assess how the melting of ice in the Northwest Passage is threatening the sovereignty of Canada, since the United States now wants its ships to use this shorter seaway rather than the Panama Canal. I did stories about Tuktoyaktuk, a Canadian village on the Beaufort Sea, which would be the first human settlement to be moved inland because of global warming. Soil erosion up there has been accelerated by the lack of ice cover. I also showed how builders in Alaska and the Yukon, as temperatures rise, are reacting to the melting of the permafrost by using thermosyphons—20 foot tubes exposed to air filled with carbon dioxide that freezes the permafrost back.

I’ve devoted a lot of reporting time to covering what I believe is the most important issue in the environmental field today—global warming and its impact on the northern structures and habitats. If we are dealing with a temperature increase of one degree at our latitude, in more northern regions the difference could be more than five degrees. And this change could affect not only the structures created by man but natural habitats, such as forests, and animals.

After the Rio conference in 1992, I encountered a lot of problems on my beat. After the many promises made about resources to help developing nations reduce global warming gases, they were not fulfilled. My editors, who paid for my trip to Rio, now considered all this fuss to be about almost nothing. It was, it seemed, almost impossible to make rich nations, already fighting budget cuts, assist in the environmental needs of poor countries. For me, it meant a daily fight to give our viewers environmental information.

Using a New Strategy to Cover the Environment

More recently, as public opinion polls suggested that economy and health care were the issues that interested the most people, I decided to propose economic and health-related stories that were, in fact, environmental reports. My strategy worked. For example, the incidence of asthma in children living in big cities is now endemic, and costs to the health care system are enormous. One contributing cause is atmospheric pollution. Another example: A special police force has been set up to try to stop the theft of old-growth trees in British Columbia. Each year, $20 million in timber value is lost. I told this environmental story as it is seen through the economic scope. Both stories were very well received because they were sold as health and economy-related news and not as environmental reports.

Also now because of the debate regarding the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, it has become easier to sell environment stories. This is because a majority of our Canadian viewers want Canada and the United States to ratify the agreement, even if it is going to be tough for the economies of the Western world. Public interest in climate change and global warming is why I take the opportunity while on the West Coast of Canada to go north on a regular basis. There I can assess the impact of global warming on these very sensitive ecological regions that are already the most affected by climate change. With the opposition to Kyoto coming from Washington, and the push for ratification in Europe, our viewers are more interested than ever in getting up-to-date information on global warming, a situation that could impact future generations as nothing else ever before.

My hope is that there will be more specialized journalists covering environmental stories. I also hope the networks will air environment stories on a regular basis to give viewers a sense of continuity in the information they receive. The best way to do that is through a weekly program, one I still think the SRC should create, one like “Earth Matters,” which CNN recently decided to kill.

Jacques A. Rivard, a 1996 Nieman Fellow, is the national TV correspondent on the West Coast of Canada for Société Radio-Canada, the French arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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