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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2003
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Mixed Media

Journalism | Books


Disappearing Green Ink

If you’ve been suspecting that the environment gets short shrift in the news, you’re right. According to an ongoing study by JoAnn Valenti, professor emerita of communications at Brigham Young University, newspaper environmental reporters are frequently pulled off their beats to cover other topics: In the mountain West, only 18 percent of environmental writers say they spend 67 to 100 percent of their time on environmental stories; in New England, that figure is 31 percent. Things are worse on the airwaves: Environmental coverage on major TV networks, which peaked in 1989 after the Exxon Valdez spill, plummeted after the September 11 terrorist attacks. According to "The Tyndall Report," a closely watched measure of television news, the environment filled a mere 4 percent of the network "news hole" in 2002, a third of its volume the previous year.

It’s easy to understand how spectacular stories like war and terrorism can push aside environmental coverage, but the green beat has never had an easy ride. Environmental journalism’s innate complexity is its greatest hurdle. "Reporters in general assignment don’t want to do environmental stories because they know they don’t have the background," says Jane Kay, longtime environmental reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Journalists who take the leap into environmental reporting must master complicated scientific concepts in addition to the intricacies of environmental law.

Once they figure that out, then they have to convince an editor that a story is news. Many editors are wary of covering seemingly obscure threats. "If readers don’t know about an environmental harm, editors ask, ‘Is it enough of a story?’ " says Gordon Laird, a reporter who won a Canadian National Magazine Award in 2001 for his investigation of Native and corporate claims to energy resources in Alberta. "But that’s the wrong question. It’s a story precisely because people don’t know about it."

These days, environmental articles must fit in a small space, explaining concepts quickly. "Part of the challenge is editors aren’t assigning as many long environmental features as they used to," says Laird. Former New York Times reporter Philip Shabecoff points out that the consolidation of media ownership threatens all in-depth stories, not just green ones. "A lingering recession and budget cuts from corporate owners demanding high profit margins have reduced news space, travel, and staffing," he wrote in the winter 2002 issue of Nieman Reports, the publication of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism.

The short format hampers analytical stories, leaving readers with the unsatisfying he-said-she-said standoff dictated by the need to tell both sides of the story. "In climate-change articles, alternative views come out as balance as far as editors are concerned, but don’t reflect the number of scientists holding those views," says Gary Braasch, a photojournalist who documents the effects of global warming. This is why you’ll find the views of a small band of industry-sponsored global-warming skeptics, such as those allied with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, positioned side by side with those of more reputable sources, like the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But of all the challenges facing environmental coverage, the greatest is time. Many of the most important environmental stories take shape over months, if not years. That time frame can drain resources from the quotidian needs of the newsroom. When editors can spare reporters for extended research, though, the results are often groundbreaking. Debbie Salamone, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, was given such an opportunity to cover a severe drought in Florida and the effects of unfettered growth on the state’s water supplies. "My editor told me, ‘Don’t hold back,’ so I didn’t," says Salamone. Given a year and a half to chase the story, Salamone worked seven days a week the whole time, producing a six-part series that won the George Polk Award for environmental journalism. That happy alignment of a scrambling reporter and editorial vision is the hallmark of how newsrooms overcome the daily clashes and break the big environmental story. If only it happened more often.
—Stephen R. Miller

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