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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2004
Table of Contents
When Aliens Attack
Neighbor to Neighbor
Interview: Ecologist Gretchen Daily
The Green Old Party
Winning Words
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Let's Talk
Food for Thought
Lay of the Land
Good Going
Hidden Life
Sierra Club Bulletin
Mixed Media
Last Words
Sierra Archives
About Sierra
Internships at Sierra
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Mixed Media

Journalism: Beyond Fish Wrap

In a moment of media humility, Minnesota Public Radio suspected that its listeners had more questions about the health of their state's rivers than the network had answers. So in 2002 it created "Build a Question; Find an Answer," an on-air and online initiative that brought citizens together to craft a framework of questions that could be posed to policymakers, the media, and their fellow Minnesotans.

The effort was part of a movement called civic journalism, in which media outlets produce stories that make people want to get involved and show them how to do it. It sounds simple, but it challenges some of the most fundamental elements of journalism, especially reporting on the environment.

Journalists traditionally present information as a conflict, providing each involved party with column space or airtime to express its concerns. It's the hallmark of objective reporting. But while this "he said, she said" formula appears fair, it has major problems. Reporters may overstate the authority of one position for the sake of appearing objective. (And ideologically motivated "think tanks" are often quick to offer so-called experts to meet a reporter's needs–particularly on stories with scientific or environmental aspects.)

When reporters won't get beyond the seesaw approach or dig deep, the result is superficiality, which leaves readers with more questions than answers, frustration rather than solutions. Two-thirds of daily newspapers in the western states report some 40 times more often about routine environment-related events, such as press conferences, than about broader environmental trends or their consequences, according to a study conducted by the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources (IJNR).

Researchers such as Shanto Iyengar, director of the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University, have shown that citizens are less likely to get involved if a story is presented as an unresolvable conflict, and more likely to get involved if the problems are explained to them, with all their nuances. Environmental issues in particular need this extra dose of information.

"In covering environmental news, the 'quick hit' runs the risk of slighting or omitting story elements that have the most usefulness for audiences," says Frank Allen, president of IJNR. Allen says that environmental reporters need to go beyond specific examples to show emerging trends and developments, where hot spots are, where else the problem is happening, and the variety of ways in which the trends are manifesting themselves.

Civic journalists want to promote this explanatory style, with its in-depth exploration of topics, often in multiple articles that provide readers with enough information to grasp an issue's scope, relevance, and potential impact on their lives. Perhaps because of the added complexity of the task, a study by the University of Wisconsin at Madison found that just one-fifth of the nation's daily newspapers had practiced some form of civic journalism between 1994 and 2001.

In 2002, the Savannah Morning News produced a classic example of environmental civic journalism in anticipation of a Georgia legislative session to set a new statewide water policy. The newspaper vowed to provide its readers "the information you need to get involved," which turned out to be a monumental task. A poll conducted at the beginning of the series found that residents knew little of water issues. So the Morning News dug into the details, reported on pressures on Savannah River water from fast-growing Atlanta, the politics of establishing a regional water authority, feuds over privatization, and Georgia's agreement to cap pumping from the Floridan Aquifer (which was aided by extensive graphics and interactive maps online).

To spur direct involvement, the paper sponsored town-hall meetings at the beginning and end of the series, conducted surveys to monitor the community's attitudes on debates such as whether the state's water resources should be used primarily to attract development or for conservation, and even provided readers with simple water-saving tips. Eventually, forum participants hammered out policy recommendations that were presented to area legislators.

Many newsrooms don't have the budgets or manpower to consistently produce such comprehensive efforts. But articles can be written to educate and engage readers on a daily level, too. Since 1999, for example, Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker has covered the topic of salmon lawsuits in a classic conflict style, emphasizing the differences between environmentalists and irrigation interests.

But Barker also adds sidebars (called "Rocky Boxes") that give in-depth analysis of the origins of the dispute, what environmentalists want and what they claim is illegal, why the irrigators are so angry, and why agriculture interests haven't supported the salmon-restoration plan. The blend of the conflict approach with the more detailed background of the explanatory style provides context that helps readers fully understand the issue.

Frank Allen of IJNR sees a revolution in the newsroom. But in some ways, he is only urging reporters to keep up with the times. After all, environmental impact statements have been a mainstay for citizens to assess, evaluate, and comment on for three decades now. Journalism should be obliged to provide citizens with the tools to participate in such assessments every day. — Stephen R. Miller

Visit the Pew Center for Civic Journalism at and the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources at

BOOKS: Suicidal Tendency

The environmental roots of disease, poverty, and "natural" disaster

Six Modern Plagues and How We Are Causing Them
by Mark Jerome Walters (Island Press, $22)

The deadliest form of salmonella to hit America wasn't brewed in a biological warfare lab, but inadvertently unleashed by a peculiar alliance of fish farms in Southeast Asia, U.S. feedlots, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

This is one of the surprising conclusions of veterinarian and journalist Mark Jerome Walters, who reveals the hidden connections between six modern epidemics and environmental degradation. "So closely are many new epidemics linked to ecological change," says Walters, "that they might rightfully be called 'ecodemics.'"

The dangerous DT104 salmonella, first detected in the United States in the mid-1980s, was found to have the distinct traits of a strain found in Asian fish farms, writes Walters. The bacteria probably made its way here via imported fish meal used for animal feed. But salmonella was already becoming harder to treat, having developed resistance to many antibiotics routinely administered to farm animals in big, pollution-spilling livestock-feeding facilities. As early as the mid-'60s, scientists warned of the dangers of this resistance, but thanks to pressure from the drug and agricultural industries, the FDA failed to restrict the use of drugs on livestock.

Weaving suspenseful narratives of the detective work of researchers and health officials, Walters also explains the role of a damaged environment in spreading mad cow disease, hantavirus, West Nile virus, Lyme disease, and the worst of modern plagues, AIDS, which appears to have emerged from deforestation in Africa. As loggers pushed deeper into forests, they relied heavily on wildlife for food, including gorillas and chimpanzees. The HIV virus then probably jumped from these simians to humans, Walters says, tracing the scientific evidence for this conclusion.

Aside from being both intriguing and sobering, Walters's science tales are a nice slap at those who accuse environmentalists of saving nature at the expense of humanity. In the case of these plagues at least, environmentalists have clearly been on the side of their fellow humans.
Bob Schildgen

One With Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future
by Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich (Island Press, $27)

"Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!" Rudyard Kipling wrote in "Recessional," warning Victorians that the kind of pride that doomed these ancient cities could bring down their own empire. Today, the warning sounds even more somber in Anne and Paul Ehrlich's latest survey of the environmental landscape. Citing global warming, overconsumption, and other environmental conundrums, the Ehrlichs fear the crumbling of a worldwide "state-corporate empire."

Unlike most environmental writers, they grapple with power, its concentration and misuse, and its relationship to culture, consumption, and the reckless potlatch ethic of "he who dies with the most toys wins." The richer nations' combined military and economic might drains wealth from the poorer countries, transferring it to individual hyper-consumers who then express personal power via their "toys." Among the many other forms of power abuse cited are immense subsidies to agribusiness in rich nations.

Hence the absurdity that "the average European Union cow is paid $2.50 a day in government subsidies, while almost half the Earth's population lives on less than $2.00 per day and 1.2 billion people survive on less than $1.00 per day." With such imbalances, how can poor nations hope to afford to solve the very environmental problems that worsen their poverty?

In exploring the dimensions of power, the Ehrlichs avoid oversimplification. The result is an honestly tentative prescription, but one much less robust than the diagnosis. They urge–as have others–curbing the power of multinational corporations and corporate media and greater separation of regulators from the regulated. They call for an international consortium that would draw on authorities from many fields to formulate changes, and they argue for curtailing consumption.

The difficulty of effecting such changes shows what distances us from Kipling: Many Victorians thought that the "God of our fathers" had already provided them with the answers. They only needed to remember them. The Ehrlichs are reasonably certain that, politically and culturally, there are no easy or painless solutions. Still, there is one bit of guidance from "Recessional" that resonates with the ecological dilemma: the value of "An humble and a contrite heart."
Carl Pope

A Season of Fire: Four Months on the Firelines of America's Forests
by Douglas Gantenbein (J. P. Tarcher, $24.95)

Whether you've watched the last few wildfire seasons on TV news or from your front porch, you've no doubt been stunned by the force of the blazes as they explode through the treetops and chaparral of the West. Going behind the spectacle to the science of understanding it, Douglas Gantenbein interviews numerous experts from the U.S. Forest Service, universities, and elsewhere. Also immersing himself in the field, the correspondent for Outside and the Economist recounts his training and experience on the front lines of the 2001 fire season with the men and women engaged in this grueling and dangerous profession.

Gantenbein sheds light on important problems embedded in firefighting culture, including a century of misguided fire suppression, which leads to fuel buildup and therefore intense fires. The fact that firefighting continues to cost the Forest Service alone $1 billion a year also raises questions about the motives behind wildfire policy.

As industrial-scale logging on national forests has decreased, battling fires has evolved into a driving force of the agency. Firefighting has become lucrative for many, from the local folks hawking T-shirts, to the meals on wheels, to the helicopter companies and other "taxpayer-financed toys," Gantenbein says, evoking a circus-like atmosphere. This economic inertia may be an obstacle to reforming fire policy.

Plus old habits die hard. After the massive fires in 2002, President Bush used the guise of "fire prevention" to push his controversial "Healthy Forests Initiative," which embodies the flawed belief that we can beat fires into submission or log enough of the landscape to "prevent" them. Because this useful primer helps us understand such attitudes, A Season of Fire deserves to be read by anyone seeking to grasp the complex history, science, economics, and politics of the infernos.
Annie E. Strickler

New From Sierra Club Books

Your Land and Mine: Evolution of a Conservationist
by Edgar Wayburn, MD, with Allison Alsup.
A giant of the environmental movement shares experiences from his 60 years of leadership in key conservation campaigns of the 20th century. The former Sierra Club president gives lively portraits of major political figures he encountered in helping to establish Redwoods National Park and to secure federal protection for millions of acres in Alaska.

Ecological Medicine: Healing the Earth, Healing Ourselves
edited by Kenny Ausubel with J. P. Harpignies.
This collection of essays from doctors, scientists, and alternative-medicine practitioners discusses the interdependence of human health and the environment.

Order these books from the Sierra Club Store by phone, (415) 977-5600; through our Web site,; or by writing the store at 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3459.

At A Glance

Windstone: Natural Arches, Bridges, and Other Openings
Photographs by David Muench
Essay by Ruth Rudner
Graphic Arts Center Publishing ($50)

A view through Indian Rock framing the forested expanse of Yosemite exemplifies David Muench's 150 images of spectacular natural arches. Most were hewn in stone through geological ages, but others were carved more recently in trees, snow, and glaciers.

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