Is environmental journalism endangered?

by Caitlyn Zachry, Scripps-Howard

As news organizations across the country suffer layoffs and pay cuts, and their corporate stock prices sink, industry insiders fear that environmental journalism is becoming an endangered species.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a panel on the future of science and environmental journalism last week, featuring four speakers: Mother Nature Network columnist Peter Dykstra, Associated Press reporter Seth Borenstein, J-Lab Director Jan Schaffer and National Public Radio correspondent Elizabeth Shogren.

About a year ago, Borenstein told a reporter at the Columbia Journalism Review that, despite a Harvard report stating otherwise, he did not think environmental journalism was in trouble. The story never ran, and Borenstein is glad - about three months ago, he talked to the reporter and rescinded his statements. In one week, three of his science and environmental reporting friends were laid off.

For many of his colleagues, the situation is just as real: the Los Angeles Times' Washington Bureau, where Shogren began her environmental work, lost reporters and was merged into parent Tribune Co.'s Washington bureau. Dykstra was laid off in December, after 17 years with CNN. He is a consultant at the Wilson Center.

"It's just a little sign of what's happening across the industry," Shogren said.

Environmental journalism waxes and wanes in popularity every few years based on factors like oil spills, legislation and natural disasters, Dykstra said. Although environmental reporting had a brief resurgence with Hurricane Katrina and Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," it lost the public's attention as the economy worsened. This is partially because science reporting often involves polarizing issues. Audiences can be driven away because they don't care or because they disagree with the reporting, Dykstra said, citing global warming and evolution as examples.

"What we're dealing with in this beat is this manic depressive mode of public attention," he said. "But these issues aren't going away."

Although the panelists had no firm numbers, they said many mainstream media outlets have removed their environmental staffs. That makes them worry that public knowledge of scientific subjects will suffer. While some niche news sources, such as ClimateWire continue to grow, they do not have the wide appeal that mainstream media offer.

"A Web site on any one subject tends to draw those who want to be engaged," Dykstra said. "This may leave us primarily educating those who are already relatively educated."

However, he emphasized the need for both niche publications and mainstream media.

Shogren also played up the value of small, specialized sources. She stressed that she and other environmental journalists are included in ClimateWire's 40,000-person readership, meaning the information often reaches a larger audience through them.

Much of the public knowledge needed to cause political action comes from the media, panelists said. As such, it's important for journalists to bring stories into everyday life and find new ways to tell them.

"You do what you can. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink," Borenstein said. "I don't know what more we could do. We are out there on the front lines, and we are reporting this."

What Schaffer called the "culture of contribution," in which average readers want to contribute to news stories or comment on them, has left some more optimistic about the state of news, if not the state of news organizations.

Schaffer's J-Lab helps educate journalists on new technologies and involves the public in the media. Ordinary people are constantly committing acts of journalism, Schaffer said. People want to engage, but journalists need to find entry points for them.

"News vacuums will be filled," she said "They just might not all be filled by ‘big J' Journalists."

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey