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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Reporting on the Environment

Air Date: Week of

Barely a day goes by without a story on global warming or other environmental issues popping up on the news. But it wasn’t long ago that reporters had to fight to cover environmental stories for their media outlets. As part of our Earth Day coverage, Living on Earth looks at the state of environmental journalism today. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Dan Fagin, director of New York University’s Science, Health and Environment Reporting program and former Newsday reporter, Chip Giller, founder of the online environmental news journal Grist.org, and Judy Muller, professor at the Annenberg School of Communication and former ABC News reporter.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. If the environment has a voice, it’s the writers and journalists who cover it. Henry Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson have been some of most eloquent voices. But mostly it’s been left up to journalists with a deadline to meet and an editor to convince that have brought us these stories. And the editors haven’t always been interested. These days, though with the news media suddenly hot on the story of global warming and its related issues, environmental reporting is once again at the top of the news. So this Earth Day we decided to take a look at the state of environmental journalism, with three leading journalists.

Joining us from New York is Dan Fagin. He directs the Science, Health and Environment reporting program at New York University and was a longtime reporter at Newsday. He’s also a former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Hi there, Dan.

FAGIN: Hi Steve.

CURWOOD: Also with us is Chip Giller. He’s the president and founder of Grist dot org, which is an online journal of environmental news and commentary, and he joins us from Seattle. Hey, Chip.

GILLER: So glad to be here, Steve.

CURWOOD: And in Los Angeles is Judy Muller. She’s a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC and until recently a long-time correspondent at ABC News. Hi there, Judy.

MULLER: Hi, Steve

CURWOOD: So environmental reporting has gone through a lot of periods of boom and bust coverage from the Cuyahoga River fire up through Katrina. Climate change coverage right now is on the front page of almost every newspaper but tell me is the climate change story just one of those blips in the regular news cycle or does it feel like things have fundamentally changed? Let me start with you Dan Fagin.

FAGIN: Well, I would say that it’s a bit of both. Obviously we’re at a particularly high water shed right now for climate news for several reasons including a series of reports put out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and especially the prominence of Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth. But the climate issue is really much more than a blip because it is truly a transformative issue. It touches on so many things. So I think it is with us to stay although perhaps not quite at this level of interest.

CURWOOD: Judy Muller, you spend a lot of time at the television networks. What’s your take on how TV is handling climate change at this point?

MULLER: Well, it’s very hot right now of course for all the reasons Dan just mentioned. The problem is how do you keep the momentum going on such a major story. I mean it is so huge. What could be more important than the life of the planet? But you have a lot of people that are more interested in the life and death of Anna Nicole Smith. So you’ve got to see how can you keep a story that’s important going without sounding like just beating away at the same thing. Yes the polar bears are still threatened. Yes, you know. But I think when you get down to how this affects people in very real ways I think that’s the way to get at the story. And I think it will keep it on the front page.

CURWOOD: Now one of the things about it is it’s such an incremental story. I mean it’s moving; pardon the pun, at a glacial pace isn’t it?

MULLER: It is and network news hates that. Show us a picture. That’s why I mentioned the polar bears. When you show polar bears swimming desperately looking for an ice flow to land on, viewers get that. Editors get that in television. But when you’ve got the drip drip drip of a glacier that’s not quite as compelling. And it takes some very creative reporting to tell the story and that’s why I think the internet is going to be such a huge advantage for telling this story because you have such great interactive graphics and tools you can use.

CURWOOD: Chip Giller of course you put Grist online and everyone who comes there is already looking for an environmental story. How are you seeing the climate change stories?

GILLER: Ah, you know, to build on what the other two guests have already said, I believe the climate change story is one that touches on all facets of life. So it can be a business story. It can be a fashion story. It can relate to a food story. And what we at Grist are really trying to do is connect the environment to all facets of life. And so that’s one advantage I see of the climate change story and I don’t think it’s going to be leaving the front pages any time soon.

Chip Giller of Grist.org (Courtesy of Grist.org)

CURWOOD: So what do you do to come up with something fresh to avoid tiring out your viewers?

GILLER: Well at Grist we use humor. We say we’re gloom and doom with a sense of humor. Kind of a beacon in the smog. So we approach a lot of our information with a sense of irreverence. Um, for example, let me cite the official Grist haiku. It goes something like: a frog in water, doesn’t feel it boil in time. Dude we are that frog.


GILLER: And my point is, and this came to us from readers. We did a whole contest. And online we can be in touch with our audience all the time. We can ask them their impressions of environmental stories. How they’re relating to the different stories going on. So with online media it’s a much more participatory event than uh traditional journalism.

CURWOOD: But now who’s going to pay for the deep deep stories. Pulitzer Prize just recently announced Ken Weiss and his team from the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer, an explanatory Pulitzer for their series on the degradation of the oceans. But you know it costs a lot of money to do that kind of reporting. How can the online community afford that kind of research, Dan?

FAGIN: I think you’re right to be concerned about that Steve. I mean, I’ve seen little indication of true depth reporting online. There are many wonderful things that are happening on line in terms of reaching new audiences and finding interesting new ways to tell stories. I have not seen a lot of agenda-setting truly ambitious reporting online and it’s because the economic model is not there yet. There’s reason to be concerned about that.

CURWOOD: So you’re throwing out a challenge here. Chip, how do you respond?

GILLER: You know, on the contrary what you’re beginning to see right now, you know with the recent news this week that Home Depot is coming out with an eco-options label. You’re seeing Wal-Mart enter the space. The advertisers are going to enter this space. Hearst Media announced a big online environmental project that they’re launching. Washington Post Interactive is starting a whole green presence. So I think advertisers are going to begin to really pay attention to this green space. And where they’re going to pay attention to it is online. So I have hope for the business mode.

CURWOOD: Judy Muller?

MULLER: Yes, and I do too. And remember the LA Times story that just won the Pulitzer was a very big online venture as well. They had graphics, they had video. They teamed together to make it very very exciting. And a lot of the citizen reaction came to that, not the newspaper. And I know at ABC News dot com the editors of the news division take a look at how many hits the stories get and they’ll say we’ve got to do more follow-ups on television. So it’s almost turned around completely so I think that there’s a great opportunity for advertisers and other people to get into this act.

CURWOOD: Let’s turn now specifically to the question of science. Because whether you’re covering the oceans or climate change or pollution there’s a lot of science in the newsroom. And we saw for a long time newspapers, and research demonstrates this, inappropriately gave a lot of weight to scientists who said, “Oh no, no climate change is not a big deal.” When the basic laws of chemistry and physics told somebody that in fact you have to look at what’s happening to the earth’s energy budget. So how do you get smarter science at the editorial level for emerging stories? It’s fine if things are getting hits because the public wants it. But how do you get the science that is going to educate the public?

MULLER: Well, I’ll take a shot at that one. I think there has been a lot of cowardice on the part of editors in newsrooms in terms of, under the name of fair and balance, of taking a subject where clearly all the major scientists in the world were in agreement. This was no longer a debate of if, but when, and making it a debate of it. And putting on voices, giving equal weight to a preponderance of other people. And I think that that was a very big mistake and now everybody is trying to play catch up. And they waited for these major international reports to come out to give them some cajones if you will. I mean truly, I, I think that they were bad on this but I’m hoping that now they will now see that there is a real interest on the part of the public to say, “Well, what can we do and how can we help?”

CURWOOD: Dan Fagin?

FAGIN: I certainly don’t disagree with that. I mean this problem of what we call phony balance is endemic in journalism. This idea that if somebody says X you need to find somebody else to say negative X. And that’s certainly not reality. It’s not the way science works and it’s not the way we should try to figure out answers to these questions. I do think that I’m a little bit more optimistic on this front. I think that we do learn from our mistakes. And that the climate issue has been both illustrative of the problem and very educational in terms of showing reporters and more importantly editors, ah, of where we went wrong and what we can do better in the future.

CURWOOD: Now at Grist I imagine, Chip, that you don’t have trouble selling the climate change story. But rather you have perhaps some folks who think “Well this is an advocacy organization. This isn’t truly journalism.” How can you hit hard on a story like climate change where you have a strong point of view like this and be able to respond to that kind of criticism?

GILLER: For us with our journalism with everything that we do, we try to take a critical eye and our readers are skeptical consumers as well. So we aren’t dogmatic or prescriptive in our approach to news and information. But I think what you’re seeing with Grist is consistent with where the media is heading, um, over all. And that is you know, with the rise of the blogosphere with the shift of talent and resources to the online media space you’re basically seeing media with more of a personality, with more flavor, with more voice to it. And I think for journalism to continue to play an important role that’s just where things are headed.

CURWOOD: In your view, what’s the most under-covered environmental story out there right now?

MULLER: I believe that water is the most under-covered story. It’s covered in other ways, it’s part of climate change, it’s part of this, it’s part of that. But I think the next big conflict in this world may very well be fought over water. Where do we get it? How do we get it? Who gets it? Who goes without and what happens to them? I think it’s a huge story.

CURWOOD: Chip Giller?

GILLER: I think the ties between health concerns and the environment are only beginning to get adequate attention but they’re very significant. So if you look at folks like Pete Myers who are really researching these connections and Theo Colburn. I mean to some extent there are concerns that plastic might be this generation’s lead. It’s really an emerging field of science and um, the conclusions are just coming in. But chemicals, plastics, they really are affecting, um, very basic systems in the human body- reproductive systems, the endocrine system. This is a complex story, like the climate change story, but again you can bring it back to everyday life.

CURWOOD: Dan Fagin in your view what’s the most under-covered environmental news story out there right now?

FAGIN: Well, if you’ll permit me I think I’d call it a tie. I certainly agree with Chip that the environmental health story has, is not getting nearly the amount of attention that it deserves and that’s not just because that’s been my life’s work is writing about environmental health connections. In fact I think we’ve seen some back sliding on environmental health, that it’s getting less attention now than perhaps it did 10, 15, 20 years ago. And perhaps that’s starting to change and that’s for the good. But the other issue that I think is drastically under-covered because people don’t really recognize it is what we put under the broad term biodiversity loss.

And that is whether we recognize it or not every place in the world is starting to resemble every other place. You know we’re turning this polychromatic world into monochrome. Ah, and that relates not only to the diversity of plants and animals. It relates to our landscape. We’re really loosing our sense of place, our sense of uniqueness in this world and that is a profound environmental issue, just as profound as climate change. We’re homogenizing this world and we’re all going to be the poorer because of it.

CURWOOD: Dan Fagin directs the Science, Health and Environment reporting program at New York University and is a former environment reporter at Newsday, and former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Thanks, Dan

FAGIN: Good to be with you Steve.

CURWOOD: Chip Giller runs the online journal of environmental news and commentary Grist dot org. Thanks Chip

GILLER: Thanks so much Steve.

CURWOOD: And former ABC News correspondent Judy Muller is now at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. Thanks Judy.

MULLER: Thank you

[MUSIC: El Ten Eleven “Lorge” from ‘El Ten Eleven’ (Bar/None Records – 2005)]

CURWOOD: You’ll find a link to the Society of Environmental Journalists and other resources on this topic at our web site, loe.org.



Society of Environmental Journalists

New York University Department of Journalism (Daniel Fagin)

Grist (Chip Giller)

USC Annenberg School for Communication (Judy Muller)


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