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Troubling Trends for Environmental Journalism

There’s a popular saying in the news that two events are a coincidence, but three make a trend. Over the past few days, there have been two major developments in the national media that will likely have a big impact on coverage of environmental issues. It’s clear that a troubling trend is already underway.

First, the New York Times announced on Friday that it will discontinue its environmental “Green Blog.” (See good pieces by Columbia Journalism Review and the TimesDot Earth blog.) This was a pretty shocking development, given that most media outlets are expanding their blogging platforms and online integration. In a sign of the times, the Times editors later posted a list of Twitter handles for some of its top environmental reporters. This news came on the heels of the newspaper’s earlier announcement that it was disbanding its environment desk and reassigning its environmental reporters.

Then, yesterday, the Washington Post announced that it is creating a new “online strike force” to expand its political coverage. One consequence is that the newspaper’s leading environmental reporter, Juliet Eilperin, will be moving to the White House beat. This, too, will be a loss for serious environmental news coverage. While it’s perhaps unfair to compare Eilperin’s work to that of the Times’ entire environment desk, it’s hard to argue that there’s a more influential national reporter on environmental issues.

What Are the Implications of Decreased Environmental Coverage?

First, it’s clear that the NYT’s and WaPo’s moves will be a blow to independent and professional environmental news coverage. While the mainstream media may be losing its grip as far as driving national conversations, it’s still extremely important to have independent, trained journalists who can dig into stories and provide timely information and objective assessments of events. Multiple recent environmental issues demanded objectivity to sort out fact from fiction. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the environmental impacts of fracking, or the climate connections to Hurricane Sandy are three that jump to mind.

Of course, climate change – which is a particularly vexing issue to cover due to its complexity and long-time horizon – stands out when it comes to the need for better and more comprehensive media attention. And the signs aren’t good in this area either. According to the media watchdog, Media Matters for America, the major network news channels devoted under one hour total to climate change in their evening news in 2012. This figure was up slightly from the previous year (driven mostly by the spate of extreme weather events), but was down from 2009, when coverage was more than two hours. Clearly citizens need more coverage to truly understand this complex and urgent issue.

A Changing Media Landscape

If there is good news—and I’m not sure there is much here—it’s that the digital era provides multiple opportunities to engage in a discussion around these issues. The world of bloggers, citizen journalists, and, yes, Twitter, continue to fuel a lively conversation around the environment and sustainability. Sites like Grist, ThinkProgress, and Dot Earth provide great forums for high-quality analysis and timely information. There are also emerging initiatives that show great promise: The new Climate Desk brings together reporters from multiple outlets to advance the conversation around climate change. ProPublica is doing a lot of in-depth investigative work on a variety of issues—including the environment—through a non-profit business model that’s likely to become more common. Increasingly, there are opportunities for experts and organizations like WRI to deliver content directly, including on sites like The Guardian, GreenBiz, Huffington Post, and Forbes. (WRI is a regular contributor to all four.)

Another glimmer of hope is that some mainstream outlets are embracing these issues. For instance, Bloomberg News launched a new sustainability blog, The Grid, last year. Even USA Today announced that it will run a series on climate change this year.

While a greater diversity of communications is important, big media outlets are still the drivers of content around which other forms of media orbit. They are entrusted with explaining complex issues, providing accurate information, shedding light on malfeasance, and peeling back the curtain on the levers of power. These journalists and their editors serve an important watchdog service that must not be diminished.

Media, after all, must do more than just entertain. Here’s what the legendary newsman, Edward R. Murrow, said in 1958 referring to the television:

“… This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

Certainly the way we get and transmit information is changing quickly, and we cannot ignore financial realities. But, I remain hopeful that there are others who believe in the role that the traditional media plays in shedding light on environmental issues. If you are one of them, then it’s time to make your voice heard.

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