Environmental Journalism: This Is What It Looks Like

I’ve written about environmental journalism before – that there are fewer reporters covering it, even as there are more and more issues to cover. I wrote a post about this the end of January, “Needed: More Environmental Journalism (it’s 3 posts down the page).

When I saw this article about “Walker’s Plan to Freeze Land Purchases . . .,” in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this past week I knew I would share the link and comment on it. I think it’s a very good example of environmental journalism at work, explaining, and providing some context, for complex news. There are a number of controversial changes that are being considered for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, proposed in Governor Scott Walker’s newest 2-year budget plan. Over the next few months – these budget proposals will be debated, perhaps amended, and eventually in some form, they’ll be approved.

Governor Walker’s Proposals for Natural Resource Management in Wisconsin

Among these changes is one that removes a powerful oversight role from a citizens natural resources board. This is a board that derives from the Conservation Commission created in 1928, to ensure citizen decision-making authority over natural resource management; this was an entity that Aldo Leopold helped to craft. The budget also calls for sharp cuts in the DNR’s research staff, and it would eliminate state money for the state park system. While the article linked to above mentions all of these things, it’s focus is on the governor’s proposed 13-year freeze of land purchases for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund.

Good, clean, Wisconsin shoreline.

Good, clean, Wisconsin shoreline.

This bi-partisan fund, named for two former governors, one from each major political party, has been very successful statewide in protecting important parcels of land through purchases and conservation easements. You can learn a lot about it, the reasons for the lengthy, proposed freeze, and the push back from many statewide groups in this article by reporter Lee Bergquist.

The Top Environmental Stories from Last Year

I would like to recommend one more link to good examples of environmental journalism. Near the end of 2014, EcoWatch, an online news source for such journalism, published this list of the 10 Most important Environmental Stories of the past year. At the top of the list are Obama’s EPA move to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and also the agreement between US. and China to cut emissions.

Other top stories highlighted include the drought in California, and a new report from the World Wildlife Fund on a 40-year study which documents a significant decline in wildlife. There are other interesting environmental stories, as well; I hope you’ll have a look at it. Knowing these things can help us all advocate for better decision-making in government, globally as well as locally.

Needed: More Environmental Journalism !

If you enjoy all the wonderful programming on public radio, as many people do, and depend on it, too, as a source of news, you may have noticed this: less and less coverage of environmental and conservation news. Or, you may have noticed nothing of the sort. The “news,” after all, is one of those commodities of daily life that we really “need”, but we take it for granted, too.

It can be hard to articulate just what kind of news we do “need,” and it’s even harder to quantify what news stories we’re listening to and which are most important. If all the news programming from National Public Radio just ceased one day, we’d notice that for sure! But as long the news keeps flowing from our radios on a regular schedule, we’re not likely to be all that aware of shifts in time and resources devoted to particular topics. Unless it’s our job to notice.

From the Gulf of Mexico . . .

From the Gulf of Mexico . . .

So when NPR cut it’s staff on the environmental beat from 4 to just 1 part-time position last October, it was other journalists who reported and analyzed it, and advocates for conservation and environmental issues who really felt the loss.

Katherine Bagley, a reporter at InsideClimate News where the story of the NPR staff cuts was originally broken, cited a measurable decline, throughout 2014, in the amount of NPR’s environmental coverage. An InsideClimate News study of NPR stories tagged “environment” found more than 60 such stories per month early in the year, that dropped to only 40 or so per month as the year progressed. For it’s part, NPR, is saying that specific environmental reporters aren’t needed, “because so many other staffers cover the subject, along with their other beats.” It’s not an answer that has calmed the critics, though.

 . . . to Great Lakes wetlands . . .

. . . to wetlands in Wisconsin . . .

Thinking of advocates for the environment and conservation issues, I wondered how, locally, this might impact the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, and got in touch with Anne Sayers, the group’s Program Director, to ask if she had an opinion about this. “Yes, she told me in an email, “I was devastated by the news. It’s a huge loss of a valued resource.”

Anne likened NPR’s need to make staff cuts, to Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. It is, she said “so underfunded that it is now citizens who are finding and reporting environmental violations. We’ve learned that just because the state isn’t looking for violations, doesn’t mean that they aren’t happening.” She sees NPR’s staff cuts as a parallel situation. “Just because NPR can’t pay environmental reporters doesn’t mean there isn’t serious environmental news to report.”

NPR is not the first news company to cut its environmental coverage. Far from it. I’ve been aware of this journalistic development, for nearly five years, watching it with a mixture of interest (because its part of the process of journalism moving to the web) and anxiety (about the shrinking coverage of important subjects).

 . . . to wildlife issues . . .

. . . to wildlife issues . . .

While the story of diminishing coverage is a matter of choices that editors are making about what issues to cover, it’s also a bit more complicated. It is tied to the unique problems shared by all media as the digital world has upended the way everything was done before the technological shift.

Before the shift the news media was mostly dominated – and led by – large, robustly staffed newsrooms for print media. As all news companies have scrambled to establish an online product – all need one, whether print or broadcast doesn’t matter – shrinking advertising revenue has meant drastic cuts in newsroom staffs. Finding the perfect business model that can support large reporting staffs for online news companies is proving elusive, and news staffs remain “lean and mean” for now.

Former New York Times science reporter – now blogger – Andrew Revkin (whose well-respected Dot Earth blog endeavors to cover the “efforts to balance human affairs with the planet’s limits,”) wrote about this when the Times made similar staff changes two years ago. In a post, “The Changing Newsroom Environment,” Revkin explained some of the “background financial pressures, building around the industry,” and why he believed – contrary to many others – that the Times was still committed to “sustained, effective environmental coverage.”

 . . . to the Great Lakes - just a few examples of sources of environmental news stories waiting to be told.

. . . to the Great Lakes – just a few examples of sources of environmental news stories waiting to be told. (All photos by Kathlin F. Sickel)

As early as 2008, Joel Makower, the chairman and executive editor of the always insightful GreenBiz website, wrote about cuts he said were “devastating for environmental journalism.” In “Are Environmental Journalists an Endangered Species?” he detailed multiple examples, and asked the question: “Who will bring the deep knowledge and big-picture perspective necessary to create informed stories, not just sound-bite ‘content’?”

For an answer to that now, in 2015, I’ll turn once more to Anne Sayers, who says we’ll have to fill the gaps for ourselves. Just as citizens in Wisconsin are stepping up to report environmental law violations, she believes the loss of trusted news sources means that, “more than ever – citizens have to educate themselves and rededicate themselves to being a voice for endangered natural resources.”