A primer on Earth Day coverage that doesn’t suck

Photo: AP

When The New York Times took note of the first Earth Day in 1970, it made the Times’ front page in an above-the-fold feature photo and a six-column headline pronouncing that “Millions Join Earth Day Observances Across the Nation.”

Now, 45 years later, Earth Day itself—and the ensuing media coverage—is a more modest affair. Recent reports have veered toward the inspirational (“Earth Day celebrates green cities,” Associated Press, 2014) and celebrity coverage (“Robert Redford link brings kudos to local Earth Day group,” MLive, 2014). But coverage appears to have thinned overall, with pieces that use the day as a peg to focus on environmental politics even more rare. Actual environmental science and health experts are not common presences in Earth Day features.

While journalists may be wary of Earth Day driving their stories, feeling perhaps that it is an arbitrary marketing tool, Earth Day nonetheless has broad public recognition. That is a sufficient cue for media to present the public with more ambitious and interesting Earth Day stories. The moment is especially opportune because the public’s familiarity with Earth Day can draw them into environmental coverage that they might otherwise skip—on, say, climate change. (Oh, and heads up, editors: The AP Stylebook has just made “global warming” and “climate change” interchangeable, though it notes that the latter is “more accurate scientifically.”) Rather than settle for modest event notices on Earth Day activities, reporters would do better by seizing the public-spiritedness of the moment and contribute to deeper environmental understanding.

Consider this, then, a primer on Earth Day coverage that doesn’t suck, drawing lessons from the varied media approaches over the last 45 years. Science and health coverage has slacked in most news outlets over the last few years (radio and podcasts excepted), so any excuse to push it back into the spotlight is welcome—even a relatively new holiday.

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CONSUMER COVERAGE

In 1991, the Washington Post opted for Earth Day coverage that focused on consumer choices:

You’re on the coffee aisle. You need filters. It is April 22, which means it is Earth Day, which means you must be Environmentally Correct. Do you buy Melitta ‘Natural Brown’ filters, the ones that claim no other filter is ‘a more perfect choice for coffee lovers who are also concerned about the environment,’ or do you buy the Melitta company’s other filter, the white one, which is ‘oxygen cleansed; and is thus ‘Environmentally Safer’?

This approach is still favored today—it makes for a convenient listicle—and it has some promise: Environmental degradation is daunting, and people want to know how they can make ethical purchasing choices. There is no doubt that the business practices of major corporations have a substantial impact on environmental quality, and their messaging to consumers, via labels and advertising, can be confusing and misleading. Clear-eyed news reports can help fill the gap.

To bring a bit more heft to this story then, say, “9 Easy Earth Day Tips You Won’t Find Anywhere Else” takes some legwork and ingenuity. A piece that puts consumer choices in context would be revelatory. For example, how effective is buying LED light-bulbs in both transforming the industry and in making a measurable impact on environmental quality? Critical looks at how environmental quality has been framed as something that consumers are singularly responsible for—as opposed to businesses that might make more sustainable choices and politicians who can make stricter policies—would also be welcome. (Consider this AdAge report from 2010 on how “Marketers Blame the Consumers in New Save-the-Planet Pitches.”)

I’d also love to see coverage about opting out of over-consumption: That is, pieces on the growing culture of people who are choosing simplicity and minimalism, re-calibrating what it means to have “enough.” When it comes to the Three R’s, Recycling gets the lion’s share of the media spotlight—why not take a look at Reducing and Reusing?

POLITICAL COVERAGE

On the first anniversary of Earth Day, the Chicago Tribune tracked the city and state political response to leading environmental problems, from Chicago air quality to auto pollution. It was a nice, brass-tacks approach that simultaneously held political leaders accountable to their promises, connected the positive developments to the community organizing of “millions of students and citizens,” and provided a useful breakdown of what it actually means to “help the environment” in a locally significant way. While some of this information might be better presented as part of a compelling narrative or a great infographic, its core is the important reporting sorely needed.

HISTORIC COVERAGE

Every five years, there is an anniversary hook for Earth Day, inviting media to bring a historic perspective to its coverage. This can be a useful way to chronicle the trajectory of environmental challenges: What has improved, what has gotten worse, and what political and activist tactics proved effective? In 1990, the Philadelphia Inquirer seized the 20th anniversary of Earth Day as an opportunity to examine how environmental activism in Philly had transformed—namely, by shifting from a good-guy/bad-guy model to one that is more inclusive, even of polluting companies. The Inquirer named DuPont and the Philadelphia Electric Company as among the companies that had representatives advising the city’s Earth Week festivities. “Ironically,” the reporter wrote, “many of today’s corporate consultants were yesterday’s environmentalists. Nick DeBenedictis, a senior vice president at PE, was on the planning committee for the original Earth Day.”

That same tension came through in a November 1989 story for The New York Times on “The Business of Earth Day,” which was pegged on organizing for the 20th anniversary. It examined what role business should have, if any, in the planned events and promotions.

So, here’s the takeaway: News outlets planning a historic perspective piece for the 45th anniversary of Earth Day should look not just for how the state of the environment has changed, but how the environmentalists have changed. The old “follow the money” rule can be revelatory, as can candid interviews with Earth Day organizers about how and why they choose their organizing partners. What does it mean for Earth Day to be effective in any given community—and how has that definition evolved over time? Those question are at the root of any meaningful historic take on the day.

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Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.