Environmental Journalism? Environmentalism?

An identity crisis at the SEJ conference

I suppose that when I walked into the opening reception of the Society of Environmental Journalists annual meeting last Wednesday, I expected the revelry I found. It had been a big year for them (us, I guess). Thanks, largely, to the climate change story, there has been a surge in public interest in articles about the environment, energy and pollution.

I like to believe that journalists, not Al Gore, deserve most of the credit for that. And they deserve a special nod since they still have to deal with the challenges of fewer jobs, limited print space or airtime, editorial disinterest, and a public that, despite its recently piqued interest in climate change, remains mostly apathetic. So throughout the panels, lectures, field trips and dinners at last week’s SEJ conference, journalists seemed optimistic that the appetite for environmental news will continue to grow.

But I mention the pseudo-rivalry between journalists and Gore because it has something to bear on one new dilemma that caught my attention at the SEJ event. Unlike the familiar shrinking-news-hole-type challenges, it is, in fact, a problem engendered by growth. As environmental news spreads to new venues - including Oscar-winning documentaries - editors and reporters have become very attentive to the line between writing about the environment and writing on behalf of the environment.

Two events at the SEJ conference encapsulated this problem. The first occurred during the membership meeting, where society business is parsed and decided. There is a proposal to change the name, while guarding the acronym, from the Society of Environmental Journalists to the Society for Environmental Journalism. Nothing is official, but the topic stirred up a lot of interest in an otherwise run-of-the-mill meeting. The proposal reflects the recent diaspora of ‘environment’ reporters in the newsroom and stems from a desire to represent all the related beats - whether it is ‘general assignment,’ ‘natural resources,’ ‘development,’ or any other such moniker.

When I mentioned this episode to a former professor of mine who runs Columbia University’s earth and environmental science journalism program, she said the form of the society’s name probably doesn’t matter. I agree. As Amy Gahran, who ran a live blog of the conference, put it, journalism is practice, not priesthood, because actions, not titles, define journalists. But the episode at the membership meeting does matter in the larger sense that such a debate is taking place. Because “traditional” journalists now have to compete, in a sense, with Hollywood movie stars - not to mention an increasing number of Web-based “citizen” journalists and bloggers - they have grown more aware of identity questions.

The second conference event that illustrated this point occurred after the a screening of Leonardo DiCaprio’s new film, The 11th Hour. The movie chronicles humankind’s enormous degradation of the environment, and argues for a revolution in the way we think about our relationship with the planet. Basically, it’s a blitzkrieg of terrifying and beautiful images interspersed with narrative from DiCaprio, and interviews with an impressively wide variety of experts on climate and the environment. It does not measure up to An Inconvenient Truth. The images are too chaotic and often unconnected to the dialogue, which itself is riddled with murky facts. What are you going to do — it’s a message film, not a work of journalism.

But therein lies the rub, because The 11th Hour is actually very similar to a work of journalism, at times postures as one, and could be easily taken as such by general audiences. And for those reasons, I think, many of the journalists at the conference seemed to have visceral and defensive reactions to the film, which a few journalists expressed to one of the co-producers during a post-screening Q&A. I understand that reaction because I was among those that shared it. The frustration, I believe, came from viewing a project that had the length, financing and distribution that most journalists only dream of, but was not subject to the same editorial rigors that they work hard to pass.

It is unlikely that most audiences will take a lot of time to differentiate between DiCaprio’s film and what they read or watch in the news. So it creates a sort of identity crisis for journalists where they are either lumped together with or overshadowed by filmmakers. Of course there is also the hypocrisy of consumption- and glamour-oriented Hollywood delivering environmental pointers and warnings. But what really irks journalists is blurring the line between news and advocacy.

In the end, it is probably chasing a false scent when editors and reporters make too much of a name, or push Hollywood producers to live up to their standards. Nonetheless, it is a good sign that debate is happening. Moreover, what I really hope for is that the public will begin to take an interest in the identity question. Because when it comes to processing information from a variety of sources, the burden ultimately falls on individual consumers to differentiate between the myriad degrees of environmental journalism and just plain environmentalism.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.