Low-Hanging Fruit

SacBee: Enviro-Journalists are Softies?

Whoa now. It’s not often that I see another media critic writing about environmental journalism. The notion that we need more of them is one possible inference to be drawn from Sam McManis’s column in The Sacramento Bee today:

Global warming, as a news story, is not just warm. It’s absolutely sizzling … but with some notable exceptions, experts are warning that, if the media are not careful, all they will manage to deliver is — pardon the pun — the tip of the iceberg.

McManis rounds up a group of “environmental journalists” to comment on the “mainstream media’s” tendency to focus on “quick, easy ‘solutions’” to man-made climate change.

John Stauber, who directs the non-profit Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog outfit, and who authored the book “Toxic Sludge is Good for You,” tells McManis he doesn’t “see hard stories from the press.” Chip Giller, editor of the online environmental magazine Grist, says, “There’s some boosterism going on right now.” Jack Shafer, Slate’s media critic, says that “Green journalism tends to … exploit our fears and pander to our vanity.” And though he doesn’t quote her directly, McManis has the Weather Channel’s Heidi Cullen saying that “Timidity in reporting about climate change has also been a problem.”

McManis gives credit to such outlets as Grist and Cullen’s program, “Forecast Earth,” of course, as well as to National Public Radio and the “Climate Connections” series it produces with National Geographic. And that’s about it.

Mainstream media, it seems, has dropped the ball entirely, save for its pointless crusade to screw in fluorescent light bulbs and promote similar tip-list items. But while I agree that the public should always assume that the press (and politicians) could be doing a better job, and that there are serious problems in journalism-such as the declining number of science desks-I also feel the need to point out that mainstream media is not completely inept.

I will start with the environmental team and McManis’s own paper, the Bee. The paper has done a wonderful job covering land development and pollution issues in northern California and the Sierra Nevada mountains. True, like all news, the majority of these articles were reported ex post facto, but a few were very proactive. Reporters tackled California’s controversial automobile emissions legislation, the impact of Lake Tahoe wildfires, the redevelopment of McClellan air force base, and a major land preservation deal with Pacific Gas & Electric.

A few other notable works of the mainstream media: The New York Times has an ongoing series called “The Energy Challenge,” which examines alternative and traditional fuels from a variety of angles and does an exceptional job of untangling tough technical questions. The Los Angeles Times’ Ken Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling won a few awards this year for their excellent five-part series, “Altered Oceans.” And at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Thomas Content and Lee Bergquist are in the middle of an ongoing series that examines how climate change is specifically affecting Wisconsin.

I could go on and on. And I’m sure McManis could, too. I doubt that he meant to imply that mainstream environmental reporters are completely useless. The problem, I believe, is that while many of the country’s major metropolitan newspapers put out a lot of good material in total, few people read these publications collectively, as media critics do. So if you are living in a place like Dallas, Texas, where the Morning News eliminated its science desk two years ago, most environmental news is not going to find its way to your doorstep.

Given this enormous glitch in the system (the decline of news budgets), readers are left to wander the Internet where, admittedly, outfits like Grist and NPR have provided amazing environmental reporting. There is some evidence that the rest of the national media are catching on. A few papers, like the The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor, already have Web pages dedicated to climate change issues. We can only hope for more.

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