The Environment, Writ Small

Regional coverage has struggled to connect candidates' general goals to local needs

On Monday, the day before the presidential primaries in Maryland, the Baltimore Sun published what has now become a very typical story-the generalized rundown of the candidates’ positions on science and environmental issues.

That so many newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets have produced essentially this same piece is testament to two things: first, that climate and the environment have achieved a new and widespread importance this campaign season, and second, that despite that importance, candidates and media have not proffered many specifics on environmental issues beyond broad position statements. The Sun’s article is evidence of a third and related trend, however-that local newspapers, in advance of state primaries, have struggled to connect the candidates’ general, nationwide goals to how the global warming issue is playing out in the local campaigns. Take, for example, the lead to Monday’s article:

Insurance companies refuse to underwrite new flood policies along coastal areas of the Eastern Shore. Rising sea levels eat away at islands in the Chesapeake Bay. The federal government blocks the state from enforcing greenhouse gas emissions from new cars and trucks.

These are the challenges that concern environmental advocates in Maryland. That is why many are gratified to see climate change became an important issue in the presidential campaign leading up to Maryland’s the primary vote tomorrow.

Great. At this point, I can’t wait to read all about it… but I don’t get to. What follows is a breakdown of the candidates’ vague statements interspersed with quotes from local and national environmentalists talking about what a big deal environmental issues are for Maryland voters. It is not until the conclusion, that we read this:

None of the candidates have offered details specific to the Chesapeake Bay. [Will] Baker, [president] of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, hoped that would change when the candidates came to the region to campaign.

As far as I can tell, it didn’t. On Monday, the Sun also published a blog post, which reported that Barack Obama had, in fact, trumpeted environmental issues at two campaign speeches, but his comments had nothing to do with Maryland. In fact, those kinds of locally oriented details haven’t made it into much of the regional reporting during the campaign. Like the Sun, most newspapers have instead fallen back on the aforementioned template of reprinting candidates’ talking points and a sprinkling of quotes from environmentalists.

It’s not that these general stories aren’t worth doing, but when making the argument that global warming and the environment are big issues in the campaigns, reporters need to support the assertion with more on-the-ground accounts of when, where, and why those topics have emerged. They could also find local experts who can discuss ways that the national policies that the candidates’ say they support generally could affect local environmental realities. Nothing is wrong with a bit of informed speculation.

Distinctly local stories, such as one a couple months ago about hog farms in Iowa, show more is possible. The article was from the Quad-City Times in Davenport, and the state’s largest paper, the Des Moines Register has done decent job covering the important role of locally produced biofuels to the campaigns. But even the Register has retreated to round-up coverage when discussing the “unprecedented focus” on the environment during the presidential contest. In New Hampshire, there was even less emphasis on local issues. The Hartford Courant published a couple good, but wide-angle, analyses of global warming, and the Nashua Telegraph led one article about a John McCain rally with his liberal stance on climate, but quickly concluded that, “climate change wasn’t the hottest topic at the morning forum by far.”

As might be expected, California papers were tended to be the most successful at capitalizing on a few homespun issues; The San Francisco Chronicle (among others) has keyed in on candidates’ support for an automobile emissions waiver that would allow the state to control its own greenhouse gas emissions, and the San Luis Obispo Tribune carried an interesting report on the specific concerns of coastal residents.

In Michigan, the Detroit News has done an admirable job of pushing candidates on local issues, especially the effects of anti-global warming policies on the automobile industry. The Detroit Free Press published the typical candidate round-up story in January, however, and when it tried to narrow the lens, it ran into the same obstacles as other regional papers. According to an article from early January, “Environmental issues important to the Great Lakes are getting little respect and few commitments from presidential candidates.” The paper had sent questionnaires to the eight leading candidates at the time, asking about things like water use and conservation around the lakes; only Mitt Romney responded. (Interestingly enough, the Indianapolis Star published an Associated Press article yesterday about Obama getting involved in a local pollution dispute, but the piece did not get into how the senator’s actions could affect his campaign or voter attitudes about the dispute).

Still, the Freep deserves credit for trying. A situation analogous to the threatened Great Lakes exists in Florida with the Everglades. Many Floridians have been counting on federal conservation support despite some reports that such measures won’t do any good, but a LexisNexis search failed to turn up any local coverage that even attempted to press the candidates on that controversy. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell (in a chicken-and-egg like way) why state-specific environmental issues have not received greater attention: is the lack of attention greatest among candidates, voters, or the media?

In early February, the The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed one Utah resident, Shelly Marshall, who said it was the candidates’ problem: “To Marshall, the big issues of our time-the economy, health care and energy-all come back to smart environmental policies. She has made a point of following the presidential primaries this year, but she is not hearing enough about environmental issues, such as energy and climate change.” That is “puzzling,” the paper wrote, given global warming and energy issues’ “explosion” into the public consciousness over the last year, but then again, the lack of attention could be a “matter of timing:”

Matthew Burbank, a political scientist at the University of Utah, said Westerners might have expected to draw more attention to the subject as part of a regional primary. But creation of the Super Tuesday primary dashed that hope.

The actual explanation is more likely a mix of variables: the public taking a new, but probably only secondary or tertiary interest in environmental issues; the candidates, as per usual, avoiding getting boxed into specifics; and the press (given the first two obstacles) failing to seek out sources capable of connecting general, national positions to local issues. Since CJR is focused on the press’s role in things, it seems reasonable to expect local media to do all they can to find creative solutions whenever politics or apathy get in the way of important stories.

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