This is reflected in the media coverage as well. An analysis of The New York Times and The Washington Post bears out the strong emphasis on energy, particularly political stories related to the administration’s agenda and economic stories related to costs and various energy sources. A Lexis-Nexis database search found that from October 1, 2008, to March 31, 2009, the combined stories in both papers that mentioned “energy” in their headlines or lead paragraphs were about three-and-a-half times more frequent than those mentioning “climate change” or “global warming,” and three times more frequent than those mentioning “environment.”

For the press, the reemergence of energy as a public priority offers many opportunities. It is an umbrella for stories about the economy, national security, and climate. For the public, as well as for cautious editors, energy is a more tangible story than any one of those categories alone. Not every town has a Goldman Sachs, a research university, or a major energy company, but they all have local suppliers and consumers of electricity, natural gas, and liquid fuels. About half of American energy consumption is for transportation and residential use. And nothing grabs the public more than pocketbook energy stories.

But the energy beat presents significant challenges, too. For instance, those pocketbook stories need to push beyond price fluctuations to help consumers understand the complex nature of energy. “I see these gas-price stories that just drive me up the wall,” says San Francisco Chronicle energy reporter David Baker. “Reporters will get the latest update from AAA and they’ll just go out to the gas station and fill up a story with nothing but pissed-off-motorist quotes. We need to tell people why they’re paying what they’re paying.”

Doing that requires expertise in subjects as diverse as investment banking, lobbying and legislation, and materials science. The only way to cover energy comprehensively is to collaborate, both across beats within the newsroom and with specialty news outlets that can broaden and deepen a newsroom’s expertise and resources—especially at a time when those resources are under pressure as never before.

To assess the press’s recent efforts to master the energy beat, we use three snapshots that provide instructive examples of the challenges this crucial story brings: California, because it has led the nation in renewable energy policy; coal, because it is the nation’s most abundant, but dirtiest source of electricity; and wind, because it is the nation’s fastest growing source of clean energy, but is struggling to achieve large-scale distribution.

California Dreaming

Like climate change, energy is a highly partisan issue. Many Democrats embrace a panoply of renewable energy sources while Republicans tend to favor developing coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energy. But geographic bias affects coverage as well. Californians are more likely to encounter stories about solar power than about coal, and vice versa for Virginians. The trouble with such fragmented coverage is that as policymakers and the energy industry push forward with the development of clean-energy strategies, it will be incumbent upon journalists to connect what is happening in their part of the country to much broader national and international goals. Such goals include revitalizing domestic manufacturing and the nation’s export economy, providing relief from foreign oil imports, and weaning us off fossil fuels to a degree that is environmentally meaningful. So the press must reconcile coordinated, nationwide targets for change with not-in-my-backyard fights related to wind farms and transmission lines in one place; dependence upon mining and drilling jobs tied to coal, oil, and gas in another; and a lack of public transportation in most of the country.

No state has done more to give the clean-energy story “pop” than California. Its long battle to win a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency that would allow it to raise its fuel efficiency standards above federal levels, as well as its landmark 2006 law to limit carbon-dioxide emissions, pushed the federal government to take such regulatory and legislative initiatives seriously. Silicon Valley’s investment in clean energy start-ups and the birth of activist Van Jones’s green-jobs campaign in the San Francisco Bay Area also helped to make the Golden State a gold mine for energy reporters. “There aren’t any energy stories here without national implications,” says Margot Roosevelt, the Los Angeles Times’s environment reporter. Indeed, California is a ubiquitous theme in coverage from coast to coast, but too much of that national coverage exhibits a certain cognitive dissonance, explaining the ambitious goals of the various energy initiatives without including an all-important status report. As a result, the reality check is left mostly to California news outlets.

Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell are CJR contributors. Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, our online critique of science and environment reporting. Russell, a CJR contributing editor, is the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.