The Obama administration’s push to develop alternative energy sources echoes some of the Carter era promise (and lost opportunities), and the political, business, and environmental landscapes are once again awash with optimism about the future of clean energy. While the global financial crisis has dampened that enthusiasm, this time there is the added urgency of making up for lost time. The president and the Democrat-controlled Congress are making the issue “pop” by pouring money, via the economic stimulus plan, into the creation of “green jobs” and backing the American Clean Energy and Security Act, passed by the House in June. The bill cloaks a controversial cap-and-trade scheme to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions under the mantle of energy security.

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

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.