Alternating Currents

Why reporters struggle to find the right angle for clean energy stories

Is today’s media up to the task of covering renewable energy issues? That was the broad topic explored during two panel discussions held in February at the Harvard Kennedy School’s “Clean Energy and the Media” series. And despite the solid work the four journalists who spoke are producing, it feels like the answer is leaning toward no. Budget cuts, ever-shrinking story lengths, and a fundamental disconnect between what makes a good story and what makes a well-informed public are the three main obstacles.

Speaking at a session on wind energy and the media (audio available), Beth Daley, The Boston Globe’s environment reporter, recounted the paper’s coverage of the Cape Wind offshore energy farm—a great tale by any measure, with dueling celebrities, desperate politicians (Mitt Romney tried to redraw the Massachusetts coastline to put the proposed turbines in state-controlled waters), and costumed protesters. “The human story is what we reported on,” Daley said. “It masked some really important issues that we probably missed early on.”

Those issues included a close look at the true costs of wind power compared to fossil fuels, and advances in other renewable technologies that might have helped put the Nantucket project in context. These ideas surfaced in later reporting, several years into the ongoing story, Daley said, but should have come up sooner. But, as she pointed out, when you’re hunting for a character and a narrative to get your story into the paper, “it gets difficult to write about feed-in tariffs and the real policy stuff that’s going to change the landscape.”

Daley’s co-panelist, Elisabeth Rosenthal, a senior correspondent who covers international environment stories for The New York Times, agreed. “We all look for humans to make these stories come alive, but these are not inherently character-filled stories,” she said. Parents whose children can’t sleep due to noise from nearby turbines might make for an emotionally compelling tale—but it hardly advances public understanding of the issues.

It’s a form of what Bryan Walsh, senior writer and environment columnist for Time, calls “pitch-room bias.” At a panel on media coverage of electric cars (audio available), Walsh said it happens frequently with clean-tech reporting. “When you’re a writer trying to do a story, you’re facing a skeptical editor. You may hype it.” That’s exactly what he did with electric cars, he told the (disproportionately male) audience. In a 2008 piece about the Chevy Volt, Walsh said, he wrote about the fight to save a great American company. It was a savior story, “the electric car as redeemer—of the car, the company, the country, the planet.”

Walsh labels that Stage One of “the three stages of writing about electric cars”—and about clean technology more generally. It’s the hype stage: This technology is going to save America, solve all of our problems, possibly eliminate terrorism in the process. The entrepreneur is the “visionary hero,” and the technology is usually oversold. Wired magazine, “the house bible for Silicon Valley,” as Walsh called it, epitomizes this type of story; certainly, though, it’s not alone.

Stage Two overcorrects: The technology is a fraud, it’s a colossal waste of money, and even if it did work the Chinese would beat us to it. With electric cars, this is where reporters covered the driver who ran out of battery power and had to call a tow truck, the lack of infrastructure for charging the cars, the insurmountable uphill battle for market share.

And finally, in Stage Three, reality begins to emerge. “The technology isn’t going to change the way we drive overnight,” said Walsh, “and it isn’t going to save the planet, but there is a place for it.”

With electric cars arriving on roads later this year, reporters are happily moving into Stage Three—in which Alan Boyle, science editor of, recently took the Volt out for an 800-mile road trip from Seattle to San Francisco and reported on what it was like to drive the car, including trying to charge it at a highway motel. He also road-tested the Nissan Leaf for several days, trying to “duplicate what the usage pattern would be for a commuter” and reporting honestly about the experience.

At the Kennedy School panel, Boyle said the cars’ “real-world application” was the stories’ selling point. “It’s something consumers can really identify with,” he said. “Where are you going to plug it in at night? What happens if it’s not as charged as you thought and you have to make a big trip? What happens when the rubber meets the road, literally?”

Good journalism on renewable energy, though, can’t always wait until the technologies are ready for market. Policy debates play out much earlier. As Venky Narayanamurti, director of the science, technology and public policy program at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, put it, “There’s a fine line between being enthusiastic so you don’t kill it, and going to the extreme.” How to cover emerging technologies—including selling editors on stories in the first place—without getting caught in Walsh’s “three stages” trap, remains an open question, particularly in the era of shrinking budgets.

At the wind energy panel, Daley cited a number of story angles that she felt would make her reporting more effective. But it’s less clear how she can put her ideas into practice under current conditions. “The Globe used to have three science writers and one clean tech reporter,” she said; today she’s the only reporter covering the environment. “I do the big stories and the local stories. The result is you miss stories and miss going deeper into stories that deserve to be told, that need to be told. You try to balance it out, to go deeper into some stories. But it does affect how the public views these things.”

Rosenthal is also worried about an impact of shrinking budgets: story length. “Five years ago a typical story I did might’ve been 2,200 words,” she said. “Now it’s 1,200 with links.” That’s often not enough space to convey the complexity of a topic like renewable energy. Yet Times stories are longer than those in most of the country’s newspapers; elsewhere, story lengths started out shorter and have shrunk even more calamitously. Too-brief articles can oversimplify to the point of misinforming readers.

As Daley put it, nuance is key. We’re not facing a choice between wind power or “death and mayhem,” she said. “It’s not, ‘if you’re against wind in Nantucket Sound you want the world to go to hell in a hand-basket.’”

Rosenthal agreed. When it comes to energy, there’s no catch-all solution, and coverage needs to reflect that. “We have to decide as a society what we want and will tolerate,” she said. Those decisions require a type of journalism that the mainstream media needs to figure out how to deliver. Preferably soon.

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Hillary Rosner is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance journalist whose stories about the environment have appeared in the New York Times, Popular Science, Mother Jones, OnEarth, and many other publications. She won a 2010 AAAS Kavli award for a story about endangered species conservation that was published in High Country News. Her new blog Tooth and Claw is on the PLoS science blog network. Tags: , , ,