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 MSNBC.com, 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?”