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.