July 17 — The New Pioneers of the West: Some of the spirit of the Seattle P-I was reincarnated over the summer when a group of its former staffers launched Investigate West, an online startup focused on environmental issues in the American West. The group was able to attract its first major grant later in the year and sent a group of journalists to cover the climate summit in Copenhagen (where one of photographers was arrested amid protests).
August 24 — Forbes on ExxonMobil: “Green Company of the Year”: Meanwhile, older, but unfortunately not wiser, publications were busy flubbing the energy story, which was one of the biggest political and business, let alone environmental, stories of the year. The quintessential example was Forbes’s fawning headline atop what could have otherwise been a very informative cover story about the theory of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” between its dirtier fossil cousins and clean energy sources like wind and solar.
August 26 — Media Hype Swine Flu Report: Likewise, the press got a little carried away with its coverage of a White House planning report about the possible impact of swine flu during the fall. The report said 30,000 to 90,000 could possibly die from the illness (36,000 is average for a regular seasonal flu), but made no specific predictions about where along that range actual numbers might fall. Nonetheless, the dominant media storyline was that the government had predicted up to 90,000 deaths, surely stoking the fears of an already worried public.
Sept 17 — Is Futurity the Future?: Citing the decline of science coverage in the mainstream news media, thirty-five of the country’s top universities have banded together to launch their own “news channel” for publicizing their best research. The consortium created a Web site, Futurity.org, to showcase edited press releases and stories written by member schools. The editor stressed to CJR, however, the project was not designed to replace impartial, critical reporting.
September/October issue — The New Energy Beat: For all of its shortcomings, the mainstream deserves credit for “re-discovering” the energy beat in 2009. The Obama administration pushed hard to reframe a shift from fossil fuels to clean energy as an economic and national security issue, in addition to an environmental one. The press followed suit, churning out more articles on energy than it had in well over a decade, but much of the coverage was disjointed, failing to connect local issues to national goals. CJR magazine’s analysis included an online sidebar with a comprehensive list of energy information resources for journalists.
October 12 — SEJ Accused of Protecting Gore: The controversy around climate change and energy began to reach a fever pitch around the fall, with Congress mulling over cap-and-trade legislation and the international climate summit in Copenhagen rapidly approaching. An independent filmmaker accused the Society of Environmental Journalists of “protecting” Al Gore at the group’s annual meeting after the filmmaker’s mic was cut while challenging the former vice president to acknowledge alleged errors in the 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. While Gore ducked the filmmaker’s questions, the challenges the latter presented were nothing new and the spectacle seemed little more than a publicity stunt.
October 19 — Columbia Suspends Environmental Journalism Program: The world of environmental journalism suffered a much more significant blow a week later, when Columbia Unversity’s Graduate School of Journalism decided to suspend its highly regarded dual-degree program in Earth & Environmental Science Journalism. The program’s directors cited falling employment in the field, the rising costs of education, and a lack of financial aid for students—but many other journalists, academics, and former students disagreed with the ultimate decision. On the bright side, the University of Montana’s journalism school replaced its thirteen-year-old graduate program with a new one focused entirely on the environment and natural resources.
December 3 — Hacked E-Mails and “Journalistic Tribalism”: The press was actually rather slow to jump on what eventually grew into the biggest science related scandal of the year—the release of 4,000 e-mails and documents hacked from a British climate research center. Authored by a group of prominent American and British climate scientists, they contained discussions about how and when to present and release climate data and how to combat climate skeptics, among other matters. In the end, the documents did little to upset the scientific consensus about climate, but they did serve as a reminder to journalists to avoid biased, “tribalistic” reporting and to do a better job distinguishing between politics and science in their stories. CJR also ran useful primer on the legality of published hacked e-mails.