Best of 2009: The Observatory

Brainard picks The Observatory's top stories from 2009

Jan. 13 — Environmental S.W.A.T. Team: 2009 began on a seemingly positive note, with The New York Times pulling a group of talented reporters from its science, business, metro, national, and foreign desks into a specialized “pod” focused on coverage of the environment. Over the course of the year, the team would report a diverse array of notable stories from around the United States and abroad.

Feb. 13 — Science Journalism’s Hope and Despair: The field continued its disruptive metamorphosis, however. At the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C., a panel of prominent science journalists lamented the decline of science journalism in newspapers and on television. While they spoke optimistically about online and other digital platforms, there was general agreement that “new” media are not yet compensating for the loss of traditional reporting.

Feb. 19 — The George Will Affair: Proof of the “mainstream” media’s poor handling of science seemed abundant. Washington Post columnist George Will drew widespread criticism for a series of columns that badly misrepresented scientific opinion and data about climate change. In an exclusive interview with CJR, the Post’s opinion page editor, Fred Hiatt, defended Will and rejected many bloggers’ demands that he run multiple corrections for Will’s work.

March 4 — Globe Kills Health/Science Section, Keeps Staff: The Boston Globe’s decision to kill its twenty-five-year-old weekly science and health section led to even greater dismay. Although the paper retained the section’s staff, current and former employees spoke to CJR of their dour outlook for the field.

March 25 — Post-Intelligent: Soon after, the northwest lost an excellent team of investigative science, health, and environment reporters when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer canceled its print edition and moved online, laying off almost its entire staff in the process.

April 29 — Swine Flu and CAFOs?: The battle was clearly on between Web sites and traditional news outlets. When the swine flu outbreak led to a frantic search for its cause, a number of bloggers chastised the press for not thoroughly investigating the connection with large, industrial hog farms. CJR commended the bloggers for being first to asking probing questions, but warned against jumping to unsupported conclusions. To date, the origin of the outbreak remains uncertain.

June 16 — Gene Randall “Reporting,” Inc.: Convoluted swine flu coverage wasn’t the only consequence of a diminished science press corps, however. One of the defining aspects of 2009 was the emergence of new voices attempting to bypass traditional journalistic forms. When former CNN correspondent turned PR-consultant Gene Randall produced a one-sided video “report” for Chevron about the corporation’s role in a $27-billion pollution case in Ecuador, he not only blurred the lines between journalism and corporate advocacy, he raised the question of whether a surge of newly pink-slipped reporters might go, as one media critic put it, “over to the dark side.”

July 1 — NSF “Underwriting” Coverage: The government also stepped in to fill the information vacuum left by journalism. A presentation about the National Science Foundation—a federal agency that funds a substantial portion of basic research in the United States—“underwriting” a variety of media projects caused widespread consternation at the sixth World Conference of Science Journalists in London. The most controversial projects involved placing NSF-authored articles about NSF-funded research in publications such as U.S. News & World Report and

July 10 — Grace-ful Coverage: Meanwhile, the consequences of losing publications like the Seattle P-I was all the more evident. In March, an asbestos-pollution trial in Montana that a former Justice Department prosecutor called “the most significant environmental criminal prosecution” in U.S. history received only fleeting media attention. The P-I had been the paper that exposed the pollution, which caused over 200 deaths ten years earlier, and one of the few to cover the ensuing trial in detail. The tragedy highlighted the importance of a robust, regional news media—and what happens when the lights go out at some of those publications.

July 16 — BPA, Health, and Nuance: The few science reporters left in the “mainstream” media continued to fight the good fight, however. With a FDA ruling on the safety of bisphenol-A, an additive in plastics believed to be a hormone disrupter, imminent over the summer, STATS, a “statistical assessment service” affiliated with George Mason University, released an in-depth critique of the media’s coverage of the BPA debate. The report accused the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which had publishing an award-winning series on the subject the year before, of hyping the risks of BPA despite scientific evidence to the contrary. A CJR analysis argued that while the report made valid points about the media’s overreliance on a limited number of sources, the STATS reports suffered from the same shortcoming as many articles: reaching for conclusions where explanations of scientific uncertainty would have been more accurate.

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,, 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.

December 14 — Revkin Taking NYT Buyout: The controversy of the hacked e-mails lingered in the early coverage of the two-week international climate summit in Copenhagen, where world leaders sought to draft a treaty for reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions. Halfway through, word came that New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin, who was on assignment in Copenhagen, was taking a buyout from the paper after twenty years as a daily reporter at multiple publications. Revkin told CJR he had undergone his most difficult year in the field, with long hours and constant attacks from the right and left, including one in which the talk show host Rush Limbaugh suggested that Revkin kill himself. Revkin’s departure left a big hole in the crack environment team that the Times created at the beginning of 2009.

December 22 — Good COP, Bad COP: The end of the year proved no more auspicious for the Copenhagen summit. The meeting fizzled out with a weak and vague political statement about the 193 participating nations. Nonetheless, the summit offered an interesting glimpse into media sociology. Political deadlock and convoluted information came with the territory for journalists in Copenhagen. Beyond that, however, their objectives and experiences there were often very different. While some covered the negotiations with a traditional sense of detachment, others felt a duty to support their political delegation in a way that they would not back home. Whatever their approach, however, with no deal in Copenhagen, climate and energy will remain a hot story for journalists around the world in 2010.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.