My guess is that journalism’s role should involve a lot more than producing the reams of commentary that followed Obama’s address from the Oval Office, and more than producing reams of analysis weighing the merits of cap-and-trade vs. cap-and-dividend vs. a carbon tax vs. clean-energy mandates and incentives. Forgive the lame analogy, but while such commentary and analysis is an important cap on political rhetoric and posturing, what is needed is a direct investment in local reporting that connects local socio-economic concerns to regional energy needs.
The Providence Journal in Rhode Island provides a good example of what this would look like. Since the beginning of the year, the paper has published half a dozen editorials, in addition to solid daily news coverage, that have, among other things, assailed local NIMBYims related to wind power and natural gas projects. “For many years, Rhode Island politicians have reaped votes by appealing to the NIMBY crowd and whipping up exaggerated fears, rather than calmly considering the greater good,” the editorial board complained in late January. Not that politicians are the only target of the Journal’s scorn. In early April, the paper had the guts to take its readers to task, observing that:
Some people don’t want any or all of these things: wind power, nuclear power, domestic or imported oil, offshore drilling for oil and natural gas, coal mining or even supplies of liquefied natural gas shipped in by tankers!
But all these people do want heat when it’s cold, air conditioning when it’s hot, lights when it’s dark and electricity to run the sump pump when it rains too much. They seem to believe that these things will magically appear, even as they bitterly oppose all means to get power to them.
For the benefit of those who are more pragmatic and less inclined to engage in magical thinking, we share some data about the proposed Weaver’s Cove liquefied-natural-gas facility in Fall River…
Now, the point here is not that the Journal’s support for liquefied natural gas (or any particular venture, including the Cape Wind project, which it also covered heavily) is necessarily commendable. What is praiseworthy is the paper’s willingness to challenge local intransigence and suggest paths for getting past it.
Fortunately, papers across the country are, in fact, making these kinds of pitches. In March, The Salt Lake Tribune chastised the Utah Bankers Association for blocking a bill that would have helped homeowners invest in solar panels or energy efficiency improvements, arguing that “sometimes you have to spend money to save money.” In January, the Modesto Bee challenged environmentalists to accept large solar farms in the Mojave Desert and offered a few possible locations, acknowledging that “a perfect place is hard to find.” And last year, the Richmond Times-Dispatch urged readers to ditch cheap coal for biomass energy in order to avoid environmental damage, create jobs, and “revitalize rural communities.”
(Papers should look beyond their own borders as well, however, in order to give their readers a better appreciation of the needs, concerns, and happenings in other areas. In the course of researching local energy coverage I found a good example of this at the landlocked Omaha World-Herald, which plugged the potential importance of tidal power to coastal states, even though “This has little impact on alternative energy in the Midlands, where freshwater hydropower, wind, sun and corn do the job increasingly well.”)
We need more of this type of coverage to mount an effective “energy quest” in the media. It would be nice to see newspapers, television, and radio stations launch reporting projects along the lines of The New York Times’s now-defunct Energy Challenge series. If this country is ever to get past the decades-long cycle of talk-and-inaction, the press needs to bring energy issues home, keeping them front-and-center in readers’ minds with sustained attention that hits all the stops, from the economy to security to the environment.