Network news got a little better this month.
CBS News announced in early May that it had hired M. Sanjayan, lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy, as its science and environmental contributor, filling a slot that’s been vacant for almost two and a half years. Sanjayan will cover a broad range of topics across multiple platforms and contribute to CBS News broadcasts, according to the network.
He’s done two nice segments so far.
The first was a helpful appearance on CBS This Morning, where Sanjayan talked about debris from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that was washing up along shores in the Western US. He explained that chemical toxicity was a greater concern than radioactivity from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, and went on to emphasize that, generally, it’s easier to prevent refuse from entering the oceans than it is to remove it once it’s there.
The second was a two-minute, no-nonsense report on climate change for CBS Evening New with Scott Pelley, in which Sanjayan told viewers flat out that they’d all experienced its effects “firsthand” in the form of record high temperatures. It’s a problem felt “right here, right now, in our own backyards,” he said, citing the impact of heat waves on ranchers and the elderly and the steps that insurance companies are taking to hedge against the risks of climate-related disasters.
“Asking questions comes naturally to me because science is all about inquiry and evidence,” Sanjayan said in an interview. “CBS News’s track record of credible and serious reporting seemed like a perfect match for my strengths. With broadcasts like 60 Minutes, the new format of CBS This Morning, and the hard news focus of CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, I couldn’t think of a better news organization for contributing science and environmental stories.”
At The Nature Conservancy, the country’s largest environmental organization, Sanjayan “specializes in human well-being and conservation, Africa, wildlife ecology and media outreach and public speaking on conservation issues.” He also has an affiliate faculty appointment at the University of Montana’s Wildlife Biology Program, where he focuses on research and does some teaching. His work has been published in journals like Science and Conservation Biology.
Sanjayan’s media experience is extensive. He’s been quoted in a variety of print outlets, including The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and National Geographic. He also has co-hosted documentaries for BBC, Discovery Channel, PBS, and National Geographic TV.
As longtime environmental journalist and educator Bud Ward pointed out at The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, “For some died-in-the-wool traditional journalism ethicists, the Sanjayan/CBS News relationship no doubt raises concerns along the church-and-state lines: The need to separate news from advocacy, notwithstanding Sanjayan’s pieces being labeled as commentaries.”
But Ward also quoted Philip Meyer, a journalism scholar who recently retired from the University of North Carolina, explaining why he thinks Sanjayan is a “a good fit” for CBS. According to Ward’s post:
Meyer added that Sanjayan ‘is not a hired gun offering his skills to anybody who can pay for them. The Nature Conservancy is a highly visible, non-profit, public interest group that tries to slow mankind’s persistent destruction of our planet. By bringing its chief scientist aboard, CBS News also serves the public interest.’
For his part, Sanjayan says he isn’t concerned about potential conflicts of interest that might arise when covering issues, like climate change, that The Nature Conservancy works on. “I am with CBS News because they value my scientific expertise and my ability to translate that on screen to their audiences in a compelling fashion,” he said. “The Nature Conservancy has me as their lead scientist because I am a conservation scientist by training who can translate good science into conservation action.”
A CBS News spokeswoman said the network doesn’t discuss its hiring practices and declined to answer questions about its approach to science and environmental coverage in general. Bringing on experts from the private and public sectors is nothing new for the outlet, however.
Last year, CBS News named Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger—“the hero of the Hudson”—as its aviation and safety expert, and hired John Miller, a journalist who has worked for the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI, as a senior correspondent. And two weeks ago, the network named former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard B. Myers as its senior military security analyst.
At any rate, it’s reassuring that CBS decided to fill a position that has been vacant since Daniel Sieberg, an Emmy-nominated and award-winning journalist, left in 2010. Sieberg covered everything form climate change to space exploration and e-waste to animal behavior.
With the many other demands on his time, it remains to be seen if Sanjayan will be as prolific and wide-ranging as his predecessor, and he’s not sure what the balance between breaking-news and enterprise reporting will be, but he clearly has a lot of ideas for coverage. “As a scientist, my specialty is on the human/nature intersection—i.e., how does nature benefit human communities, etc.,” he said. “When I look at the big topics out there in science right now I think ocean fisheries, freshwater scarcity, grasslands and human communities, agriculture, are all hot topics for exploration.”