Five Inconvenient Truths…

Of environmental journalism

In its June issue, Wired dedicated its cover story to the “inconvenient truths about global warming,” taking conventionally unconventional looks at ten strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The feature aimed to turn tenets of modern environmentalism on their heads by declaring that “A/C is OK; organics are not the answer; and carbon trading doesn’t work.” It also urged readers to “accept genetic engineering; buy used cars, not hybrids; and embrace nuclear power.”

Whether or not Wired’s analysis is correct, it goes to show that reporting on climate-related issues is constantly frustrated by inconsistencies such as emissions balance sheets. What is green one day is gross the next, corn ethanol being the perfect example. So as much as The Observatory loathes the abuse of this phrase, we had to ask ourselves this: What are the “inconvenient truths” about environmental journalism? We came up with a five-point list, then fact checked it with Tim Wheeler, the president of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a reporter at the Baltimore Sun. Here’s what we compiled.

1) It Ain’t Sports Writing: A reporter covering, say, baseball doesn’t have to define a home run in every article, but a reporter covering climate almost always has to remind readers what greenhouse gases are. That chews up space—especially in traditional print publications where physical restrictions can chop a nuanced, thirty-six-inch piece into an oversimplified, ten-inch disservice to readers. In fact, Wired’s decision to break up its cover story into 200-word blurbs is an example of such foreshortening, and all the more perplexing for being voluntary. One of the scientists at pilloried the “witless” approach, calling the work a series of “Incongruent Truths.”

Wheeler adds: “I’d add to the ‘simplistic’ category: the never-ending search by some editors (and reporters) for “bad guys” or villains to explain environmental problems.”

2) Deadlines Lead to Dead Ends: Sensationalism hits the echo chamber long before nuance does. Deadline pressure can lead editors to push through a story with a sexy hook like the imminent danger of chemicals in the water supply, without discussion of how little we know about environmental chemical exposure. Generally, reporters find such hooks in the latest batch of peer-reviewed journal articles, some of which are much less important than toxins in drinking water. America’s rash of python stories (“New Threat to Our Way of Life”) and run-of-the-mill earthquake scares (“Huge state quake predicted in next 30 years”) both qualify.

Wheeler adds: “[#1 and #2 are] some of the biggest chronic struggles environmental journalists have, at least those of us in traditional media.”

3) One Paper Does Not Consensus Make: Scientific papers are journalistic catnip, especially when they appear to contradict dogma. Consequently, we’ve seen the advent of what New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin calls “whiplash journalism,” with the mass media oscillating from one optimistic report to the next dire one in a “new hope” or “no hope” story paradigm. The back-and-forth over anthropogenic climate change and its relation to hurricane frequency and intensity is a good example. Model-based predictions of “more hurricanes” and “fewer hurricanes” appear in the press every year—compare recent scientific declarations like “New MIT study validates hurricane prediction - Provides confirmation that climate change intensifies storms” with headlines that appeared a year ago, such as, “Study: Global warming may diminish Atlantic hurricane activity.”

Wheeler adds: “Another bugaboo is a lack of a sense of history—an increasing problem as the institutional memory of journalism fades with the winnowing out of older reporters and editors. Also, too often we feel pressure to put a new face on an old problem, to act like we’ve just discovered it. That helps sell it to jaded editors, but it does our readers and the public a disservice.”

4) Sources Are People Too: Beware the tyranny of the great quote. Be aware that some scientists will never talk about policy, while other scientists won’t stop talking about it. For example, after the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report last year, NOAA scientist Susan Solomon unequivocally rejected policy prescriptions. NASA’s Jim Hansen, on the other hand, has long advocated a moratorium on coal-fired power plants that don’t sequester carbon, and he has found his way back into the news recently with calls for a “cap and dividend” emissions reduction scheme. Beyond policy, some silver-tongued scientists are always good for a headline; take James Lovelock, who recently told Britain’s The Guardian, “Enjoy life while you can.”

Wheeler adds: “It’s hard to resist ‘money quotes,’ since they help get your story on page one. But responsible journalism means going beyond the snappy, extreme position to quote the most credible one, or at least concluding the story with it.

5) Buzzwords Cause Hangovers: Buzzwords like “inconvenient truth”, “green”, “clean coal”, and “tipping point” can be misapplied and abused, rendering readers cynical and numb to actual news. A recent New York Times article title, “That Buzz in Your Ear May Be Green Noise”, delved into the backlash that may result from media oversaturated with environmental emergency.

Wheeler adds: “[Wired’s June issue is] fairly typical of journalism today, in that it follows the counterintuitive theme: ‘Everything you thought you knew about the environmental movement is wrong!!’ Stop the presses. They seem to have outdone themselves in looking for angles that seem to debunk “conventional wisdom” about global warming - but I’m not sure they haven’t done a disservice to the issue by straining so hard to say something different. That’s a problem all journalism faces, not least environmental journalism.”

We invite readers to add their own “inconvenient truths” about environmental reporting in the comments section. To get you started, here’s one last comment from Wheeler, about the lack of attention to population issues, and one from Jane Holtz Kay, a freelance environmental journalist and author of Asphalt Nation.

There’s a Dearth of Demographics

Wheeler: “Finally, one last pet peeve — the role population growth plays in environmental issues rarely gets mentioned. Even if it’s a political hot potato that no one wants to skin, it does no good ignoring the growing carbon footprint of our swelling ranks, not to mention the impact of more people on water pollution, species loss and the like.”

It’s Hard to Practice What You Preach

Kay: “Well, if you want me to get personal, the only thing I think I’ve done to shrink, as they say, my global footprint, is to sell my car. (I don’t count articles as that effective). Specifically, I had just bought a red Saab, and had also just signed on to write “Asphalt Nation, How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back” and happened to be giving a speech in St. Louis. And sure enough, someone in the audience asked me if I had a car. This being Cambridge, also, Harvard, etc., country, I realized I’d only get asked again and decided to go sans voiture, i.e. taking this excellent public transportation system. I’m actually even doing some satirical collages on the subject…one on transportation, one on “We The People,” etc., just for fun and games. What else? Or how can I help you. It depends how you feel about organic food in this assessment (I shop at the Whole Food Store); travel (I take the train to visit my kids in Brooklyn)… and spend a lot of time feeling guilty.”

David Downs is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. A former editor for Village Voice Media, he has contributed to Wired magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Believer, and The Onion in addition to other publications.