At its eighteenth annual conference last week, the Society of Environmental Journalists elected Christy George, of Oregon Public Broadcasting, to be its newest president and the first from a broadcast medium. George has been a journalist for over twenty-five years, having arrived at OPB in 1997 after a four-year stint as an editor at the Boston Herald. At OPB she has covered politics and environmental issues for television and radio, and produced a documentary about the prevalence of global-warming skepticism among television meteorologists, which she calls her “opus.” CJR’s Curtis Brainard talked with George about the current state of environmental journalism, what she plans to accomplish during her two-year term, what SEJ can do for members and non-members alike, and what is (or should be) on reporters’ radar.
Curtis Brainard: Why in the busy life of a journalist would you want to become the president of an organization like SEJ?
Christy George: Well, I’ve already been involved intimately in the time-consuming work of SEJ; I’ve been on its board for eight years. And it is time-consuming, but it’s great fun. And I’m supported here at OPB by my boss and others who think this is a good thing. Here in public broadcasting we sit in the little neutral zone in the battlefield of the litter of dead bodies of newspapers and reporters and journalism. As far as I know, we’re still growing our membership—it may be flattening out a little bit after our meteoric growth curve of the last decade—but we’re doing okay, and so we can afford to be involved in journalism groups. Unfortunately, a lot of SEJ’s members don’t have that support anymore because a lot of newsrooms no longer have a travel budget and they don’t even really want you to take the time off. But our members make it to our conference just the same, which really says something about the value of SEJ.
CB: There’s been a sort of boom in environmental reporting and public consciousness over the last year, but some think it’s all a lot of green fluff. What’s your opinion?
CG:Well, I think the beat is doing wonderfully well. And the climate story and the energy implications of that, and high gas prices, all conspire to make this the great beat of our time. I think we’re on the cusp of becoming the most important political and business story anybody will cover for at least the next decade and perhaps the rest of the century. So what we’re seeing is this cross-beat thing happening where business reporters are covering energy stories; where political reporters are covering climate change and energy issues during the campaign because the candidates, for the first time in my memory, are talking about them and voters are thinking about them.
[As for] the “green” stuff, SEJ has many advocacy reporters who are advocating for, you know, a viable Earth. And they are green, but they’re also journalists and we don’t vet people’s reporting. We just have a very, very strict policy that excludes anyone who does PR or lobbying on the environmental issues for money.
CB: What do you think will be the most critical issues facing SEJ over the next two years?
CG:I think the shrinking of newsrooms is a top issue for us. We were founded primarily by print reporters and the vast majority of membership is print reporters; so we need to do something about that. We don’t print news stories, but there are probably creative ways that we can help. And as a broadcaster I want to bring more broadcasters into the group. We are seeing more coverage of the environment on TV—network TV, not so much local stations. Radio, public radio in particular, does a great job with the environmental beat, but we really need to reach out to folks in broadcasting. The environment is a fantastic broadcast story—I mean, it’s got great pictures, whether it’s animals or cars on the freeway. And it’s a great audio story as well for radio, and something that touches everybody. Part of our mission is simply to get more environmental stories covered. The other is to support reporters who are covering the beat, especially because a lot of people cover it as general assignment reporters, as opposed to real beat reporters. When you get thrown into the fray, there’s a lot of science that folks may not know. So we’re here to help.
CB: In terms of accomplishing some of the goals that you’ve laid out, can you tell me exactly what kinds of tools and resources SEJ makes available to members, and non-members as well?