Five Questions for SEJ’s New Prez

CJR talks with Oregon Public Broadcasting's Christy George

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?

CG: A dramatic percentage of our Web site——is open to non-members. We’re a 501(c)(3) non-profit, which means we’re an educational organization, and educating the public is part of our mission, in addition to educating our peers in journalism. So a tremendous amount of what we do is for everybody. We also do a lot of Freedom of Information work, and the vast majority of FOIA requests are not made by journalists, but rather by lawyers and activists, which is unfortunate for journalism; we should be doing it ourselves. We do a thing at SEJ called FOIA Friday where we encourage members to file Freedom of Information Requests—there’s got to be something that you need to know. And people have been doing that and they’ve been getting answers.

Past SEJ presidents have worked very hard on this issues—have found themselves, in fact, even testifying before Congress. Tim Wheeler, my predecessor, did that in his term because there were attempts to keep reporters out of Interior Department lands—National Parks—unless they paid a very stiff fee, the kind of fee that you’d expect a Hollywood movie producer to have to pay in order to film for two weeks.

We also just got a grant to rethink our strategic plan, which we’ll give some serious attention to given the threats to the beat and to print journalism in general, and try to figure out what we could reasonably do. Could we become a news outlet of some sort? We do have some publications; they tend focus on helping people with the beat and answering specific questions about how to do the job. But could we launch a reporting project? Maybe. That might help a few people.

CB: Looking forward, do you have any other advice for environmental journalists? What should be on their radars?

CG: Well I want to get a message out to all the non-environmental reporters that they are probably covering environmental stories. Example: there was session at the conference last week on the environmental roots of the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Robert McClure of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who’s also on the board, did that session. Folks who wanted to buy a first house, didn’t have enough money, didn’t have a down payment—the line is, you drive until you qualify, farther and farther in to suburbia, or exurbia, and when you finally get to a place where you can afford to buy the house you are consuming vast quantities of gasoline to commute to and from work—forty-five minutes, an hour, even two hours a day. And when gas prices went up, those people just didn’t have the money to pay for it, and that [combined with other factors] was when they got in trouble with their house payments.

The cost of energy and early impacts is affecting everything right now. There are just a lot of things to think about. We will have a president in January who is committed to doing something about climate and, by definition, if you’re doing something about climate, you’re changing the energy mix, and both candidates get that. So there’s going to be a tremendous wealth of stories that are political and business stories as well when January 21st hits. Every beat—health, sports, and fashion—has environmental implications.

[Correction: An earlier version of this story was amended to reflect the entirety of George’s answer to the first question.]

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