Fixing the news is a tall order, or so the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage is learning.
The effort launched in late February with a “vision” statement that called on media organizations to “integrate the environmental angle into other stories and make that connection explicit, make environmental stories appealing to a larger cross section of society, focus more on solutions, and increase the visibility of environmental stories.”
It’s a classic case of easier-said-than-done, but the project’s leaders are trying to adapt on the fly to what they’re hearing as they’ve worked to forge connections within the news business over the last three months. “I was told by one executive from a large network, ‘Don’t be our friends. Push us. Critique us,’” said Tyson Miller, the project’s director. “I’m taking that advice to heart.”
The original plan was to build relationships with news outlets and convince them to sign and adopt the principles laid out in the vision statement, Miller added, but many of the people he’s talked to have told him that approach will take too long. So he and program manager Shannon Binns are thinking about moving more quickly into an evaluation and assessment phase, possibly developing a “scorecard” that shows who’s doing good work and who’s not, and pressures those in the latter group to improve their game.
Roughly 100 organizations and individuals have signed the vision statement, but no big-ticket news outlets yet, according to Miller. “Frankly, I thought there would be more interest,” he said. “So we’re kind of rethinking our strategy—being more advocacy focused than partnership focused—and may move in that direction sooner than expected.”
Miller is the founder and director of SEE Innovation, a group that seeks to raise awareness about social and environmental issues. Its biggest success was the Green Press Initiative, launched in 2001, which has convinced hundreds of US book publishers to increase their use of recycled fiber and reduce their carbon footprints. SEE Innovation gets support from a variety of foundations and the primary funders for the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage are the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the New Visions Foundation, according to its website.
Pointing to data from the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which found that stories about the environment comprised just 1 percent of the entire news-hole in 2011, Miller said the project is concerned primarily with beefing up coverage in the mainstream media. While he’d also like to see a proliferation of progressive, environmentally oriented news websites like Grist and Common Dreams, it’s the large, general readership and audience of so-called legacy outlets that aren’t being well-served, he explained.
“At the end of the day, if you look at the reach of the traditional news organizations, we need to see innovation there, and the journalistic model has to look at different sides and not take too much of a bent toward one direction or another,” he said. “But there’s nothing wrong with focusing on solutions, so people feel empowered and it’s not just reporting on the problem.”
In April, the project hired the Opinion Research Corporation to survey more than 1,000 adults, and found that 79 percent felt that coverage of the environment should be improved, regardless of age, race, income, or region where they live.
The poll wasn’t relative, though. It didn’t ask people whether they’re more concerned about environmental coverage than political, business, or even arts coverage. So, the survey isn’t a great proxy for demand. Indeed, the Pew Research Center has consistently found that environment ranks low among a dozen or more other issues.
Asked if the project’s poll might disguise an important consideration—that the public doesn’t crave environmental coverage as much as suggested—Miller emphasized that he’s thinking about demand as well as supply. “We’ve always realized the power of public engagement on this issue,” he said. “We wanted to give ourselves 12 to 18 months to engage with news organizations directly and then, depending on how that went, do a public-engagement campaign. But we may speed that up.”
One thing the Pew Research Center has also found is that specific environmental stories like the weather, natural disasters, and energy do, in fact, rank high among news priorities, and Miller stressed the importance of making stories about the environment relevant to people’s daily lives.
Toward that end, he’s also come to realize that “local is where it’s at,” and he’s been thinking about what the project can do to help the panoply of resource-starved newspapers and TV stations spread across the country. “It’s going to be tough, but we’re looking at working with a larger number of smaller organizations rather than pursuing a top-down approach with the larger ones,” he said.