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.
On the supply-side, one of the project’s ideas is to create an “issue matrix” that coalesces the wide variety of environmental topics, angles, and available resources into a sort of toolbox that reporters could use to frame particular stories for specific regions (though it could help with wide-angle stories as well). On the demand side, Miller said he’s thought about creating a zip code-driven tool that would allow people to send automatically generated letters to editors in their area, expressing their desire for better environmental coverage.
Engaging local schools, associations, and citizen journalists to work with news outlets is also on Miller’s mind, but so is the way that that those outlets package and present their content. He’s heard from a number of editors who’ve said they experimented with environmental blogs or websites, which failed to draw significant traffic.
While some regional outlets’ efforts to create environmental news “portals” for their readers and viewers have thrived, such as the Quest program at KQED in California, others have foundered, such as the AllGreenToMe site at The News Journal in Delaware. In the next couple of months, Miller hopes to fill in the “leaders” page of the project’s website, which will highlight successful models and innovations that others might emulate.
Clearly, success will only come through hard work. “They’ll have to persevere to get widening circles of news professionals on the record in support of their goals,” said Beth Parke, the director of the Society of the Environmental Journalists, who was one of the advisors that helped the project craft its vision statement. That means reaching decision-makers at mass media outlets in every part of the country, starting with outlets that are already doing good environmental coverage, and then convening a series of face-to-face meetings with those that aren’t.”
“I have always advised, by the way, that the project not fall into any traps of approaching this as an environmentalist crusade,” Parke added. “It works for me only as a responsibility issue, with regard to professional journalism fulfilling duties of service to the public trust, truth, fairness, integrity, accountability and independence.”
Bryan Walsh, who covers environment and energy for Time and also advised the project on its vision statement pointed out that “a lot of the same challenges that face environmental journalism are the challenges that face journalism as a whole, and I imagine the solutions, such as they are, will be the same.” He continued:
One thing I’ve noticed is that environmental coverage in the mainstream media tends to be cyclical, following the general public interest in those issues—and right now that’s been pushed out the window by fear over the economy. Though there are exceptions for some environmental stories that affect people more visibly or directly—see the focus on fracking, or on chemical toxins in everyday products. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more and more of the environmental coverage dominated by web sites that specifically focus on it—like Grist or Mother Nature News, both of which do good work. The challenge will be whether they can really be fair all the time.
Miller has been getting a lot of good advice along these lines and he seems to be earnestly weighing every word of it. The project has its work cut out for it, and its willingness to consider new tacks is, for the moment, its greatest strength.