How to improve environmental coverage?

Project sets broad goals, learns to adapt

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.

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.

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