JH: The most challenging part, fifteen years ago and today, is to get at the facts and around the rhetoric and the spinning, and I’m talking about things like cost. Various people throw all kinds of information out about climate and energy bills. Republicans will say it’s going to raise the cost of your electric bill by $3,200 per year. The Democrats will say it’s only going to raise it the cost of a postage stamp. How do you weight those assertions? When House Republican leader John Boehner repeatedly said that the climate bill was going to cost people over $3,000 per year, for example, you know he’s getting that number from a study that was done some place using certain assumptions. It turns out that a business group commissioned that study, so how much weight do you give it? How do cut through all the spinning and rhetoric and give the public an honest idea of what a bill like that would cost?

In energy and environment you see an awful lot of that because the stakes are high to so many different people. For example, the same goes for stories about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Every time the issue comes around, proponents try to tell you that drilling will solve our energy problems. As a good reporter you have to ask, “Okay, how much oil to use? How much do we import? How much can we get from ANWR?” It takes a lot of reporting and a lot of effort to cut through some of these claims that have absolutely no basis.

CB: How do you the think the energy/environment beat has changed most significantly since you began your career?

JH: In the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time over at the EPA and the Interior Department, as opposed to the Energy Department, because they were the most proactive. During the Clinton administration, they were pursuing new clean-air rules, toxic-inventory standards, and grazing rules out West—there was something going on. There just wasn’t much happening with energy, but that’s changed over the last eight or nine years.

CB: Where to see the beat headed, for better or worse, and where should it be headed?

JH: With the industry going through such a difficult time, there is a lot of concern that rather than maintaining a separate beat or beats, energy and environment reporting will be incorporated into a broader area like general assignment beat or business.

Yet energy and environmental reporting is more important than ever because the world is changing dramatically when it comes to these closely related issues. We are moving toward a carbon-constrained world. How will traditional fossil fuels mesh with the need to tackle climate change? What is the role of nuclear energy and how realistic is the call to build 100 new reactors? Is there such a thing as energy independence? As I pointed out in a story last year, it depends how you define energy independence.

More than ever before, journalists will have to work through the clutter—through the spinning and political rhetoric—and dig through claims and counterclaims coming from opposing sides of an issue. And doing it right has become more difficult.

Reporters must approach stories without bias or preconceived notions (for example, all coal is bad, or all nuclear is dangerous) and weigh opposing views with a hope of getting at the truth. While skeptics and other minority views should not be ignored, the ‘he-said-she-said’ type of journalism won’t do the job. Journalists covering energy and the environment must write authoritatively, while avoiding bias-based, opinion journalism. And that requires knowledge of the issues you are covering. And if done right, with fairness and honesty, this kind of journalism will be respected from those on all sides of the spin machine.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.