There’s finally an increase in environmental journalism, but it’s inconsistent. Here’s how to fix that

May 1, 2015
Photo: AP

Last year, when the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity won its first Pulitzer Prize since its founding in 1989, it didn’t go to its investigations on presidents or corruption in Washington. It went to a story in the Center’s environmental coverage, documenting collusion between doctors, lawyers, and the coal companies that didn’t want to pay benefits to workers dying from black lung.

Among this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists were more environment stories. The Buffalo News got a nod for its report on the lake-effect snowstorm that buried the city in more than six feet of snow. The Los Angeles Times won for a feature on the California drought, followed closely by The Boston Globe’s narrative on a scientist’s quest to save a rare whale.

And yet in many ways, environmental journalism often gets the short shrift. In 2013, the nonprofit Project for Improved Environmental Coverage found that environmental stories make up just 1 percent of headlines in the US media.

Last week, the PIEC came back with some good news. Its latest report found that for the first time since 2010, mention of environmental topics in media stories increased in 2014, by a solid 17 percent.

But the improvement wasn’t consistent across all platforms. Network TV–news programs on ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS–bolstered their coverage an impressive 46 percent, while regional papers and alt-weeklies saw 3 and 9 percent drops, respectively.

You can cover the environment and still have a successful newspaper.

Coverage was also highly inconsistent across topics. In past research, the group asked scientists, professors, conservationists, and other environmental experts to rate environmental topics by importance, then used those ratings to see if the press covered the experts’ most critical issues.

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Not surprisingly, climate change topped both the experts’ list and the media’s priorities. Of the environment stories found in the report, 36 percent mentioned climate change, high above any of the nine other topics tracked. Water quality and scarcity was second on the list for both journalists and experts, perhaps due to the ongoing drought in California and the West.

But ocean health, which was ranked nearly as important as global warming–7.7 out of 10 versus 8.8–received only one-sixteenth of the coverage, demonstrating a possible disconnect between the press and the scientific community it’s supposed to be covering.

Part of the problem may be that editors making coverage decisions don’t see the environment as a much-desired topic, especially when journalistic mainstays like war and the economy have proved equally pressing in the last five years. As media organizations of all shapes and sizes dealt with the combined hit of a recession and the exponential growth of the internet, environment and science reporters were frequently jettisoned, sometimes taking the entire beat with them.

In 2008, CNN cut its entire science, tech, and environment desk, followed by The New York Times in 2013, which canceled its Green blog and dismantled a nine-person environmental team (though they’ve since made efforts to put it back together). In October, NPR did the same to its four-member team. But it may not have to be this way.

“You can cover the environment and still have a successful newspaper,” says Kelly Spitzner, co-director of the PIEC. “Initially, we heard a lot of pushback, like, ‘People want to know about celebrities, they don’t care about that.’ We’ve focused on making the argument that people do care about this.”

Spitzner cites a poll commissioned by the PIEC showing that 79 percent of Americans want better environmental coverage, including the 18 to 24 age demographic often coveted by advertisers.

“If you’re going to write about climate change, you need to find a way to take it out of the abstract,” says CPI environment editor Jim Morris. “Take it out of the political realm, the latest scientific report, and really take it down to ground level. Explain something like how the California drought is affecting people. If you think of it that way, it absolutely is worth doing.”

If that’s the case, the US media could be serving its audience a whole lot better.

Despite the increase measured by the PIEC, international papers still outdid US news sources by 81 percent on environmental issues. And even though climate change was the most covered topic by far, a recent study from the Yale Center for Climate Change Communication found that only 40 percent of Americans report hearing about global warming in the media at least one a month, while 8 percent hear a mention of climate change once a year or less–and that’s not even taking into account coverage that is incomplete or incorrect. That means there’s a big coverage gap waiting to be filled.

Laura Dattaro is a science journalist, writer, and producer based in New York.