the observatory

Hollow Criticism from MarketWatch

Friedman's attempt to bash environmental journalism lacks meat
October 16, 2008

Given that I am currently at the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference, it seems an opportune time to comment on a column from last Friday by MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman, which attempted to cast environmental journalism—that’s right, as a whole—as incredibly hollow and gutless. He should have reread his own column.

Let’s start with the many things that are wrong with the current reportage, according to Friedman. Environmental, or as he refers to them, “green,” journalists (which implies that environmental journalist equates to environmentalist), “are anxious to show the public that they’re in tune with the zeitgeist in America … many of them don’t really understand the nuances of the subject – and therefore have a hard time communicating ideas and insights to their readers and viewer.” And this: “Beyond sticking to a few catch-phrases and earnestly spouting a do-good philosophy gleaned from Al Gore’s movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ the media aren’t doing much to try to explain the green phenomenon.”

If you think that Friedman will eventually un-mire himself from those generalizations, he doesn’t (and CJR has criticized him before for this). In fact, meaningful and instructive criticism doesn’t even seem to be the point of the column, which is, instead, to promote a new book by fellow MarketWatch columnist Thomas Kostigen. The book, according to Friedman’s piece, “examines how our everyday lives impact the environment in the rest of the world.” And, adding to the list of environmental journalism’s shortcomings he lays out, Friedman quotes Kostigen adding that “most journalists get hung up on the jargon,” and that ‘green’ and ‘global warming’ have become a “pejorative term,” which is “the media’s fault for combining politics with science.”

Well, first of all, that last bit is not entirely journalists’ fault—there has been a well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by special interest groups to discredit climate science and conservation. But Friedman and Kostigen are right, to some degree, about other points; all of these problems with environmental journalism (and other writing/broadcasting that get confused for it) are out there. They are by no mean ubiquitous, however, and writing in generalizations does nothing to help that. True, the line between objective journalism and special interest reporting has been blurred by a proliferation of mostly online information sites, but if you’re going to complain about it, offer examples of each variety so that readers can actually learn something. The same goes for problems of misunderstanding of science or poor writing. And by the same token, if Friedman wants journalism to “explain the green phenomenon,” he needs to unpack that term as well. After all, reporting on energy, agriculture, natural resources, pollution, and environmental politics or business each comes with its own dilemmas.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen this kind of blind attack on environmental journalism before. Almost exactly a year ago, Sam McManis, at The Sacramento Bee, tried to pull the stunt and I responded with a column reminding him that his own paper has one of the best environmental teams in the nation—and cited specific articles from the Bee and many other papers. I could cite many other fine stories that have run since then, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that there is a lot of excellent environmental journalism out there, and some that’s really horrible. I don’t have hard numbers to back this up (and getting them would be a worthwhile project), but it is my hypothesis that there is more of the excellent variety today than there was five years ago because there is more demand for it. There is probably more of the horrible variety as well, but rather than displacing the former, it is simply adding to the “background noise” (to use some of the scientific jargon that Friedman decries). A Pew Research Center report from one year ago found that this was true of “hard” and “soft” news in general.

At any rate, the last attempt that Friedman makes in his column to substantiate his vague criticism is to quote an essay by Dan Fagin, a former Newsday reporter who now directs New York University’s Science and Environmental Reporting program. The essay, titled “Science and Journalism Fail to Connect,” appeared in the Winter 2005 Nieman Report on global warming (pdf) and Freidman cherry-picks two sentences, reading “How can we expect Americans to know anything beyond what they happen to remember from science class? Journalists certainly don’t tell them.” Unlike Friedman, however, Fagin wasn’t generalizing. In the rest of the essay, Fagin details how journalists have done a terrible job of explaining the basic structure of statistical analysis and the scientific method to readers.

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The Observatory recently published a similar column, arguing that science journalists, because of traditional constraints in the news business, have been unwilling (but also unable) to reiterate basic principles of science. Indeed it is disconcerting that global warming should have become such an enormous story over the last five years without reporters having first established a clear understanding of the carbon cycle among readers. Fortunately, the Web, acting as a sort of encyclopedic database for news sites, is giving journalists an opportunity to change that. At any rate, it is a shame that Friedman misused Fagin’s work, because Fagin is proof positive that Friedman’s generalizations don’t hold.

At last year’s Society of Environmental Journalists conference, I saw Fagin give a talk about covering cancer clusters, and his grasp of environmental toxicology was outstanding. Like me, Fagin is probably at this year’s meeting, where there will be scores of other reporters, editors and educators who are working their tails off to improve environmental journalism, but who have already demonstrated many times over that their reporting is far from hollow.

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