By: Ron Chepesiuk Nation's top policymakers address the Society of Environmental Journalists conference; members discuss 'politically driven' backlash against environmental concerns sp.
IS ENVIRONMENTAL journalism experiencing a politically driven backlash against environmental concerns? Where is the line between investigative reporting and advocacy? Is scientific uncertainty being used to downplay serious concerns about the environment? These were some of the major questions on the agenda at the third annual Society of Environmental Journalists meeting at Duke University in Dur-ham, N.C. Seventy-five speakers, participating in more than two dozen panels, discussed media coverage of everything from global warming to the dangers of dioxin to coastal development to radioactive waste. About 400 people, most of them journalists but also a smattering of activists, scientists, industry spokesmen and public relations officials, attended. The opportunity to address the largest gathering of environmental journalists this year drew some key Clinton administration officials. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner and Kathleen McGinty, director of the White House Office of Environmental Planning, defended the administration's environmental policy and outlined its agenda on such important environmental issues as the Superfund, mining rights, forest management, endangered species and clean water legislation. By all accounts, the conference was successful and highlighted the growing interest in and importance of environmental journalism. As the country's fastest-growing journalism organization, the SEJ reflects this booming interest. "This conference shows that SEJ has come of age," said Beth Parke, SEJ executive secretary. "We've reached the point where we've attracted some of the country's major policymakers." The SEJ's growth has been phenomenal. The small group of journalists who formed the organization in 1990 expected to attract 300 members at most, but now the organization boasts nearly 900 members from the United States and 20 other countries. A recent survey of the SEJ membership, conducted by the society, shows that print journalism is by far the most heavily represented group, at 70% of the total membership. Separating the membership by media, newspapers still claim the largest percentage, 37.4%, representing 304 members. "For many newspapers, especially the big ones, it's no longer just a case of just one person on the staff covering the environment," said Jim Detjen, SEJ president and environmental reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "We have at least a half dozen reporters covering environmental topics for the Inquirer. Other papers like the Los Angeles Times even have environmental writers working for the business desk." But as the media's coverage of the environment increases, so has criticism of that coverage. Journalists working the environmental beat have been criticized for what some perceive as a left-wing bias. As one journalist in attendance explained, "Reporters sometimes view the environmental beat as a mission in which the fate of the world and its people are at stake." The SEJ hasn't been immune from that criticism. Last year, the Wall Street Journal, in an editorial titled "Watchdogs in Thrall," chided journalists at the second annual SEJ meeting for confirming "a suspicion about some on the ecological beat." According to the editorial, when Clinton adviser Brett Hulsey took the podium at a press conference, many veteran journalists cheered and whistled at Hulsey's opening words: "How sweet it is," a reference to Bill Clinton's victory in the presidential election a few weeks earlier. Hulsey then credit-ed the media with helping to make the 1992 race "an issue-oriented campaign." The issue of bias was raised this year at the session, "Voices of Experience: Editors Focus," in which a panel of experts discussed the decisions that editors make on environmental issues. The editors included Rae Tyson, environment editor, USA Today; William Coughlin, a professor of mass communications at Francis Marion College in Florence, S.C., and a former executive editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington (N.C.) Daily News; Paul Delaney, a former senior editor at the New York Times; and Fannie Fiono, an editorial writer at the Charlotte Observer. The editors downplayed the left-wing bias of the media and told several anecdotes showing that their newspapers invariably are criticized by both liberals and conservatives, no matter what story they cover. But they admitted that politics can play a role in determining which environmental stories are investigated. "Politics is important in the newsroom," Delaney said. "If the environment is of interest to the editor, more than likely an environmental story will get covered. If he isn't, then there is a good chance it won't." Environmental journalism lacks credibility with journalists, according to research findings presented at another session. Michael Ferring, director of journalism programs at the Foundation for American Communications, presented results of a survey conducted for FACS by American Opinion Research Inc. Titled "The Press and the Environment ? How Journalists Evaluate Environmental Reporting," the survey of 512 newspaper and television reporters showed deep concerns about the quality of news coverage and fundamental problems with the way that environmental stories are handled. The study found that news coverage of the environment is increasing, but journalists were highly critical of the coverage, with only 3% saying they consider overall environmental coverage to be "very good." "The credibility of environmental journalism is quite low," Ferring said. "Our study shows that there is a feeling in the profession that journalists lack training and experience to cover the environment." Ferring outlined several steps that the study recommended to improve environmental news coverage. These included establishing an environmental beat, providing more midcareer training in environmental issues, developing a wider variety of news sources and broadening the scope of environmental reporting. Environmental journalists have come under attack for what some perceive as their quickness to accept unproven information just because it pertains to the environment and to fill the media with apocalyptic warnings about the environment. What do journalists do when scientists disagree? Sparks were expected to fly at the first plenary session, called "Trends in Environmental Journalism," which tackled this question. The panel included four experienced environmental journalists: Diane Dumanoski, an environmental reporter at the Boston Globe for 10 years and currently a professional-in-residence at the University of Colorado; Boyce Rensberger, science reporter at the Washington Post, whose writing about global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion have challenged general assumptions about the seriousness and nature of those issues; Philip Shabecoff, formerly at the New York Times and now publisher of the Greenwire News Service; and Keith Schneider, an environmental correspondent at the Times. Both Rensberger and Schneider's reporting came under attack, but the criticism was relatively mild compared to what many in attendance had expected. Schneider especially has been the subject of controversy in recent months. A five-part series that he wrote at the Times criticized wasteful federal environmental practices but downplayed the dangers of dioxin, a substance that he said may not be as dangerous after all. For his reporting, Schneider has been assailed in numerous publications, including Extra, American Journalism Review and E: The Environmental Magazine. Schneider defended his reporting, describing it as "very accurately done." He complained that he has not been criticized for his reporting but for his skepticism about conventional environmental wisdom. Can a journalist be an advocate for the environment and do his job as a journalist? That question was discussed and debated by several panels, eliciting a wide range of opinions. Shabecoff said there is a role for advocacy in environmental journalism if it is done openly, not hidden behind the cloak of an editorial. "Trying to show balance in reporting a story about the environment can lead to misinforming the public, especially when you ask the wrong questions of the wrong sources," he said. At the "Ethics and the Environmental Journalist" session, Casey Buckro, a business environmental reporter at the Chicago Tribune, said, "Ethics means putting values to work" and blasted his colleagues for being "some of the most thin-skinned professionals around." He explained, "We like to bash everybody else continuously, but we don't do a good job of making sure that the quality of journalism is good. Good journalists should point out bad journalism." In being an advocate for good journalism, Buckro suggested that the SEJ have an annual awards competition to recognize "winners and sinners" in environmental reporting. Panelists at the editors' session concluded that an environmental reporter cannot be an advocate any more than a business, science or any other type of reporter can. "A reporter can't be an advocate and be fair," Coughlin said. "It's up to editors to make sure environmental journalists bring some kind of objectivity to their reporting."