Three Decades on the Green Beat

Article excerpt

For our 25th anniversary, we asked Canada's most prominent environment reporter to reflect on what the media have done and the prospects for effective environmental journalism in the years ahead.

When I entered journalism in the 1960s, my dream was to travel to faraway lands, photographing and writing about exotic wildlife. By the time I left the newspaper business 25 years later, I had written many thousands of words about the environment, but most had been about the threat from toxic chemicals, disputes over natural resources, and legal and political battles over environmental protection. Instead of prowling the wilderness for nature stories, I had spent most of my time in meetings or on the phone, trying to understand atmospheric physics, organic chemistry, environmental law and the links between economic development and the state of the environment.

I stumbled on my first pollution story in 1966, when as a young reporter I was invited to Niagara Falls to hear a US politician warning that Lake Erie was in serious trouble. Pollution was so bad that parts of the lake were toxic to fish, and some headlines said the lake was dying or even dead. Those were the early days of environmental journalism. It had been only four years since Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring had begun to awaken people to the threat from toxic chemicals, and helped start the modern environmental movement.

The news media were not sure how seriously to treat the growing number of claims by scientists that nature was in trouble because of our "normal" business practices and lifestyles. Often, a journalist would spend enough time with researchers to understand that there was a legitimate story, only to have an editor who did not understand ecological principles junk the idea.

By the mid-to-late 1970s, a series of factors had forced even reluctant media managers to treat environmental stories as mainstream news. Growing evidence of damage and mounting protests from citizen groups had put environmental concerns on the public agenda. Even more important from the media perspective was that the environment had become a political story. Pollution and protection were being hotly debated in legislatures, and opposition politicians found they could score points in the media by attacking governments for failing to protect the public from environmental decline.

Environment reporting fledged in the 1970s with such pollution issues as acid rain and mercury in fish. But the coverage took flight in the 1980s with the discovery of a seemingly endless list of environmental crises, including dioxin, the hole in the ozone layer, deforestation, oil spills, nuclear accidents, climate change, the decline of fisheries, species extinction and the human population explosion.

Just as the media's role in exposing the Watergate political scandal in the 1970s popularized investigative reporting, so the spate of environment stories in the 1980s made environment reporting attractive to many budding journalists. By mid-decade, virtually all large and medium-sized newspapers, and a number of radio and television stations had either a full-time or parttime environment reporter.

Environmental coverage peaked with the 1992 Earth Summit, then, for several reasons, dipped sharply. After the saturation coverage of the 1980s, there was a sense of environmental fatigue in the media. There were no new scientific discoveries of environmental crises, and most environmental news brought simply updates on existing stories. The country was suffering from corporate and governmental downsizings that focused peoples' attention on their short-term future, and the media on economic stories. Many of the media themselves were suffering from declining ad revenues and lower circulation figures, forcing them to lay off staff and shrink the amount of space and air time for all news.

HOW GOOD A JOB HAVE THE MEDIA DONE?

Over the past 30 years, news stories have given us a good sense of the range of environmental problems, but have often been weak at putting these problems in perspective. …