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 …