A New Kind of Environment Reporting Is Needed: Blending Objectivity with Education to Arrive at Sustainable Journalism. (Environment Reporting)

By Detjen, Jim | Nieman Reports, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

A New Kind of Environment Reporting Is Needed: Blending Objectivity with Education to Arrive at Sustainable Journalism. (Environment Reporting)


Detjen, Jim, Nieman Reports


Bring a group of environmental journalists together for a long enough time and it is likely a debate about objectivity and advocacy will erupt.

"Journalists should be objective," argues one group. "Journalists are stewards of the truth for their readers and viewers. They should report all sides and be as scrupulous as possible in writing a balanced piece, expressing all points of view."

"Objectivity is impossible," argues another group. "Environmental journalists should be advocates for changes to improve the quality of the planet. They should educate people about the serious problems that exist and use the power of the news media to bring about changes to improve the quality of the Earth--air, water, wildlife and natural resources."

Which side of this debate journalists are on is based often upon the media they work for and the country they work in. If they are employed by a mainstream newspaper, news magazine or broadcast station, they are likely to be in the camp of objectivity. If they work in developed parts of the globe, such as the United States, Western Europe or Japan, they probably also support this view. But if they work for an environmental magazine, the alternative press or are a freelancer, they might side with the advocacy school. If they live in developing regions of the globe, such as Africa, South America, and parts of Asia, they might also favor this view.

Sustainable Journalism

Is it possible to support both schools of thought? Carl Frankel, the author of "In Earth's Company: Business, Environment and the Challenge of Sustainability," argues that it is. "Contrary to the conventional wisdom, I do not experience these two identities as incompatible," he says. "Yes, there is a tension between the two, but I find myself able to resolve the tension." Frankel has called for a new kind of environmental journalism, which he terms "sustainable journalism." He says that sustainable journalism embraces the following three tenets:

* It incorporates the best aspects of traditional journalism--diligent research, precise language, and fair reporting.

* It strives to educate people in a balanced way about the nature and importance of sustainable development or the effort to achieve both economic development and a sound environment.

* It supports dialogue between people in an effort to find solutions.

"Journalists, in the tradition of the fourth estate, view themselves as in the audience, not the movie," Frankel says. "But we need to move beyond that now. We all need to be part of the solution, journalists included, and that calls for us to examine the extent to which our current professional practices correspond with how we want the world to be."

I agree with a lot of what Frankel says. It also echoes the direction urged by proponents of public or civic journalism. If journalists follow conventional news standards, it's easy to justify giving enormous coverage to scandals, celebrities and sensational crimes. These are deemed newsworthy because they involve conflict and controversy with prominent individuals. But this overemphasis, along with the American media's traditional heavy focus on local events, has squeezed out of news columns many vitally important global environmental problems.

This issue was examined at the Society of Environmental Journalists' national conference this fall during a session entitled "Blind spots: Unearthing the taboos of environmental reporting." Panelists agreed that environmental reporters often do a good job of reporting about environmental symptoms, such as air and water pollution. But relatively few journalists analyze the underlying forces that might be causing these problems, such as population growth and consumerism.

Environment Stories That Journalists Don't Report

"Consumerism is a story journalists have difficulty in reporting about," says Ellen Ruppel Shell, codirector of the Knight Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University.

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