An endangered species: the environmental reporter

We’re doomed. It seems the mainstream media believe that the most pressing issues of our times — climate change, environmental degradation, energy security, etc. — should be left to general assignment reporters or treated as political news covered by political reporters. Copenhagen, for the most part, was covered as a political event, yet the issues underlying this political conference were highly scientific in nature. Covering these issues properly requires a certain expertise, specifically when we’re dealing with a politically charged issue like climate change. Environmental reporters know when they’re being duped by faux experts; political or GA reporters don’t. Environmental reporters are better at explaining complex issues in a way that the average person can better understand; political or GA reporters can often make matters even more confusing to the reader or gloss over important details.

Sadly, the environmental reporter has become an endangered species. I heard yesterday that the Oregonian just disbanded its environmental reporting team and made them all into general assignment reporters. Also yesterday Keith Johnson announced that his Wall Street Journal blog Environmental Capital was “closing its virtual doors.” In October, the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism announced it had stopped accepting applications for its Earth and Environmental Science Journalism program because of “the current weakness in the job market for environmental journalists.” In a letter to its faculty, the school wrote “media organizations across the country are in dire financial straits and thousands of journalists’ jobs have been eliminated. Science and environment beats have been particularly vulnerable.”

Again, this is all happening at a time when we need this kind of experienced coverage most, and when governments and the business community both are giving environmental issues more attention than ever. My own newspaper, the Toronto Star, used to have two environmental reporters a year ago. Through newsroom attrition both positions are vacant, but given plans to downsize the newsroom there appears no desire to fill those spots. It’s discouraging to say the least.

But, hell, we can all take comfort that Sarah Palin is joining Fox News.

11 thoughts on “An endangered species: the environmental reporter”

  1. Tyler:

    Couldn’t agree more, and as a PR professional with a number of clients involved in environmental initiatives I have experienced first-hand the paucity of reporters who have the time, knowledge or mandate to cover what are often very meaty announcements and initiatives. It seems odd that media outlets have space on their roster for wine columnists and decorating tips (no offense to either) but not ongoing analysis, insight and reportage on the factors that are literally changing the world every day. This plays into the hands of those that profit from fueling misinformation and confusion about climate change (as highlighted so well by James Hoggan’s blog and book ( That environmental reporting is getting short-shrift at J-schools is even more troubling and seemingly at odds with major initiatives by gov’t, ENGOs, businesses and citizens.

  2. Tyler, you’ve hit the nail on the head, as an environmental reporter myself, I am constantly flabbergasted by the information I see in the mainstream media. I see general assignment reporters and “green living experts” make errors all the time when explaining the complex nature of climate change and global warming. It’s incredibly frustrating as their explanations usually just touch the surface of the issue, leaving the viewer confused and uninterested. To be fair, this does not apply to everyone, but a vast majority.

    The problem lies not only with the reporters but the assignment editors and the news directors, all of which have the opportunity to educate and inform their viewers on both local issues and global issues pertaining to climate change. As the host, producer and creator of A Greener Toronto, I have covered and reported on over 500 local stories related to conservation, policy, species loss etc. And have never ever seen one of those important stories in the mainstream media.

    We are an endangered species indeed, our only hope is that someone, somewhere, will see our value and start thinking of ways to bring our species back.

  3. Tyler, I agree. I subscribe to the print Toronto Star and don’t usually pay attention to the byline, but I can almost always pick out one of your stories (regardless of where it appears in the paper) from a generic story on the environment because of the increased attention to detail that I don’t see in the other “environment” stories.

  4. Tyler, it’s impossible to argue with your basic point: that environmental reporting is an endangered profession at most traditional news outlets.

    However, COP15 reporting isn’t the best example to illustrate the decline of the beat. The reporting from COP15 was largely political because it was a political event: an international treaty negotiation. The parameters of the science were pretty much a given going in.

    That said, how well that science is being factored into the political outcomes is another question entirely. An environmental reporter needed to know both the politics and the science to report this story. Speaking as someone who was there, it was incredibly frustrating that President Obama gave a press conference only to the DC press corps that parachuted in with him on the last day of the talks — reporters who did not know the right questions to ask about the Copenhagen accord. (And almost as clearly, that was one of the benefits to the White House of not holding an open press conference.)

    BTW, a counterpoint to Columbia’s decision is that the University of Montan is launching a two-year degree program in science and natural resource journalism.

  5. Thanks for this, Tyler. I noted this trend just over a year ago (with a very similar headline!) — see Very discouraging to see people like Andy Revkin of the NY Times (who left at the end of last year) and Keith Johnson and others leave the beat. As I asekd in December 2008, “Who will bring the deep knowledge and big-picture perspective necessary to create informed stories, not just sound-bite “content.” Will the less-experienced reporters and editors be overly enthusiastic or hopelessly cynical?”

  6. I’m reading your posts regularly from a college town in California. I can honestly say that the average college graduate coming out of our schools is a blithering idiot with no interest in the facts of their physical world or interest in the why of their environment.

    The apathy is staggering. Until average citizens are forced by circumstance to engage with these issues your ability to attract a paying audience will diminish. If I were you I would be looking at getting solar panel installer certification as a backup plan.

    As we can see in Haiti, after the earthquake is a poor time to educate yourself about natural hazards. Ditto climate change.

  7. Haha… Sol Photon… what about Windy Breeze, or Ren Newber?

    If newsrooms are cutting down their environmental reporting, then I would propose we get the engineering community involved. Engineers would do well to learn to communicate their knowledge of systems to a wider audience. It is a shame that engineering students are not given the opportunity to express themselves.

  8. Tyler,
    If this is indeed the trend, and by the way I agree, what is the most effective way to reverse it?
    If we, and more importantly the general public, have to read the unbelievable drivel put up by the likes of Lawrence Solomon, especially what has been accepted by the National Post recently, then the outcome could be self fulfilling.
    Joel capture it above: “Who will bring the deep knowledge and big-picture perspective necessary to create informed stories, not just sound-bite “content.” Will the less-experienced reporters and editors be overly enthusiastic or hopelessly cynical?”

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