Sunday, December 05, 2010

Environmental reporting on today’s Earth

After publishing an environmental article on one of those newfangled online media platforms for a paltry recompense, I was informed by the editorial staff that my news article was not a news article. My news article, I was admonished, did not meet their criteria for a news story. In the future, would I please ask myself these critical questions? “Is the story based on information made available in the last 72 hours? Is the story reporting facts rather than conveying an opinion? If the story is on an upcoming event, is the event relevant to enough people to be a news event?”

I thought about these criteria for an environmental news story. They sound reasonable and appropriate. I mean, this is what we are used to: some environmental street theatre by a group with a message who are at a particular place, at a particular time, doing something peculiar. Or, a public official puts out a press release saying he’s going to fire a whole swath of environmental workers. Or, a train or truck full of toxic sludge careens into a stream and befouls it. And finally, in some rare instances there are environmental situations that do occur within a 72-hour time frame, full on facts, and relevant to a lot of folks. The BP Oil spill was such an event. It made great news.

But you have to ask yourself, do these criteria for environmental news make sense anymore? How can a reporter report on Climate Change, invasive species, pollution, lead poisoning, water quality, Brownfields, wet land, air quality, food’s effect on our environment, environmental health, or the general demise of our environment under this set of rules? Yes, the reporter can wait until she can hook a report, an incident, a press release, or some other relevant qualification in order to publish an article on these issues, but more often than not, the news that we need to know about our environment does not fall into the neat and pretty way present-day editors determine what constitutes a news story.

Climate Change and most of the other environmental issues of our day are occurring at a different rate than what we expect from mainstream news. How do you report on continuing world-wide (including our region) but slow-moving disasters? How do you keep the public’s attention on something as boring and yet as critical as the state of our environment?

Aren’t environmental reporters hamstrung by the way media works nowadays? They must contort environmental news into something the media can attend to, a specific event that has scintillating relevancy to a large number of their reader’s interests –instead of reporting on the information itself and explaining to the public why it matters that their planet is warming up—whether they like it or not. We are hasty folks who expect instant gratification from our media--something new, jarring, and titillating.

Yes, there are formats where environmental news and information is continually presented: magazines, special TV programs, independent films, websites like, and even some newspapers that devote a special section to it—usually in the back. But this misses the point. If the public has to go to a specialized area to get environmental news, they probably won’t because it has the quality of being specialized, i.e. peculiar,—not mainstream news that becomes the default for the news most people get. Almost everyone, even the most illiterate and uncaring, tend to find a way to check some mainstream news. If Lady Gaga does a no-no, everyone knows.

Here’s the real tragedy: If an environmental news story doesn’t reach the front pages of mainstream media in a splashy way, the vast majority of the public won’t even know the issue exists. That means you create a public who thinks that the state of their environment doesn’t matter. The public won’t shop for the most environmentally-friendly products. They’ll continue to work for employers who pollute. And, they’ll keep voting for politicians who provide them with a comfortable and benign environment instead of the real one—one that takes no prisoners. They’ll keep using energy that warms the planet. Absurdly, too many believe our environment can be marginalized and avoided, like collecting stamps, because it only seems relevant to those few who have an interest in it.

Somehow, within the short time frame that the media has to reach most of the public, we have to find a way for the majority to know what is actually going on in the real world. The real world is warming up, and we must be watching it every day, no matter how boring or unsexy. Climate Change, for example, the most critical issue (environmental or otherwise) of our day and even though it is happening far quicker than climate scientists predicted, it doesn’t occur as timely and as ‘newsworthy’ as mainstream media can manage. Maybe when an Antarctic glacier the size of Texas drops into the ocean and immediately sends the ocean water level up a couple of feet, then the media will be out in force. But when that happens it’s going to be far too late to be any use to the public except as a sad note in history that could have been prevented.

Climate Change is going to be affecting Rochester, NY and there are going to be many consequences—few of them good. Mainstream media should adopt a new attitude and help the public get the message that these changes are very real and will affect the lives of its readership. Presently, the news doesn’t make any sense because it’s only about what the editor’s think the public wants to hear and doesn’t upset their sponsors. This isn’t news, it’s delusional. The old “who, what, where, when” just isn’t going to do anymore, especially on our environment. We are living on a planet whose environment we can no longer depend on to operate as it did before. We are greatly influencing our environment by almost everything we do and buy. The media must reflect this reality, not hold to the old one that can be dismissed as something too large for us to change, or one that can take care of itself.

Actually, our environment can take care of itself—though you might not be able to survive on it.

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