By Debra Kaufman
A new survey of environmental reporters indicates that their biggest challenge is the limited resources of their jobs and the most crucial issue they cover is global warming.
The poll, conducted by NewsPro in conjunction with the Society of Environmental Journalists, also found that:
• They are encouraged by the American public’s generally raised level of consciousness about green issues.
• They believe the advent of multimedia has had a great effect on the way they do their jobs.
• They think the amount of coverage their news organization devotes to environmental issues is on the rise.
On the eve of the SEJ’s 19th annual conference, NewsPro surveyed the organization’s members on a number of questions central to coverage of environmental issues. Response rate to the online poll was about 10 percent, a return SEJ executive director Beth Parke characterized as “healthy.”
A plurality of respondents (35.2 percent) answered that “resources at my news organization” topped the challenges. “I’ve been spending a lot of time this year listening to reporters talk about what’s happening in their newsrooms,” said Parke.
“The resources answer has to do with how much time they get to report a story. It might not have to do with the amount of coverage they’re being asked to do. Some of them are asked to do more because there are fewer people,” said Parke.
Bud Ward, editor of “The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media,” notes that the response reflects “a pink-slipping of newsrooms.”
“That’s not too surprising that that would be the first challenge,” he said.
Whereas 16.4 percent of respondents said “job security” was their chief challenge, 19.5 percent cited “priority among news topics covered by my news organization.” That’s a challenge felt by WTVJ-TV special projects editor Jeff Burnside.
“Environmental stories are assigned a lower priority,” he said. “There is more pressure to cover the crime of the day. I was never full-time as an environmental journalist but it was more of a priority a few years back. That’s less because of the green pendulum and more about our shrinking staff. That, and as management changed, so did priorities.”
A full 25 percent of respondents, however, listed “other” challenges in being an environmental journalist. That’s the category that ABC correspondent Bill Blakemore counts himself in. “In the minds of our editors, there is no category of what we do,” he said. “It’s genuine unfamiliarity about how you cover this thing. My biggest challenge in covering global warming is to find ways to make a totally unprecedented kind of story feel approachable to my editors, my colleagues and my viewers.”
The second question asked what respondents viewed as the most important national environmental story over the next several years, with choices listed as global warming; peak oil/renewable energy; fresh water issues; agriculture/food systems; refugees from environmental disasters; and others.
An overwhelming plurality — 50.4 percent — tagged global warming as the crucial issue. Water issues came in second in importance, at 17.4 percent, followed by peak oil/renewable energy at 14.9 percent. Agriculture/food issues rated a 5.8 percent response, and refugee issues a mere 0.8 percent. “This says that these issues have truly gained prominence among reporters who are in a position to cover it,” said Parke.
But a full 10.7 percent of respondents answered “other,” and under that rubric, more than one respondent noted that “all these issues are intertwined.” Blakemore agrees. “Hands down, global warming and the attendant ocean acidification,” he said. “Global warming is the envelope — quite literally — in which all these other issues live.”
“Once you start looking at environmental issues, you see everything is connected to everything else,” said Parke. “People who cover the environment have to be aware of so many things. It’s a kaleidoscopic beat.”
Global warming, however, still isn’t an easy sell at the local station or local newspaper level. “Climate change is called the story of the century, for good reason,” said Burnside. “But it’s the most difficult environmental story to do for TV, because it’s visually challenging, and there’s a presumption that it’s not a local story.”
“The Yale Forum’s” Ward also pointed out that mainstream legacy news organizations focus more on what’s in the immediate area.
“Half the respondents put global climate change as the most important national story,” he said. “I question whether or not they would have climate change as the most important local story. It’s usually seen as far off and far away in time. Polar bears, not Topeka.”
Indeed, one respondent who answered “other,” said that, “for my readers, the most important issue is the restoration of the health of the [local bay] — water quality, fisheries, etc.”
A question that asked what was the most positive environmental trend in the U.S. drew an enthusiastic response: 45.4 percent named a “general trend of raised consciousness about green issues.”
“Local agriculture/locovore movement” (eating food that is grown locally) drew an 18.5 percent response, and 9.2 percent named “renewable energy at home, including weatherproofing, solar panels, light bulbs.” Other possible answers included legislative initiatives (Cap and Trade, Cash for Clunkers, others) at 8.4 percent; green buildings at 5.9 percent; and recycling at 2.5 percent. Once again, 10.1 percent of respondents checked “other,” citing technology and biology R&D, corporate America becoming more sustainable, and all types of energy conservation.
Blakemore points to “subnational governments” as the most important trend. “Although there was inattention and denial from the national level, at the state and local level, environmental issues were taken seriously,” he said, observing that over 500 cities have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, with a commitment to “strive to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their own communities.” Likewise, a group of governors and leaders from 30 states and territories formed the Governors’ Climate Coalition.
Opinions about the value of raised consciousness differed dramatically among respondents. “I think when you raise consciousness you invariably raise activity,” said Burnside. “When people in the mainstream are doing more green things in their personal lives, people are more aware and more open to coverage of green issues.”
Ward, however, believes that many people talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. “People always say they’re green,” he said. “But give them a choice between a fuel-efficient vehicle and an SUV, and they’ve tended to go for the Hummer. It pays to be skeptical when people say they’re environmentally responsible.”
Some respondents agreed with Ward’s assessment. “The big trends aren’t very positive and the positive trends aren’t very big,” said one. Yet another focused on “interest and commitment from Obama administration, but in context of poor economy” as the trend to watch.
In response to the question asking what the biggest change in job requirements has been in the past five years, 33.3 percent answered “multimedia.” That’s as an underscoring of SEJ’s efforts to increase multimedia savvy among its membership. &l
dquo;It shows us what we can do with education, equipment support to help learning in that area,” said Parke, who notes that preconference training sessions are already full.
For Burnside, the biggest change has been “doing more stories with fewer resources.”
“I went from doing several stories over the course of several weeks to doing three stories in one day,” he said. “If you subtract travel time and eating, that’s 90 minutes to gather information, write and produce a story and get it on the air.”
Blakemore reports that he’s doing Web and social networking tasks, but doesn’t see that much of a change from when he started working as a correspondent in 1970. “I’m excited by new media, but my job requirements are the same,” he said. “I’ve always done a little print, a little radio, so it doesn’t seem like that much of a change.”
Finally, respondents were asked if the amount of coverage dedicated to environmental issues at their news outlets was increasing or decreasing. A surprising 41 percent said it was increasing, with 35.9 saying it was staying the same, and only 23.1 percent saying it was decreasing.
“I suspect that coverage is not increasing at the large news organizations, which are going to a smaller news hole overall,” said Ward. “They’re reducing page width, column inches, and broadcasters are reducing airtime. I think a large percentage of [the people who said coverage was increasing] comes from specialized outlets and not traditional media such as large metropolitan dailies.”
In concert with Ward’s observation, Burnside said the amount of coverage at his station is decreasing.
“I can’t say we’re representing a national trend,” he said. “I can only speak for our particular circumstance. Budgets are crashing not just in newspapers but in TV, too. The staff is smaller and you have less chance to do comprehensive enterprise stories.”
Although Blakemore was reluctant to give a hard answer, he points out the impact of new media. “On the Web, of course, it’s increasing,” he said. “New digital multimedia platforms are helping coverage to increase.”
For Parke, the overwhelming take-away from the survey is a message she wants the membership to hear.
“SEJ is paying attention,” she said. “We want to continue to ask questions to be able to respond to where people see this field going and the advances that need to take place in terms of improving public understanding.”