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Society of Environmental Journalists: The Growth of Green

Natural Disasters, Corporate Initiatives and Growing Awareness of Climate Change Combine to Raise the Profile of Environmental Journalism

The recent coverage of Hurricane Dean's assault on the Caribbean region is the latest example of a major weather and environmental story in a period that has seen an explosion of environmental journalism. The spike in coverage can be traced to almost two years ago, when journalists began questioning federal, state and local governments' lack of response to Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Perhaps because of the widespread criticism that resulted in a congressional investigation and the resignation of the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, President Bush got in front of the latest storm as Dean neared the United States, signing a pre-landfall disaster declaration on Aug. 18 that would allow the federal government to move in people, equipment and supplies immediately if needed.

The Hurricane Dean story points up many of the challenges faced by news organizations across the country. Even as environmental issues have become more top-of-mind to the audience and central to people's lives, health and well-being, many news organizations have cut back their staffs and eliminated specialty beats. That leaves general-assignment reporters to get quickly up to speed on topics in which they may not have a strong knowledge base. At the same time, their corporate bosses often expect them to report across several media platforms, to blog and to edit video.

Members of the Society of Environmental Journalists are adapting to the changing landscape and offering their expertise to colleagues. "It's a time of change in media, and with it,

increased awareness and importance to maintain standards and carry them into the future to protect the profession of journalism from disappearing," said Beth Parke, SEJ executive director.

"What we're really about is members who are a tremendous source of energy to colleagues," she added. "It actually works that people share resources. It's not unusual to have a reporter assigned to cover a new nuclear plant and they don't know anything about it. But they can ask for help, and we see that as an opportunity for more people who can use this network to better their reporting."

"SEJ has been saying for a couple of years now that we have the story of the 21st century: the environment," said SEJ Vice President Christy George, a television and radio producer-reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. "We think that everybody is going to become an environmental reporter in the coming years. We want to be there for those just starting, and those working in other fields like business or real estate who may not know the environmental backstory. We want to be there for those people who are good reporters but who are coming without a lot of background."

One of the big changes, and challenges, across the newsgathering world is the growing prominence of the Internet, which gives a new meaning to the old news adage, "Get it first, get it fast." One reporter joked that the news cycle is down to 90 seconds, and most agree there is an increased expectation for television station and newspaper Web sites to be frequently updated.

"The online boom is having a big impact," Ms. George said. "It's the worst and the best of times, with a huge beat to cover, including climate change, energy, infrastructure -- and there's going to be more. Yet news is in major retrenchment mode. Newspapers are laying off, losing environmental beat reporters, TV is continuing to see fragmentation and radio may be starting to flatten out. But broadcasters are pretty quick to work on a Web site itself, and newspapers are, too. Figuring out how to make the Web pay is everyone's problem. Until they do that, this beleaguered situation is going to continue."

The digital transformation of newsgathering and delivery is leaving many journalists scrambling to keep up and get ahead of the curve in terms of story development, leading to a heightened tension that will be the subject of many conversations at the upcoming SEJ conference.

"All mainstream media are trying as rapidly as possible to become multimedia platforms for news," said SEJ President Tim Wheeler, who covers growth and development as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. "We all have to be flexible, embrace change and try to use the power of the media to communicate with the public. It's much more interactive. It's a challenge for those of us who grew up in one type of media, and who are now using different forms. We're helping through SEJ to make those transitions, and helping our members learn more about how to use the Internet."

Time, space and money are the classic obstacles to good journalism, and they are more compressed now.

"The online news world demands very rapid response," Mr. Wheeler said. "The Baltimore Sun restored the afternoon paper news cycle to our news operation to update our Web site, something we didn't do until recently. We've seen a real jump in hits on the site as we put on more content. There's a demand for immediacy, interactivity, while at the same time we're dealing with complicated subjects and trying to boil it down to get points across in a way that's accessible."

Going Mainstream

Coverage of the complex topic of climate change is also on the rise. Many would argue that it has become mainstream rather than niche, citing as a turning point in the public's consciousness the Oscar win for documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" earlier this year and the billing of the Oscars broadcast itself as carbon-neutral.

Add to that the positive buzz surrounding the recent opening of "The 11th Hour," Leonardo DiCaprio's documentary on impending environmental disaster, along with new focus on what some call the scourge of plastic beverage bottles and the growing popularity of reusable grocery bags, and there are multiple new consumer angles from which to report environmental stories.

"We're aware this is a mega-story, with many entry points, whether they be business, health, consumer or political, from people who may not think of themselves as environmental journalists," Ms. Parke said. "There are even sports-related environmental stories, with how weather issues affect sports. You see it now in any section of the paper or broadcast."

Advertisers also are beginning to go green, and to promote eco-consciousness on air and in print -- and internally. "I've been impressed with American companies like Wal-Mart, DuPont and Coca-Cola, who have added corporate environment or sustainability officers and announced serious plans that committed them to reduce their impact on the environment," said Mr. Wheeler. "They talk about reducing consumer waste, and each has global reach. Wal-Mart is still controversial by putting their stores on open land, but lately they've made moves to look at urban settings. And by simply ordering products like compact fluorescent [light] bulbs, Wal-Mart influences the market in this country. They impact what businesses produce, and production is going to be ramped up."

One of the big environmental stories of the coming years will be how well these corporations succeed in that effort -- whether they live up to their commitments and whether the public buys into it and rewards them by buying their products. The results of that process will help answer the question of whether there is enough profit in being green.

On the political front, more states are expected to join California, Minnesota and New Jersey in passing laws restricting greenhouse gas emissions. On the campaign trail, environmental issues already are coming into play. All the Democratic presidential contenders have called global warming a real threat, and say they will push for actions similar to those that have passed in those three states. Of the GOP field, only Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., currently supports legislation that would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

SOCIETY OF ENVIRONMENTAL JOURNALISTS
What: 17th annual SEJ Conference
Where: Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.
When: Sept. 5-9
Details: SEJ.org

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