In Depth

Cousteaus Wary of Sea Change

For Presentation Hosts, Environmental Health Starts With the Oceans

A highlight of the 18th Annual SEJ Conference in Roanoke, Va., will be the presentation by the Society of Environmental Journalists of its seventh annual awards for reporting on the environment, taking place Wednesday at the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center.

Thirty finalists culled from more than 230 entries in 11 categories, including a student category, are competing for the awards, with projects focusing on topics including energy and climate, politics and energy, ethanol production and food shortages, toxic bullets in condors, toxic trailers and land abuse.

Hosted by Philippe and Alexandra Cousteau, grandchildren of the legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau and celebrated ocean explorers in their own right, and SEJ board member Jeff Burnside of WTVJ-TV in Miami, the event will honor television, radio, print and online winners with $1,000 prizes, along with the new $10,000 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award for the best published nonfiction environment book of 2007.

Oceans Crucial

As might be expected, the Cousteaus’ environmental focus begins with the planet’s oceans, stressing that if the polluted oceans cannot recover, the planet itself cannot be healed.

“Water is our most pressing environmental challenge at this point,” said Ms. Cousteau. “We feel the climate change, but we see it [with regards to] water. We feel it when there’s a hurricane or a drought, which makes it more tangible than climate change.”

Ms. Cousteau, who worked with South American environmental groups for two years to strengthen local fisheries management, said she thought Europe “has a better attitude when it comes to climate change, but we all have our own set of issues, and the ability to legislate and allocate funds.”

Four years ago the sister and brother formed EarthEcho International, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that focuses on leadership for ocean advocacy and empowerment of the next generation through and school curriculum, expeditions and media.

Mr. Cousteau, who is chief ocean correspondent for Animal Planet and has lectured at the United Nations, said modern society makes it hard to get people to focus on what’s really important.

“The situation is very difficult to sum up in a 30-second sound bite,” he said. “Ocean currents, climate change and weather fluctuate over time. The impacts of climate change are slow-moving, relative to the 30-second lifestyle. And we’re getting 1,000 brand hits a day competing for our attention.”

SEJ Praised

He praised the work of the SEJ, noting that environmental reporting should not be relegated to the last part of the newscast.

“We tend to treat the environmental issues as a luxury, as secondary, and we need to get out of that mind-set,” he said. “Environmental journalism is more than just trees falling down and water prices. It affects the economy, public health, national security, and we need to approach those issues through an environmental lens. The environment should be the first thing on the list.”

Mr. Cousteau also complimented BBC’s news coverage, calling the network a “global citizen. Europe is 10 to 15 years ahead of the U.S. in renewable energy,” he said, adding that [improving the environment] “means greener, more sustainable jobs.”

Ms. Cousteau, named one of National Geographic’s “Emerging Explorers” for 2008, pointed out that the environment is a big part of global news, even when networks and viewers aren’t aware of it. “It’s how we connect the dots between stories,” she said, “like things that are happening in Australia, South America, Turkey and Europe.

“In China, they’re diverting an entire river system. In some places people are afraid because their towns are running out of water. We’re not educating people. We don’t look beyond our own borders to see what’s happening elsewhere.”

“One of the challenges in diagnosing some of these environmental problems,” said Mr. Cousteau, “is that a lot of our understanding of Deep Ocean is speculation. We don’t know enough about the system.

“Seventy percent of our planet is Deep Ocean, and 95%-98% is unexplored. We’ve explored just 5%, mostly coastal,” he said. “We don’t know enough about the system. We spend 1,000 times more money on space exploration.

“I’m not saying space exploration is a waste of time,” he added, “but it’s a matter of parity. When we look at how little we know—and how irresponsible we’ve been with our resources—we need triage in our resources, on our planet. This planet is what we need to love. And we need as many leaders and heroes as possible.”

Finalists for outstanding beat/in-depth television reporting this year include Peter Bull, Center for Investigative Reporting, for “Hot Politics”; Vince Patton, Todd Sonflieth, Nick Fisher and Michael Bendixon, Oregon Public Broadcasting, “Oregon Field Guide,” for “Marmot Dam”; and Dan Rather, Wayne Nelson, Chandra Simon, Resa Matthews and Elyse Kaftan, HDNet, for “Dan Rather Reports: Toxic Trailers.”

Finalists for outstanding television story include Christopher Bauer, Shirley Gutierrez, Josh Rose, Sheraz Sadiq and Paul Rogers, KQED-TV, for “Quest: Condors vs. Lead Bullets”; Sidharth Pandey, NDTV 24x7 in Delhi, India, for “Mined to Death”; and Kerry Sanders, NBC News, for “Arctic Ice Melt From the North Pole.”