In Depth

Doing the Legwork

For Journalists, Great Preparation Is Key to Great Results

There’s an old saying that success is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. For broadcasters and reporters working on stories about the environment, success has often been hard to achieve because of the complications involved in really being prepared. Tackling difficult stories involving science, technology and often hard to comprehend material, environmental reporters have to go the extra yard.

“I always go to the experts in the area I’m investigating, people who don’t have a vested interest in the outcome,” said Joel Grover, investigative reporter at KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. “For the story I worked on about the contaminated produce at the Seventh Street market, I sought out a food safety expert. I called him up and asked him to tell me how it works—who has jurisdiction over this, how does this whole thing work? He gave me the whole intricate system, from the farm to the fork.”

It’s incumbent on news professionals to be able to distinguish the experts from the spinmeisters, even if that means going to multiple sources and digging deeper. Still, there are times when the information that companies and organizations give out is designed to create the appearance of being green, rather than being an indication that real changes are being made.

“Sadly, that’s true. That’s a function of some of the economic issues in the media industry, where there are fewer people to do the work so you sort of have to race around more to cover all your assignments,” said Tim Wheeler, environmental reporter for The Baltimore Sun and president of the SEJ Board of Directors.

“It’s important for us to be wary of getting sold a bill of goods. With marketing and everyone wanting to be portrayed as green, the question is who’s really green and who’s pale green or true green,” said Mr. Wheeler. “You have to find the time to dig a little deeper and find that extra source who might provide a different point of view.”

When whitewashing occurs in an environmental context, it’s called “greenwashing.” It’s basically a coordinated attempt to hide unpleasant truths, and it is a focus of the Web site greenwashingindex.com, presented by Enviromedia—an advertising and public relations agency that’s built on the idea that doing the right thing isn’t just the right thing, but a powerful business advantage.

“A classic example of greenwashing might be an energy company that runs an advertising campaign touting a ‘green’ technology they’re working on—but that ‘green’ technology represents only a sliver of the company’s otherwise not-so-green business, or may be marketed on the heels of an oil spill or plant explosion,” the Web site says.

There are companies that spend more time and money saying they’re green than actually going green. “It’s whitewashing, but with a green brush,” the site says.

“To avoid meaningless, one-sided interviews or false information, reporters need to find and research opposing views on any environmental issue and vet the expert with questions from both opposing and similar viewpoints prior to using them,” said Kim Carlson, eco-preneur, green living expert and author of the upcoming book “Green Your Work: Boost Your Bottom Line While Reducing Your Eco-Footprint.” “There is a tremendous amount of environmental content on the Web, and reporters can quickly get up to speed on the issues or an interviewee. There is plenty of information from business, environmental non-profits and government perspectives on any green issue.”

To make sure the information from the experts is legitimate, Mr. Wheeler recommended seeking out verification of the source from a watchdog group. “SourceWatch is a collaborative project of the Center for Media and Democracy, and they’ve kept tabs on these things for some time. There’s also an environmental marketing firm called TerraChoice in Texas. And SEJ has a tip sheet,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Wheeler recognizes the important contribution provided by the public. “There is no shortage of folks who will jump on your reporting if they think you’re unfair or sloppy or wrong or left things out. That’s from all sides of the issues,” he said.

William Brent, a cleantech blogger (www.mrcleantech.com) and also the head of the cleantech practice of the PR firm Weber Shandwick, urges the media to seek out unimpeachable sources. “There are true experts out there who can call bullshit. Find them and talk to them. What’s discouraging, however, is that the experts are often other media or executives at companies.”