In Depth

Woodruff Puts ‘Earth’ in Focus

ABC Newsman Takes on Eco-Issues in Up-to-the-Minute Planet Green Show

Bob Woodruff is the consummate news pro, a veteran of ABC News who survived a near-death experience while covering the war in Iraq. He has come back from the worst of it, and as he told TelevisionWeek, “I feel great. I’ve gotten a lot of my words back. I still suffer from aphasia.”

Today Mr. Woodruff files weekly reports about the environment as the anchor of “Focus Earth With Bob Woodruff” on Planet Green. “Focus Earth” is a comprehensive eco-newscast in which Mr. Woodruff covers such subjects as climate impact, environmental policy, political debate and world events.

In anticipation of this week’s 18th annual SEJ Conference at Virginia Tech University, Mr. Woodruff spoke with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman about “Focus Earth.”

TelevisionWeek: Tell us about the new show you’re doing on Planet Green, “Focus Earth.”

Bob Woodruff: This is up-to-date, breaking news on what’s happening in the environment that week. There’s a lot of reporting on environmental issues, but a lot of them are shot way in advance and are not really reflecting just what broke or happened recently. There is some reporting, everything from newspapers, magazines and the networks as well, but not single programs where they are doing an entire half-hour reporting on breaking news. That’s what we’re trying to do. Whatever is happening that week, whether it’s in politics, science, around the world, we’re trying to get those stories to people so they know what’s happening.

TVWeek: Is environmental journalism a particular discipline that a reporter has to learn?

Mr. Woodruff: You’re a journalist. This is what we do in our entire careers. You study a new Ph.D. to cover what we’re doing. I’m sure you’ve shifted from one thing to another. The great thing about this for journalists is that this gives you a chance to learn something brand-new. I have certainly been looking and studying science for years. There has been a difficulty trying to get a lot of this reported in the past. The world now has absolutely woken up to global warming, environmental shifts, certainly the use of fossil fuels, gas prices, these things have made this real for so many lives in this country. Now, journalistically, what you’re certainly going to see at the SEJ conference between Oct. 15-19, is how the next generation really looks at environmental reporting. For so many decades, I’ve covered wars, international news and reporting, but climate change is perhaps the most important one for me.

TVWeek: Would you advise a person getting into the media today to pursue the environmental beat?

Mr. Woodruff: Certainly. First, this is incredibly important to the future of our country and the world and our lives. Secondly, what I’ve always been somewhat addicted to is international reporting. I have said many times over the last five years, you have seen the borders of the world really disappear, even though our country was separated from the world by the Atlantic on the east and the Pacific on the west. I think that is largely now gone. The relationship with the world is tightening, and one of the main reasons for the tightening is not just the economy, not just the diplomatic relationships, but also largely because of pollution, use of fossil fuels, emissions are now flowing around the world in a large circle and that’s brought countries together. If you like traveling, if you like reporting around the world and around the country from state to state, this is probably the most important kind of journalism that exists right now.

TVWeek: What do you think are going to be the most important environmental stories in the years to come?

Mr. Woodruff: When you look at some of the issues that have dominated the reporting in the last many years, it’s been largely wars and tribal conflicts, and sometimes those are explained by some kind of economic or religious conflict. But what I think you’re seeing more is that it’s now largely based on food and water. I think a lot of reporters are investigating this kind of thing and there’s a wide belief that the next big oil is water. The water levels below the land in China are going down. You’re seeing some countries where there’s just not enough water, so there are tribal conflicts that are just about water. In January, I was in Sudan and went to Darfur. I was with a geologist who is now trying to figure out how to get more water to the people in Darfur. Yes, there is a political issue in the conflict there, there’s a diplomatic issue to it and a religious issue, there’s power and control coming from Khartoum, no question. But there is also a shortage of water, and that is causing conflicts there as well. It’s a new way to look at a lot of these issue, the shortages of food and water. It’s probably going to lead to a flow of refugees in the future.

TVWeek: Working on “Focus Earth,” do you ever wonder if you’ll run out of stories each week?

Mr. Woodruff: No, there are 17,000 stories we could cover every week. The big challenge is deciding which ones to cover. Part of the reporting is which is the emerging danger, and the other is the possibility of recovery, that is, how do we fix this? There are things that we can do now to improve our future and help the world for our children and grandchildren. This is not negative reporting, this is not frightening reporting. This is a mixture of a waking up, intelligence and scientific answers to improve what is happening.

TVWeek: What do you think of the Planet Green network?

Mr. Woodruff: I think there are going to be more channels like it. This is the leader, the first to do this as large as it is, but I think there are going to be more to follow. We are seeing in politics: Running for president this year, the environment is a much bigger issue than it ever was in previous campaigns. It’s a growing subject and you’re going to see more Planet Green type of channels in the future. When you have a single channel committed to one subject, the environment, you can do much more.

TVWeek: What kind of response have you received for “Focus Earth”?

Mr. Woodruff: It’s been very positive. People have been quite impressed by the fact that we are now reporting breaking news on Planet Green. I think there are some people who would like to see even more of this kind of reporting on the networks, and I think that’s starting to change.

TVWeek: You’re still doing ABC News, too, right?

Mr. Woodruff: Oh yes, absolutely. I’m not anchoring; I’m reporting on a wide range of stories. I’m doing longer, more in-depth pieces. I’ve got my diversity back, which is great.

For more stories about environmental journalism, visit TVWeek's Newspro page here.