The Masters of Environmental Journalism
The environment can be a tough beat. It requires extraordinary persistence and dedication to remain abreast of the myriad developments in an ever-evolving, often controversial field. For some reporters, it has become more than a career — it is a commitment. Here, NewsPro correspondent Hillary Atkin profiles some of environmental journalism’s most accomplished professionals.
It was in 1992, and Hurricane Andrew had left a huge swath of devastation across South Florida. Seth Borenstein, then a reporter for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel covering a severe regional drought, reported extensively on the disaster and later co-authored a book about it. It was just a sample of things to come in his career.
Borenstein is now the national science writer for the Associated Press, and for the past 3½ years has spent his time covering international and national science-related topics including climate change, NASA, astronomy, Earth sciences, archaeology and science ethics. He also investigates stories coming out of the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies.
“I’m pretty much doing the science, not the policy, which a colleague does,” Borenstein said. “I get to write about the latest research, like sea-level rise, and try to bring everything together for the biggest picture look, and what it means closer to home.”
“The next big issue is how does civilization adapt to what is happening with climate change, how do you build smarter?” Borenstein said. “Do you do geo-engineering with man-made pollution to make it cooler, or put mirrors in space to tinker with our climate? There are all sorts of ethical debates about it.”
How do you top an 18-year career at the Los Angeles Times? If you are Marla Cone, who was the senior environmental reporter there until 2008, you become the editor-in-chief of Environmental Health Sciences, a Virginia-based organization that acts as a wire service for environmental news. It distributes its own content, as well as aggregating other environmental news.
“Our mandate is to give our readers high quality coverage of issues that are getting very little coverage in the rest of the media. Especially with what’s happening to mainstream media, people are not getting much environmental journalism,” Cone said. “We provide classic journalism, foundation-funded, so there are no worries about advertising.”
While at the L.A. Times, which she left voluntarily even as many of her colleagues lost their jobs, she covered major stories including the harm pollutants do to people’s health and the damage pollution does to ecosystems around the world. She also looked at how most industries are highly dependent on hazardous substances, how fireworks create potentially dangerous air pollution, and how lead exposure in children may lead to violent crime.
In 2005, Cone authored a book called “Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic,” after winning a Pew Foundation grant in marine conservation — which is usually reserved for scientists — to investigate environmental issues there, particularly how contaminants are affecting wildlife and people in the region.
In 1999, she received the first teaching fellowship in environmental journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and taught at the Graduate School of Journalism there.
Growing up in Rhode Island, Andrew Revkin fell in love with nature and enjoyed reading books about it. His undergraduate degree was in biology with an emphasis on marine biology. Now an author and an environmental reporter for The New York Times since 1995, Revkin has traveled the world documenting man’s relationship to nature.
“After heading abroad on a fellowship to study isolated island communities, I got the photography and writing bug,” said Revkin. “In journalism, the two passions — storytelling and my interest in biology, nature, and the human relationship with nature — were able to mesh.”
He writes about global environmental change and the work has taken him from the Amazon to the North Pole to Alaska’s North Slope, where a photograph of a blizzard he shot in 2005 won a top award.
Revkin also runs the new Dot Earth blog (nytimes.com.earth). He said it revolves around a single question: How do we blend humankind’s infinite aspirations with life on a finite planet?
“There’s been a huge increase in volume and in the range of media dealing with environment, blogs particularly,” Revkin said. “There is still mainly a focus on ‘news you can use’ and often I wonder if the core issues — population, poverty, avoidable threats in poor countries, the lack of investment still in energy frontiers — are getting adequate attention.”
On the heels of his Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Altered Oceans” in the Los Angeles Times, staff writer Ken Weiss is about to embark on world travels covering another major environmental story, which at press time he was not able to reveal.
With resources that may make other journalists “green” with envy, Weiss spent 18 months on the 2006 five-part series chronicling the state of the world’s oceans, including the problems of overfishing, and how pollution is changing the chemistry of oceanic ecosystems — collaborating with another reporter and a photographer/videographer.
He’ll have a similar setup for his next project.
“Instead of covering the big cataclysmic events like tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes, what I’ve been focusing on is the slow creep of environmental decay,” said Weiss. “It’s hard to cover that slow process, but in the end, the collective toll on the oceans, wildlife and habitat is usually more significant than acute problems resulting from an oil spill or tsunami. The slow creep of change is usually for the worse.”
Weiss has been covering the environment for 30 years, and says things have shifted from an outlook of man versus nature to one of protecting the Earth and what it provides to man: clean water, fresh air, fertile ground to grow food and timber to build houses.
Talk about a full plate: In addition to his work as a correspondent for ABC News, Bob Woodruff is now in his second season of hosting Planet Green’s half-hour “Focus Earth.”
It’s an in-depth series covering subjects such as climate impact, environmental policy, political debate and world events, and it’s taken Woodruff — a veteran international anchor/reporter who recovered from a near-fatal roadside bombing in Iraq — around the country and the globe.
“There’s a big wake-up call about what’s happening with climate change — and what we can do about it,” said Woodruff. “Journalistically, it’s the next major story.”
He’s done reports on the battle over coal mining in West Virginia, how changes in Florida’s Everglades are affecting wildlife, a unique recycling program in Boston and new solutions for waste storage in Iceland.
“This program is really interesting for me. I’ve not been a scientist; it’s like a college graduate class on things I’d never even known about,” Woodruff said. “I have hope that we as a country will need more scientists and engineers to come up with solutions. We need to compete as a country to develop new ways to deal with environmental issues. It would increase jobs in this economy. It’s not just about science, politics or TV reporting — this is really huge. “