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Eco-Reports Endangered

Sep 8, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Environmental reporting has been an endangered species at TV stations and networks for the past few years.

But some broadcasters are making an effort to change that. The natural cycle of politics will also bring greater media attention to environmental issues as the upcoming campaign season heats up.

Despite the increase in coverage expected over the next year, environmental reporting on television has been dwindling, said Scott Miller, co-director of Resource Media in Seattle, a nonprofit resource center that provides communications and media outreach to improve coverage of the environment, said. Mr. Miller served as the environmental reporter at Seattle’s Belo-owned KING-TV NBC affiliate for 16 years.

Since the majority of environmental stories are features or enterprise pieces that unfold over an extended period of time, the beat has an inherent challenge to it, he said. “Environmental stories by their nature are complex and about shades of gray, with difficult choices for people to make,” he said.

Since stories with a good guy and a bad guy play well on TV, they are the kind of environmental pieces that catch a news director’s interest, he said. “If I could test for something or catch someone doing something bad, the editors loved that. Whereas early in my career I could do three-part issue-oriented stuff. In the late part the stories that had a real edge, `gotcha’ stories [were more popular],” he said.

That changed as specialty reporting became a luxury. With the slow economy and pressure to produce more news with the same or less staff, beat reporting can fall by the wayside.

In a large market, with most reporters chasing breaking stories, there isn’t always someone around to focus on the environment, said Coleen Marren, news director with Hearst-Argyle-owned ABC affiliate WCVB-TV in Boston. The station has tackled that challenge by adding environmental coverage to the responsibilities of its weekend meteorologist, JC Monahan. NBC-owned WCMH-TV in Columbus, Ohio, relies on weekend weather forecaster Marshall McPeek to cover weather-related environment stories during the week.

In addition, the station hired reporter Natalie Walston in May. Ms. Walston covered the environment as a public radio reporter. She expects to cover environmental stories largely as investigative or sweeps pieces, rather than on a daily basis, for WCMH.

That includes a story she’s planning for November that will look into the environmental effects of the chemicals used in making Teflon at the DuPont plant in West Virginia, she said.

“You don’t have time to go out and do the extensive pieces [every day],” she said. The immediacy of the daily news pull usually trumps working on environmental stories that may not go anywhere, she said.

A station has to weigh the most important topics every day, said Stan Sanders, news director at WCMH. The combination of Mr. McPeek and Ms. Walston allows WCMH to stay abreast of environmental issues and also focus on the daily news, he said.

Some local stations have devoted significant resources to environmental coverage. Several Belo stations, such as KING-TV, ABC affiliate WFAA-TV in Dallas and Houston’s CBS station KHOU-TV, have dedicated environmental reporters.

The key to successful coverage is to move beyond simply reporting on ozone alerts and to do stories on alternative forms of energy and how the dearth of rain may impact crop prices, David Duitch, news director at WFAA, said.

The station counts reporter Don Wall as its environmental guru. “At least in this market he is the only environmental reporter, and it is a point of [distinction],” he said. “When you say `environment,’ that’s not necessarily a sexy topic. Yet put in the hands of a strong reporter and photojournalist, you get great television and great journalism.”

Environmental coverage can also be part of another beat, said Adam Glenn, senior producer, business, health, science and technology at ABCNews.com. “I think a lot of folks who follow this see environmental journalism as something broader,” he said. “Someone who covers city planning can have environmental journalism as part of their beat because it deals with sprawl or water pollution. Someone on a business beat can be an environmental reporter,” he said.

Environmental stories usually hinge on issues about which viewers are passionate-the air we breathe, how people make a living, the treatment of endangered species, said Peter Dykstra, executive producer, science, technology, environment and space for CNN. That means a news organization must cover it carefully and responsibly, respect all the points of view and provide context.

“It’s not just our job to report what is said today, but what was said 10 or 15 years ago,” he said.