Environmental Blues

Oct 18, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Pollution, coastal erosion and air quality are among some of the most local of topics a television station can cover, but environmental stories aren’t a high enough priority to merit a dedicated reporter at the vast majority of local broadcasters.

In fact, unless that station is owned by Belo, one of the few groups to make a regular practice of employing environmental beat reporters in some of its markets, chances are environmental stories will get covered in an ad hoc fashion, by general assignment reporters or an investigative unit.

Given that the environment is a topic that intersects with other beats such as politics, health, science and weather and considering that many environmental stories are daily breaking news events, most stations cover the topic with a variety of reporters when necessary.

“Should there be a story we need to cover such as [an event in] the Everglades or an oil spill, we assign a general assignment reporter,” said Alice Jacobs, VP of news at Sunbeam-owned Fox station WSVN-TV in Miami. “I think it’s difficult to assign one person to cover that beat because it’s not a story every day.”

Her philosophy is shared by most news directors around the country. While the premise seems to work, most acknowledge that environmental coverage on local TV could be improved.

Dave Lougee, general manager of Belo’s NBC affiliate KING-TV in Seattle, contends that the widespread dearth in environmental coverage is due to the gradual squeeze that stations have felt financially over the past several years.

“There is painfully little [environmental reporting] in local TV news. Research indicated there isn’t much interest in it,” he said. “Because there has been less and less specialty reporting in TV in general and financially there have been challenges and there have been cutbacks in newsrooms … that’s made it more challenging to support specialists.”

However, KING is the exception to the rule. KING, like Belo’s independent station KTVK-TV in Phoenix and its ABC affiliate WFAA-TV in Dallas, has a dedicated environmental reporter, while Belo’s NBC station KGW-TV in Portland, Ore., has a reporter, Vince Patton, assigned to the environment who also covers politics. (Mr. Patton’s first-person account of the station’s Mount St. Helens coverage begins on Page 9.) In addition, Belo’s CBS affiliates WWL-TV in New Orleans and KHOU-TV in Houston both rely on general assignment reporters who report extensively on the environment, including enterprise and investigative stories.

WWL’s Dave McNamara is from New Orleans and understands the importance of environmental issues to WWL viewers, said Sandy Breland, WWL executive news director. “Our geography and petrochemical industry make environmental reporting a priority,” she said. “We cover stories ranging from the loss of our coastline to chemical releases into the air to unexplained clusters of rare diseases that possibly have environmental causes. … Our resources are allocated based on the importance of stories, and environmental stories often rank high in that regard.”

In addition, Belo’s CBS station KMOV-TV in St. Louis made a name for itself in 2002 when reporter Craig Cheatham uncovered a story about lead poisoning caused by a local lead smelter. The story won the 2003 Gerald Loeb award for business and finance reporting and the National Press Club’s Robert Kozik Award for environmental reporting.

“Without a company like Belo that is as passionately committed to good journalism, it’s difficult for newsrooms on their own to do it,” Mr. Lougee said. Stations can ramp up their coverage, though, without investing in a full-time environmental reporter. A weekend anchor, for instance, could take on more environmental coverage, he said.

In Seattle and the Northwest, coverage of the environment is particularly important, he said. “I think people in the Northwest have always had an enormously special relationship with the environment and it cuts across political boundaries. It’s an incredibly beautiful part of the country. … Seattle was born of the timber industry, and some of the most progressive foresting policies [are in place here],” he said. “The salmon-they are almost a religious species in the Northwest, if you will, and people have an enormous appreciation of what is here and how precious it is once lost and how difficult it will be to get it back. A lot of people live here because of the environment.”

Local TV in general can do a better job of covering the environment, said Chris Blackman, VP of news at NBC-owned WCAU-TV in Philadelphia. “There are things we would love to do more in-depth reporting on and just don’t do, whether because of resources or other issues. Sometimes we are definitely guilty of maybe putting a larger emphasis on breaking news and crime coverage, but I think it’s something we try in our news to grapple with every single day,” he said.

However, WCAU still aims to do its fair share of environmental coverage, especially given that the environment is a decidedly local topic with an impact on viewers’ daily lives. Environmental topics WCAU has covered include coastal erosion of the Jersey shore and water quality. WCAU covers environmental stories as they arise on a daily basis.

In addition, the station’s weekend meteorologist Amy Freeze contributes environmental pieces during the week as part of her weather reporting. Her work has included coverage of beach erosion, lead in the water at a New Jersey high school and the impact of weather on mosquito seasons. Mr. Blackman estimated that WCAU covers an environmental story once a week.

Stories like lead in the water originate as breaking news, which is why WCAU often assigns general assignment reporters to cover environmental stories.

Several Fox-owned stations have received regional Emmys for environmental coverage.

General assignment reporter Robin Schwartz at Fox-owned WJBK-TV in Detroit won a local Emmy earlier this year in weather and science for her work covering vulnerabilities in the water system that surfaced during the East Coast blackout in the fall of 2003. The story came to her attention during coverage of a town hall meeting, and she began looking into the monitoring procedures for chemicals spilled into the St. Clair River.

“The reason this was such a big deal in Michigan is we have the largest fresh water supply in the United States from the Great Lakes,” she said. The story aired in December 2003 and has resulted in a better procedure for notification of chemical spills, she said.

“I think in this day and age, post-9/11, any potential threat to the environment [is a story]. Obviously, our drinking water is a critical part of our everyday life. The environment is part of our everyday coverage-spills, hazardous material, something in the water, the ground, a water main breaks, anything having to do with our interaction with water or air is a critical part of our daily coverage.”

Fellow Fox-owned station WAGA-TV in Atlanta has also tackled environmental stories, such as the severe flooding in Troup County in 2003.

“We had incredible pictures from the air of what were houses,” said Budd McEntee, VP, news. “Or you saw a car floating down the river. Of course it presented a health concern with all that flooding, then you focus on health-care concerns. A reporter even pulled a fish out of the water [and] did a great job of telling the story of how the problem was created, and [the water] kept rising as we were there.”

The station won a Southeast regional Emmy this year for its team coverage of the story.

The environment is a huge story in Florida, a state that tries to strike a delicate balance between development and dwindling natural resources, said Skip Valet, news director of Post-Newsweek-owned CBS station WKMG-TV in Orlando, Fla. Stories have included Superfund sites, illegal dumping, gopher turtle habitats, bald eagle habitats, toxic mold and the impact the recent hurricanes have had and will have on the environment.

“It’s kind of a constant story,” he said. However, the station does not employ a dedicated environmental reporter because the stories
can be covered by the investigative unit or by general reporters.

Sinclair Broadcasting Group said its centralized NewsCentral service actually helps provide the Sinclair stations with more environmental coverage because NewsCentral stories tend to be more issue-oriented.

“I think there has always been a strong interest in environmental/weather issues,” said Joe DeFeo, VP and news director for the Sinclair Broadcast Group. “We cover it because issues are important and the places you live, the drinking water, those are the most important things that hit home to people.”

NewsCentral also allows Sinclair to produce stories for its stations on national environmental issues. Mr. DeFeo said he prefers not to use dedicated environmental reporters at stations because that can pigeonhole a reporter into one area. “Needing to do double duty is a fact of life in many newsrooms,” he said.

Environmental coverage at local stations became less of a priority after 9/11 because broadcasters became more focused on international coverage and affairs, said Peter Dykstra, executive producer for science, technology, environment, space and weather at CNN. He’s also a judge for the Society of Environmental Journalists awards. One of the reasons a dedicated environmental reporter doesn’t always make sense is because the beat touches on many issues, from medicine to health to politics to science, he said.

Environmental coverage also varies by region. It gets more attention in the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, Utah and California, said Beth Parke, executive director of the SEJ.