Environment Is a Class Act

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Hall

Special to TelevisionWeek

It’s getting easier to find college-level courses and programs devoted to environmental journalism. More than three dozen journalism schools have undergraduate or graduate-level programs that can lead to a specialized degree or certificate. Dozens of other institutions offer one or more classes on environmental reporting or writing.

But though most environmental journalism programs are open to both print and electronic media journalists, very few participants come from television newsrooms.

“We have had a tough time getting people from television,” said Len Ackland, co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder, adding that only two of the nearly 50 Ted Scripps Fellows at the University of Colorado claimed a TV background.

“It’s true. The commercial television world does not have many of us,” said Vince Patton, who has covered environmental issues for five years for KGW-TV in Portland, Ore. He attributed the problem in part to his industry’s reliance on consultants who emphasize breaking news, crime coverage and whiz-bang graphics.

Only about 6 percent of Society of Environmental Journalists members come from TV newsrooms. The organization plans a summit next year to divine ways to attract more broadcast members. Meanwhile, Beth Parke, executive director of the SEJ, suggests that television may be missing out on a great opportunity to attract the younger audiences news managers say they covet. Younger viewers tend to be interested in environment-related news, and expanding coverage of those topics would be a wise move to consider.

“If broadcasters are smart,” she said, “they will be in the forefront of that.”

Such wide-ranging topics as economics, law, politics and crime frequently include angles related to the environment, Ms. Parke said: “There needs to be a strong environmental reporting component in any journalism program.”

While many schools schedule undergraduate classes with some relationship to environmental reporting, only a few offer advanced degrees in that discipline.

One of the oldest and best-known programs is that at Michigan State University, where the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism is headed by Jim Detjen, formerly an award-winning environmental reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer. The MSU program offers both graduate and undergraduate degrees in either journalism or mass communication with a specialty in environmental reporting. The school publishes EJ, a magazine devoted to environmental journalism, and operates several news groups for journalists on the environment beat.

The MSU program is similar to others in that it takes a multidisciplinary approach, exposing students to faculty and lecturers from a variety of disparate subject areas, a method that supporters say helps encourage a broader point of view.

“Not only are they introduced to academics in different fields, the students themselves are often multidisciplinary,” Mr. Ackland said. “We get people who have studied law and political science and economics. Every once in a while we get an engineer or two,” he added. The Colorado program accepts about 10 students each year and offers a certificate in environmental journalism as part of a two-year curriculum.

While colleges set the stage for tomorrow’s journalists, programs are also expanding for mid-career writers, editors and broadcasters who specialize in environmental coverage. Several schools offer fellowships lasting from one month to a full year. For many journalists, though, the time required to complete such a program just doesn’t fit their needs.

“The sad truth is that unless you have time to invest in a summer workshop, the time and money to attend the SEJ convention or the ability to go back to [college], there are not that many educational opportunities out there for environmental journalists,” said Matt Hammill, anchor and environmental reporter at WQAD-TV in Moline, Ill.

But that, too, is changing. Short-term programs are springing up at various institutions around the country.

The famed Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts established its Ocean Science Journalism Fellowship in 2000. The one-week residential program includes seminars, lab visits and field work in marine biology, chemistry and geology.

The University of Rhode Island awards Metcalf Fellowships to about 12 journalists each year to attend a weeklong environmental seminar. Participants can remain for a second week at their option to work on individual projects. A separate Environmental Reporting Fellowship includes a research and reporting component that can continue for up to one year.

The Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources, a non-profit educational foundation, operates three weeklong expeditions for journalists each year. Participants in 2005 studied land use and energy topics in Wind River, Wyo., and water and pollution issues at Isle Royale National Park in northern Michigan. An October expedition in Oregon will focus on salmon and fisheries.

“Most of us journalists attended liberal arts schools that made us generalists. It’s great to be able to tap into these resources to help deepen our knowledge so that our expertise is more than five miles wide and an inch deep,” KGW’s Mr. Patton said.

The Internet offers additional options for journalists who need a quick fix on the cheap. The Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in April 2005 launched News University, an interactive online learning program that offers several online seminars, some in the environmental area. Many are free.

“Online training is faster, more efficient and can be done at the person’s convenience. You’re not stealing them away from the newsroom and that works very well for a lot of people,” said Amy Gahran, a freelance environmental journalist who teaches a News U course in covering water quality.

Online training works best for journalists who either cannot afford the time and financial commitment required for a residential program, or who work for organizations that assign limited importance to professional training.

“This field is changing so rapidly,” Ms. Gahran said. “If journalists don’t have a way to keep up on the information and skill sets they need right now on this story today, they are sunk.”