Environmental Journalism’s New Focus

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Late last year two environmental thinkers presented a paper at the Environmental Grantmakers Association that declared modern mainstream environmentalism was dead.

The authors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, said the major environmental groups had failed to affect policy in a meaningful way since the heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, when sweeping and powerful environmental laws were passed, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

Noting that little progress has been made in the area of global warming, their report blamed modern environmental groups for failing to frame the issue’s broader political, social and economic relevance. Environmentalism seems a separate issue, apart from other social concerns, but it shouldn’t be, the authors wrote.

“If environmentalists hope to become more than a special interest, we must start framing our proposals around core American values and start seeing our own values as central to what motivates and guides our politics,” the report said. “Doing so is crucial if we are to build the political momentum-a sustaining movement-to pass and implement the legislation that will achieve action on global warming and other issues.”

The issues raised by Mr. Shellenberger and Mr. Nordhaus continue to resonate with environmental journalists today. In fact, the notion that environmentalism might be dead is the topic of a panel session at this week’s Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Austin, Texas.

It’s sure to be a subject of even greater interest given the environmental questions raised after Hurricane Katrina. Whether Katrina triggers a new era in the environmental movement remains to be seen, but the potential exists for the storm to change the debate. Katrina has demonstrated that the environment is not separate from social and economic issues.

Tim Wheeler, a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, will moderate the panel at the conference. His goal is not to debate the status of the environmental movement nor the direction it should take but to look at how the issues raised by the authors could help inform how stories on the environment are produced and written.

“We are environmental journalists. We are looking at this as a story,” Mr. Wheeler said.

Even though the public generally cares about the environment, the environment doesn’t rise to the top priority when it’s time to vote. That could be a function of the public not caring or possibly of the media not getting the message across, Mr. Wheeler said. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we giving people a clear idea of what’s going on? Is the environmental movement in rut? In a crisis? Is it going to fracture?'”

The Personal Connection

Environmental issues could be reframed to include the larger picture. “You can’t deal with environmentalism without dealing with poverty, disenfranchisement, discrimination,” he said. With Katrina, all kinds of environmental issues have surfaced from the storm, its aftermath and cleanup-issues that clearly illustrate that the environment does not exist in a vacuum.

“The Gulf Coast has been an uneasy marriage of environment and energy for a while,” Mr. Wheeler said. “In the outpouring of relief and aid, will there be money and a focus on rebuilding natural protections for the community so people aren’t in a risk in the future?”

Christy George, a producer with Oregon Public Broadcasting who has produced documentaries on the environment, believes journalists can change the way they report on the environment.

“The media loves the politics of conflict. We have to stop feeding it. There are other stories out there,” she said. “There is another paradigm besides opposing sides locked in conflict. … There is real common ground between right and left, Democrat and Republican. More common ground than you could get or believe from the polarized politics of Washington.”