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It’s Not Easy Being Green for Reporters

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The environment can be a hot-button political issue that is capable of dividing people between red and blue, left and right. Consequently, many journalists who cover the environment are acutely aware of the delicate balancing act their beat requires.

After all, in the term “environmental journalist,” the word “environment” comes first, and that can be construed as a political leaning, said Heidi Cullen, The Weather Channel’s on-air climate expert. “You have to constantly be on call to yourself and make sure you are presenting the facts and stay well informed,” she said.

Balancing advocacy and journalism on this beat can be done, said experts who have covered and still cover the beat.

“Tell the truth. It’s not brain surgery,” said Peter Dykstra, an executive producer at CNN who oversees science and environment coverage.

Approach the issue or story as a person rather than as part of a movement, said Tim Wheeler, a Baltimore Sun reporter who has covered the environment. “There is a general citizen concern about the environment that doesn’t necessarily translate into this or that cause,” he said. But it is possible to cover people’s impact on the environment without advocating for one cause or another, he said. Here’s how: “Remain open-minded; go after the facts; analyze them and try to tell the story as best you can.”

To avoid advocacy, journalists should seek the truth and avoid the spin, eschew predetermined positions and neither espouse nor knock down a point of view in a report, said Philip Shabecoff, who covered the environment for The New York Times until the early ’90s and is now an author.

Know a source’s agenda too, Mr. Shabecoff said: “To get at the truth these days you have to be aware of manufactured doubt. Corporations pay a lot of money to have scientists protect their interest.”

Ms. Cullen of The Weather Channel, a climatologist by training, said she tries to take the scientific approach-communicate the science and also where the uncertainty lies. But she acknowledges that science can take a reporter only so far. That’s why Ms. Cullen said environmental stories should have a mix of what she refers to as “light and heat.” Light means sharing knowledge and heat is talking to people who care about the topic, she said.

“We will never be able to say global warming made Katrina worse, but there are aspects to that question that have significant implications. The answer might not be as exciting as the question,” she said.

Vince Patton, who covers the environment at Belo-owned KGW-TV in Portland, Ore., said that when reporting the story of a cougar attack on a housecat this summer, he aimed to shed light on the issues rather than inflame fears. The urge to sensationalize a story like that can be powerful. Instead, Mr. Patton said he addressed the broader perspective of living in close proximity to wildlife, as the cat’s owner did.

“It happened at the edge of Forest Park in Portland, the largest urban park in the country. That’s actually a natural habitat for a cougar,” Mr. Patton said.

In the package, he didn’t blame the owners for living close to the forest or the wild animal for following its instinct. At the end of the story he simply said, “If you live near a natural area, the best things you can do to protect your pets is to never leave their food outside and don’t leave them out between dawn and dusk. Many of the predators hunt mostly overnight.”