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Katrina: A New Light on the Environment

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Eight days after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast, CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” included in its coverage of the storm’s aftermath a report on toxic water and another piece on global warming. The story on the toxic soup created by the New Orleans floodwaters raised issues about the environmental impact of the cleanup as the dirty water is drained into Lake Pontchartrain. The global warming story explained the complicated cycles of increased and decreased hurricane activity and their relationship with rising temperatures in the oceans.

These types of pieces-taking a long-range look at environmental issues-were less likely to generate attention in newsrooms in a pre-Katrina world.

The destruction caused by Katrina may have created a defining era for environmental journalism. Coverage of environmental topics has been sparse on television over the past few years. Now viewers appear more keenly invested in such issues because Katrina isn’t just the story of the worst natural disaster to hit the United States, it’s also a story that has brought into sharp focus the issues of man’s impact on the environment.

In fact, the ongoing cleanup and the assessment of the impact of Katrina are likely to usher in a new wave of environmental reporting on TV in the next few months. What is unknown is whether that attention will translate into a long-term, consistent focus. If so, that would be a big change.

After all, as recently as April CNN canceled “Next@CNN,” a weekly program that succeeded “Earth Matters” as the network’s specialized look at science, space, technology and the environment. Until its demise, it had been one of the last bastions of dedicated environmental journalism on television. Before Katrina, environmental reporting on TV had been in rapid decline, despite a few standout examples of work by local station reporters and network producers who remained dedicated to it.

That’s because breaking news, immediate threats and stories such as war and terrorism have commanded the majority of the airtime. Global warming, for instance, is the classic long-term environmental story that’s difficult to sell to commercial news directors, said Christy George, a producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting, who has produced documentaries on the environment and is a board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. That’s because it generates more questions than answers, she said.

“Is it real? Will it hurt us? When will it hurt us? Those answers aren’t clear, and that’s why it doesn’t make for good TV,” Ms. George said.

In the SEJ’s strategic plan, which will be posted on its Web site in October, the organization identifies threats to its mission and opportunities.

The report states, “A political climate in which terrorism, war and other issues have overshadowed environmental concerns, evidenced by the fact that [the] environment did not poll as a top tier political issue in the 2004 U.S. election, has fostered relative disinterest and lack of understanding among editors with regard to the importance and relevance of environmental issues.”

For the most part, the environment isn’t seen as breaking news until it’s a disaster. Post-Katrina, stories on global warming and other topics are seeing air as TV news outlets take a renewed and understandable interest in environmental reporting. Journalists working in print, TV, radio and the Internet have also produced stories recently detailing the potential for disasters in their areas, for example, a San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News piece earlier this month positing that an earthquake or flood could catastrophically damage the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, California’s largest source of drinking water.

“There is no more powerful object lesson to say we need to pay more attention to the potential for any number of environmental catastrophes,” Ms. George said.

Beth Parke, executive director of the SEJ, said the public is in a “teachable moment” and that news organizations can work with that accessibility and respond to it in their coverage. “I do think this is a turning point, but it will only turn the tide in TV news in a lasting way if there is continued determination by individual journalists and editors and their employers,” she said. “I hope that the take-home lesson here is that news reporting on environment-related issues needs to be much more out front and much more future-oriented, prevention-oriented, more questioning of what truly defines homeland security and what is false.

“TV is so powerful. It can give people information they can work with in new ways, or it can reinforce old patterns through attention only to unproductive blaming, political posturing, voyeurism, hindsight and narrow focus,” Ms. Parke said.

Peter Dykstra, an executive producer at CNN who oversees science and environmental coverage, said that Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath is a “huge environmental story” and it’s not being ignored.

“When numerous print and broadcast pieces predicting the disaster are proven true, it’s going to attract everyone’s attention,” he said. “Sometimes the byproduct of a tragedy is people now do focus more. The hurricane is an act of nature, and now nature is a bigger story. To what extent did man’s impact on nature create this or make it worse? Could the storm have been lessened if the wetlands in Louisiana were in better shape? Even fundamental questions like, as wonderful a city as New Orleans is, from a common-sense approach, should you build a city below sea level? These are all stories that are going to be on CNN,” he said.

The Weather Channel has produced stories on the environmental issues that may have contributed to the Katrina’s impact, including a piece that examined actions and policies from 20 years ago that may have contributed to the disaster. The network has also looked at the role of the wetlands in coastal Louisiana that have been lost to development and whether they might have slowed down a hurricane.

Discovery Channel is another of the few that regularly cover the environment. The weekend after Katrina hit, the network aired a three-hour block of programming that explored issues such as whether hurricanes are getting worse, how Katrina developed and the role of the early hurricane warning system on the Gulf Coast. In early January, after the deadly tsunami in Southeast Asia, the network aired a special on the science of tsunamis.

“It’s one of the core things we do at Discovery … to tell the science and environmental story behind those things,” said Jane Root, executive VP and general manager for the channel.

But only time will tell if Katrina ushers in a new era of environmental journalism or simply triggers a spate of follow-up stories.

Environmental journalism was much more commonplace in the mid- to late 1990s, when much environmental legislation was enacted, but has slipped into the background since 9/11. For the past four years the environment has been competing with war, terrorism and the economy and has simply become a lower-tier issue, Ms. Parke said.

The environmental beat is no different than any other, Mr. Dykstra said. “It ebbs and flows with what people are interested in, and now there is more.”

When an issue is front and center in America’s consciousness, as Katrina and the environment are now, it will get more coverage, just as security and terrorism captured headlines after 9/11, he said. “That is the natural process of the news business. It doesn’t matter if you are covering politics or the environment or war or anything.”

Another problem that makes the environmental beat less “sexy” is that the stories don’t always make for good TV, Ms. George said. “It’s slow. Environmental problems are slow-motion disasters. TV wants stuff you can see,” she said. The potential of storms like Katrina had been addressed for years by print and radio reporters, but the topic wasn’t tackled much by commercial TV, Ms. George said.

“That is not to detract from what I think is superior coverage right now,”
she added. “Environmental coverage could be about preventions. That’s what environmental reporting is a lot about-that something in the future could really get us, and it’s kind of speculative and predictive and maybe it won’t come true.”

The prospect of a “what if” story is probably less appealing to a news director who’s got a finite amount of time and needs to cover things that really are happening that day-crime, earnings reports, weather.

Though environmental coverage has dwindled on TV, there are some notable exceptions. A handful of Belo-owned stations, including ABC affiliate WFAA-TV in Dallas and NBC stations KGW-TV in Portland, Ore., and KING-TV in Seattle, still have environmental beat reporters.

Vince Patton fills that role at KGW. While the environment is his main area of coverage, he said he’s been diverted off the topic more since 9/11 and is often called on to cover politics too. Even so, he still has managed to report stories on the impact of drought on grape growers, investigations into sturgeon poaching on the Columbia River and the continuing effect of the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens.

“As long as I keep generating strong ideas, this beat will remain alive, but the onus is on my head,” he said. “I am supposed to turn a story every day. If I walk in the meeting with three story ideas, they are less likely to turn [me] down. It’s my responsibility to keep it alive.”

Mr. Patton said he’s working with the SEJ to reach out to other journalists, such as general assignment reporters, to suggest ways they can include the environment in their beat. Even if someone isn’t dedicated to it, stories can still be done, he said. That’s because issues like local pollution or toxins are powerful stories that illustrate how environmental journalism isn’t just about what might happen to the Earth in the future; it can also be about what’s happening in someone’s backyard right now.