Q&A: Environmental Journalism’s Future

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Beth Parke became the first executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists in 1993. Her responsibilities range from keeping the organization on a solid financial footing to developing and implementing long-term strategic plans.

Before joining SEJ, Ms. Parke produced and hosted “Consider the Alternatives,” an award-winning radio series on public policy issues. She holds a B.A. in communications from Boston College and a master’s degree from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. TelevisionWeek correspondent Lee Hall spoke with Ms. Parke about the future of environmental journalism and SEJ’s role in shaping that future. An edited transcript follows.

TelevisionWeek: Has the heyday for environmental reporting passed?

Beth Parke: Not at all. If you really look at it, most every story has an environmental angle, whether you’re talking about terrorism or war or poverty or education or health or energy. And [Hurricane Katrina] has highlighted in a terribly tragic way the importance of things like infrastructure and emergency preparedness, which certainly can be considered environmental issues. The environment is a very broad beat. It’s kind of a false choice to isolate environmental reporting as sort of a one-dimension issue that is narrowly defined. When you talk in terms of environment-related issues, that’s pretty much everything. These issues can be highly complex, and that’s where a group like SEJ can help. Our members teach and help each other sort through the complexities to make their reporting better.

TVWeek: How good a job are journalists doing in reporting on these issues?

Ms. Parke: We can always do more and do it better, but many journalists do a fine job. I see it every day in how hard our members work. But there is not, on balance, enough coverage. The news media are extremely important in the process of environmental knowledge and education, but they are not the only resources. And media can do a better job. Too often we fall into the pack journalism mentality. Jon Stewart (“The Daily Show”) recently compared that process to watching a bunch of 9-year olds play soccer, where they run to wherever the ball is at the same time. Coverage is sometimes not thoughtful, can be emotionally driven and can blow things out of proportion. We need a return to Edward R. Murrow-like values of courageous investigative reporting in the finest tradition of public service journalism.

TVWeek: The environmental beat is so often given short shrift in television newsrooms. What are they missing by ignoring this area?

Ms. Parke: They are missing a real opportunity to give their audiences information they need and truly have a great interest in. Two environment-related areas in which television news tends to pay closer attention to routine coverage would be health and consumer reporting, both of which can contain environmental elements. But I think they miss an opportunity to make a real connection with their communities by not focusing more attention on key environment-related issues in their broadcast areas, some of them quite basic: water quality, air quality, land use, natural resources important to the local economy, and so on.

TVWeek: Only about 6 percent of SEJ’s 1,450 members come out of television newsrooms. What can you do to increase that number?

Ms. Parke: We have tried different things over the years. We are talking about holding a summit meeting next year on this very question, because we recognize that broadcasting is the main medium that brings news to most people. We have some extraordinary leaders for environmental journalism on television who are members of SEJ. We know that the more we attend to the needs of television journalists, the more likely they will be to come in as members. One of the services we provide is our TipSheet, which is a joint project with the Radio (and) Television News Directors Foundation. That’s just one of the benefits that we offer to all journalists. (Note: SEJ membership is not required to receive the WatchDog TipSheet.)

TVWeek: The conventional wisdom is that news consumers, especially television viewers, can have a pretty short attention span. Environmental stories are frequently complex and difficult to report. How can journalists balance that incongruity?

Ms. Parke: That’s a serious obstacle, but it doesn’t always take a lot of words or a lot of time to get to the essence of what’s important in these stories and to deepen a sense of context. That’s one of the things we try to do in the TipSheet, to boil down those complex issues to get at what’s the story, what’s the peg, what are the key questions. Journalism is really about asking the right questions and I think a lot of the failures we see on television especially come from the fact that we often don’t ask the right questions. When we do, that can provoke people to think and that’s where journalists can serve a great purpose.

TVWeek: So often, environmental issues become political issues. How can SEJ help its members walk that thin line between journalism and advocacy?

Ms. Parke: This has been a longtime concern. At SEJ we have very strict policies on whom we can accept money from and how we look at our membership criteria. Some people think that if you are the environmental reporter then you must be the “environmentalist” reporter. We have really worked hard to raise the awareness that this is a professional business. This is science reporting in many cases. We have to acknowledge though that there are a lot of vested interests on all sides of the questions we cover. Erin Hayes [of ABC News], who was on our SEJ board for a number of years, talked about the difficulty of doing this job. If you are a crime reporter, everybody can agree that murder is bad. But if you report on “X parts-per-billion” of [a chemical contaminant], is that good or bad? How clean is clean? Those types of arguments can become political. But if you’re reporting to the public, you can’t just say “X parts-per-billion,” you have to provide a context of what it means. You can’t just fall back on the “he said, she said” reporting when the audience deserves a “what does this mean” analysis. It is a difficult thing on this beat.

TVWeek: The stated mission of SEJ is “to advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy and visibility of environmental reporting.” How good a job are you doing in that realm?

Ms. Parke: I am very proud of what SEJ is doing. We are a small nonprofit in the grand scheme of things. Our annual budget is about $800,000 and we are very much grass-roots in what we do. And I think we have made a significant difference, given our means. Television is a frontier in which we have not been as effective as an organization as we have been in print. I hope that what we have seen recently [in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina] will have a lasting impact on the coverage of these kinds of stories on television. It has been a teachable moment, and we hope all journalists and their audiences have learned a lot from everything we have seen.

TVWeek: What are the benefits of joining SEJ?

Ms. Parke: Our Web site, training conferences and workshops are wonderful resources. We do a lot of reporting tours, and that’s one of the things that sets us apart from other organizations, where we will put people on buses with experts and take them out to show them stories they can cover and they can come home with footage and tape and useful information. Our new strategic plan includes a bullet point that SEJ be as future-oriented as we can, helping reporters stay ahead of the curve on emerging environmental issues. But perhaps the No. 1 benefit is the network of members itself. The SE
J brain trust truly is incredible. You cannot expect to be an expert in every area of environmental reporting, but you can bet that somebody in this organization is an expert in the area you might need. We are all about linking members to one another and providing programs, publications and services, created by journalists for journalists.

TVWeek: The strategic plan listed “fiscal uncertainty” as one of SEJ’s major concerns. How are you doing financially?

Ms. Parke: Right now we are solvent and in good shape, but it is always a year-to-year thing. We are somewhat limited in our funding sources for ethical reasons. We stay away from nonmedia corporations, government agency or advocacy groups for gifts and grants. We earn money through dues and subscriptions and renting our mailing list and fees for conferences. We always get some major underwriting from the universities that host our conference every year, and we are very grateful for that. The bulk of our funding comes from foundation grants that we are able to attract, either in terms of general support for the independent work of our organization or for specific programs or projects that we propose for foundation support.

TVWeek: Are there sufficient educational resources for journalists who want to get into this area of reporting?

Ms. Parke: I think there needs to be a strong environmental reporting component in any journalism program. When I look at young people, the writers and science students, these are the audiences of tomorrow, and they are way more in touch on how important these issues are. We see a lot of the new “institute” kind of multidisciplinary approach, where you have faculty from different disciplines looking at these issues from their particular areas of concentration. There is a lot of growth in this area. We see that because more schools are adding environmental studies to their curricula and, frankly, some of our prominent environmental journalists are moving over to the academic side and more veteran environmental reporters are becoming faculty. Dan Fagin [former environmental reporter at Newsday] just joined the faculty at [New York University]. The other end of the equation, of course, is can these kids find jobs when they come out of school? Journalism, all journalism, is in a certain degree of crisis and transition at this point, I think. But we think the interest in more and better environmental news reporting is there and if broadcasters are smart, they will be in the forefront of that.