With the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 16th annual conference just days away, Beth Parke, the SEJ’s executive director, has been busy finalizing guest arrangements, organizing events and programs and coordinating last-minute details for the Vermont get-together. She took some time out of her schedule to talk with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman about the conference and issues of importance to the SEJ. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation.
TelevisionWeek: What are your expectations for the upcoming SEJ conference?
Beth Parke: The attendance is already very, very healthy. Registrations are up. We’re anticipating a very strong turnout of our members, journalists, students and educators. We also have a lot of non-members attending the conference, including public information staff members, EPA regional officers, many government officials, scientists, business people, and advocates …
This year we’re doing a lot with legal issues because we’re in partnership with the [University of Vermont] law school as well as the University of Vermont, which is our primary sponsor. So we’re doing a full day-long clinic workshop looking at environmental law.
We’re doing a lot with sustainability issues and we’re looking at that word, which is one of those words that we all ask: `What does that mean?’ It raises larger questions in many frameworks.
There’s an agriculture frame. Also one on business, from Wall Street to Main Street: What does sustainability mean to a whole range of companies looking at this? There are a number of business-related sessions, including energy, green labeling and many things that have to do with sustainability in that framework. Also, of course, climate changes, which are huge-a big focus of this conference. We’re hoping to help reporters wrap their heads around this very large-scale type of issue that can be covered in many, many ways. It’s very important, but it’s not a classic breaking news-type story.
TVWeek: Are TV journalists looking for stories they can pitch to their producers and assignment editors to get environmental pieces into the news?
Ms. Parke: Absolutely. SEJ in general is there for working journalists to help each other in the quest to interest producers and assignment editors in these stories. This is a conversation we’ve had many times when looking at broadcast journalism.
One of the points that was made by researcher Andrew Tyndall is that environmental stories tend to be competing at the bottom of the newscast, among the topics traditionally thought of as the discretionary covers, as opposed to the “can’t avoid” coverage. You know, the big disaster stories like wildfires and tornadoes.
You have to pay attention to Hurricane Katrina, and you have to pay attention to E.-coli outbreaks. Both of those are very much environmental stories, but as far as the broad range of environmental issues or environmental-related issues, yes, television journalists in particular need to be thinking about how to approach these topics in a way that works in their formats.
TVWeek: So the conference addresses both the issues that need to be covered and how to make them viable?
Ms. Parke: Yes. We actually have a session, a track, on the craft of reporting. It is really the business of being a journalist and the craft tools you need interviewing and so on. Broadcast journalism is one of the sessions where we have some of the top practitioners of our day here at local-news operations around the country coming in to do just that, you know, talk about what did they do during sweeps last year. What worked with their editor or producer in a way that surprised them?
We have another session called the Editor’s Pitch Slam: Instant Feedback on Your Freelance Ideas. That’s more geared to print journalists, but a lot of these things cross over to broadcast journalism, too.
TVWeek: How would you describe a typical SEJ member?
Ms. Parke: The majority of our members are in print, although we have a tremendous range of members-I can’t even say there’s a typical member. We have people who are just starting out, we have veterans of 30 years, we have top broadcast journalists, we have brand-new meteorologists, we have freelance writers who write for magazines, we have specialty newsletter editors who might report on something extremely technical, you know, like Oil Spill Technology Weekly. We have radio and television reporters and online writers, too. We kind of have it all.
One of the wonderful things about this community is that people can relate based on what they have in common, and then when it comes to the specifics of what they do, they can find other people who work in that framework as well.
TVWeek: What has been the influence of Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” on the media’s interest in environmental journalism?
Ms. Parke: I think the audience response to that movie surprised everybody. The week that Al Gore’s face was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly was an interesting development. That had to spur audience interest. For all the media criticism written and yet to be written, I think that cover was an important step. It drove interest, and that had to pique audience desire to see the film.
There are indicators that the interest in the environment always polls well, and obviously that film-and the whole rise of documentary films as market leaders-surprise people. I think climate is one of those topics that are clearly not going away. The audience interest can be capricious, but once they’re piqued, I think there’s a holdover effect. There’s a holdover affect from “March of the Penguins,” with interest in the penguins. These things snowball, pardon the pun.
TVWeek: Has Al Gore been more effective with the film than he was politically?
Ms. Parke: I can’t say that. But he has opened up many more doors for this topic to discuss. Even in legislation, the bipartisan McCain-Lieberman bill that had to do with climate issues sat around in Congress for two years, and now that’s come back up and it’s going to be debated in the political season ahead of us. I think Al Gore being a political figure has a role in that happening.
TVWeek: Are there TV reports that have had the influence of Gore’s documentary, in your view?
Ms. Parke: I may have to go back to Edward R. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame.” No, seriously, I think the work around Hurricane Katrina was very impressive. Not only with audience awareness of some of the issues, economic, social and environmental, but also within the ranks of reporters. The media has taken a lot of heat about whether they were aggressive enough about some issues, like pre-9/11, or too aggressive in other issues, like the torture of detainees in Guantanamo. So I think all these things are brewing around together.
TVWeek: Speaking of 9/11, have the issues of environment in and around Ground Zero been overshadowed by reporters doing other types of stories?
Ms. Parke: Yes. That’s another example of what Mr. Tyndall has been talking about with environmental stories, or the angle of a story. The environmental issue has to compete with what other follow-up pieces are being done about 9/11. You know, if they’re doing a story about the insurance claims of the workers and their families, they may not be doing the environmental issues.
How prominent is the environmental angle in any story? That’s where environment-related issues are more in focus, as opposed to environmental issues, because that relationship with the environment comes up with so many other classic beats-health, whatever. That sounds almost cliched, but once you start looking at that you see it more and more.
We get members now who will say, “I’m not full time on this issue, but this is really useful to me because I’m doing a story about children’s health and I’m interested in this question about mercury. What’s up with that?” SEJ is there for the general assignment reporter who is doing that story and needs to know which source is credible and which one is not. We are there to support that reporter.
In terms of the TV community, my favorite feedback is when
I get a TV reporter who will say, “My editor was blown away by your Web site and the usefulness of your tip sheet.” That’s what we’re here for.
TVWeek: Tell me more about Mr. Tyndall’s report.
Ms. Parke: It’s all about discretionary coverage versus the “can’t avoid” coverage. He’s a content-analysis guy studying network news, and when he did his study he separated natural disasters from the stories he considered discretionary environmental news.
Unless there’s a Katrina or wildfires, television is not doing the job that it might to cover environmental issues. We at SEJ are strategizing for change because we feel that there needs to be change and society deserves change. Society deserves the information. We started talking about strategy, the angles for stories. And then really taking on the issue of gatekeepers.
There needs to be leadership within the TV industry. This is their job. We’re starting to hear about people like that, like ABC News’ Bill Blakemore, who feels very strongly about environmental issues. The topic of the anchors came up, that anchors matter. What the anchors take an interest in matters. We began to think that within the environmental journalism field it should be someone’s mission to reach out to the anchors, get Katie Couric interested.
TVWeek: Like her taking the lead in colon cancer and early detection and has become an advocate …
Ms. Parke: Right. You mention the “A” word, and advocacy is a tough subject on this beat. We are advocating for more and better reporting. Advocacy on an environmental issue is not appropriate for journalists because of journalistic ethics. But the idea of advocating for more attention being given, that’s a yes. It’s saying this is an important topic, not taking sides.
Erin Hayes of ABC News was on our board for many years, and she said, “If you’re covering crime, nobody has to justify that murder is bad. But when you’re looking at parts per million of a toxic gas in air pollution, how much is bad? How clean is clean? Those questions do come up.”
That’s a tough line for broadcasters and reporters. It’s tough to agree on a baseline when approaching an issue as complex as the environment. I think society would agree that it’s best that we don’t destroy the ecosystems that support our living on this planet.
TVWeek: Yet there are disagreements about how bad things are. Are the glaciers melting too fast or are some people overstating the danger?
Ms. Parke: Exactly. Environmental journalists are in reality-based reporting. It’s really the science beat in many ways. What is the evidence? You mention climate, and that’s going to be a very big issue at the conference.
We’re doing a few panels on how to cover the big stories when there isn’t a hook. Also, the politics of it. We’ve just added a plenary session where a prominent critic of climate coverage, Mark Morano, is speaking. He’s the communications director for Sen. James Inhofe [R-Okla.], who is the chair of the Senate environment committee, and the two of them have attacked reporters over the last few months by name.
They went after Tom Brokaw’s Discovery Channel production, “Global Warming: What You Need to Know.” They called his report alarmist. So we’re having a “Meet the Press”-type setup, and Mr. Morano will lay out his criticism, and then he’ll be answered by some of the people he’s been attacking, like Andy Revson of The New York Times, Seth Bornstein of the Associated Press, and Bill Blakemore on ABC News. It’s going to be pretty interesting.
TVWeek: How do you combat critics who subvert the truth or try to twist facts to discredit findings?
Ms. Parke: That’s where a well-educated, well-equipped reporter knows that that’s part of the territory in any area of news. They have to bring their natural skepticism, a bullshit detector, and their own intelligence so that they can sniff out the truth. They have to know when they’re being lied to. They have to turn to people who they trust to cross-check about these things.
We have seen a lot of this behavior coming from people who spin things, suppress information. We’ve seen rollbacks on information access, especially on the government level.
In the corporate world, I don’t know who’s consulting with who to keep what quiet, but we do know we’re in a period of time that’s tending more toward secrecy. That’s something that journalists have to deal with, and it’s very difficult.
TVWeek: How about when environmental journalists are characterized as tree-huggers or extremists?
Ms. Parke: If you look at our tip sheet, these are all kinds of sources for a story, and if there’s a controversial issue in a story you have to exhaust as many sources as you need to present a balanced story. You have to respect both points of views, but that doesn’t mean you have to promote one over the other. You would be doing a disservice if you didn’t include the key points of view.
It’s like Jon Stewart said on “Crossfire.” There’s a value to name-calling someone who has a different point of view, setting up two stereotypes to argue with one another, and you call that news coverage. But excellence in journalism stays away from that. Excellence in journalism is about informing the public to make responsible decisions in a democracy.
I loved what Jon Stewart did. His main message, speaking on behalf of the audience, was, “That’s not helpful.” Responsible journalists know it isn’t helpful to stereotype, characterize or obfuscate what somebody’s saying.
TVWeek: Do films like “An Inconvenient Truth” and disasters like Katrina force the public to draw their attention to environmental issues and not treat them like discretionary news?
Ms. Parke: Yes, sure, especially if you live in the Katrina zone. But I think when the public hears about E. coli in spinach, you have to pay attention to that because it’s what you eat. If you hear about pregnant women and mercury and your sister is pregnant, you might clip that story or tape that broadcast. It starts to relate to your life.
If someone is doing a story about the E. coli in spinach, is anybody asking the question, “Why are we trucking spinach from California when the growers in New Jersey are selling spinach that’s unaffected by E. coli?” That story shined a light on the food-distribution system in the country.
These bigger stories can prompt more and different questions. It’s a domino effect. That’s a producer or assignment editor localizing what is a national or global issue. That’s a big ethic with SEJ. We believe in localizing the issues; how would someone cover this story for their audience?
We feel if you’re doing an accurate job on the story, that’s where you start: What is the story? What are the facts? We’re here to help the journalist do his or her job.