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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Black & White – & Green

Air Date: Week of

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Host Steve Curwood talks with three environmental journalists about how their beat has developed and where it’s going. Los Angeles Times editor Frank Clifford, Newsday reporter and president of the Society of Environmental Journalists Dan Fagin, and director of the Michigan State University Environmental Journalism program Jim Detjen all participate.


CURWOOD: Welcome to this Earth Day edition of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Some 13 Earth Days ago, I created Living on Earth with one basic concept, that no matter what else was going on in the news, this program would devote its time to telling you about environmental change. And as this program has evolved, so has environmental journalism.

Here to talk about the trends in this field are three practitioners. Frank Clifford is an editor at the Los Angeles Times and Dan Fagin is a reporter for Newsday and president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. And I want to start with Jim Detjen, director of the Environmental Journalism Program at Michigan State University, and ask you, Jim, to take us back to the early days of environmental reporting. How do you describe that era to your students?

DETJEN: Well, with my students, we go back well into the 19th century. So, we will look at some of the early campaigns by magazines to cut down on the amount of over-hunting of birds and other species. We also look at some of the efforts by early writers such as John Muir to create national parks. And I think you could argue that there have been people writing about conservation and environmental issues almost as long as there has been civilization.

CURWOOD: So, when does that change? This sounds like this is all advocacy work. When does that become journalism, in your eyes?

DETJEN: Certainly, maybe, the last century. Really with the rise of the Associated Press and some of the ideas of objective journalism, it became less advocacy, probably more traditional, more standard journalism that we're familiar with today.

CURWOOD: Jim Detjen, how soon do we see newspapers and radio and television assigning an environmental reporter on the environment beat?

DETJEN: Maybe since about the 1960s, there were designated environmental beats. It was still pretty much a fringe area. And then, it really blossomed in the 1970s. And I would argue it's fairly steadily grown since then, although it has been episodic, and there are cycles.

CURWOOD: Now, the environmental beat continues to evolve in your newsroom at the Los Angeles Times, Frank Clifford. How many reporters do you have covering the environment?

CLIFFORD: Probably eight all together. Six based in Los Angeles, one in Orange County, one in the paper’s Washington bureau. There are other people, regional and national reporters, who write about the subject fairly frequently as well. Maybe the best way to do this is to talk about how the division works at the moment, which is somebody covering coastal issues, air quality, forests and fresh water, human health issues as they relate to the environment, parks, wildlife and public land, and urban environmental issues. And I may have missed an assignment there, but that gives you an idea of the breakdown right now.

CURWOOD: I want to bring Dan Fagin in here. Dan, you work at Newsday. How many environmental reporters do you have at your shop?

FAGIN: Well, Steve, we have two people covering the environment fulltime. And we have a person in Washington who spends about half his time writing about environmental issues.

CURWOOD: Jim Detjen, how common is the two-and-a-half configuration versus the eight-reporter configuration.

DETJEN: The Portland Oregonian has quite a number. The L.A. Times, I think, is one of the leaders. I think, more typically, it's one or one-and-a-half or two. But there might be one designated environmental writer, and then there are people who regularly write about environmental issues from other beats as well.

CURWOOD: Dan Fagin, let's turn to you now in your role as President of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and have you look at the national scene for us. How do the types of changes that Frank describes at the L.A. Times fit in with trends around the country? Where is coverage getting beefed up? Where is it getting cut?

FAGIN: Well, it's hard to say that it's getting cut, in particular, in any place. I mean, I think the general trend is a positive one. Certainly, as a result of the war and what's happening with terrorism, people who cover the environment, many of them have found themselves being pulled off to do other things. But I'd consider that sort of a temporary thing. In the long run, the trend line is pretty positive.

Environmental reporters are getting more knowledgeable. They're getting more specialized. Editors are recognizing that it's very important that environmental writers really have a grounding in the basics of the science and the policy. And so, the kind of specialization that Frank talks about at the L.A. Times is happening in other places, although rarely to the extent of eight designated environmental reporters.

CURWOOD: What most encourages you about coverage of the environment these days?

FAGIN: I think the most positive sign that I see is there's really an understanding now that these issues are not black and white, that they're complex. It's not just a question of getting the obvious one side and the other, but that sometimes there are many sides. And the importance of integrating data and empirical science into coverage. I see this improving a lot.


CLIFFORD: Well, let me change the emphasis a little bit. I think that a lot of the people who cover the environment these days are somewhat frustrated because they don't think that they’ve been able to sort of generate the discussion and the debate that ought to occur around policy shift quite as dramatic as what we've been seeing since the Bush administration took over. And I think a lot of journalists are asking themselves, is it because we are too bland, too objective? Is it time for the kind of rebirth of a kind of advocacy journalism that characterized the early days that Jim was talking about? I think that’s an interesting discussion. I think, maybe, that the push for professionalism can be confused with a kind of timidity.

CURWOOD: Dan, where do you weigh in on this?

FAGIN: There's often a feeling among some environmental reporters that the way to be professional, the way to be a "real journalist,” is to be very clinical and bloodless in your writing. And to always, you know, be scrupulously 50 percent from one side and 50 percent from the other. And to sort of suck the life out of your stories, and to not pay attention to things like narrative and writing and real people impact. And so, you know, the folks who say that, well, what we need is more advocacy in our journalism, I think, are missing the point. What we really need is terrific, highly competent, but also high-impact journalism, journalism that actually resonates with readers and viewers.

CURWOOD: Now, Jim Detjen, you spent a fair amount of time with environmental journalists abroad. They, as a whole, I think, are far more advocacy-oriented that the folks that you find in the United States. How bland do you think the coverage is here in this country?

DETJEN: I think there could be a lot more aggressive reporting. I think, particularly since September 11th, I think there has been a lot of efforts to scale back some of environmental regulations, environmental laws, access to information, and a lot of that has not been reported particularly well because it's been drowned out by the coverage of the war on terrorism and the war itself.

CURWOOD: What other areas of environmental journalism do you see as perhaps not doing as well as they might?

CLIFFORD: I would like to see more science pages, more science sections in newspapers. We're beginning to see health sections in more newspapers. I think that what sometimes is missed in our efforts to stay abreast of policy and political debate about various environmental issues is just purely the wonder of discovery. And I think it would be nice if we could sort of create space for that kind of writing as well.

CURWOOD: Jim Detjen?

DETJEN: I'm concerned about the drop in coverage on television. One study that’s done by the Tindall Report which monitors the amount of air time there is on network newscasts, found that, in 2002, there was about only half the coverage of what there had been in 2001. And you can understand that this is episodic, and we've had a war on terrorism. And now, a war against Iraq.

But television coverage is very inconsistent. You can have high water periods of the late 1980's, when you had a big story like the Exxon Valdez, and there was a great deal of coverage. And then it can plummet as it goes on to something else. Not many television stations have designated environmental reporters. So, you could have a lot of coverage and then very little.

CURWOOD: Jim, what's the message that the public gets when they don't see environmental stories on the tube, or they're buried in the back of the paper?

DETJEN: The message is that these issues are not as important as they once were. And therefore, the public looks at other issues.

FAGIN: It's really quite remarkable that the TV coverage that Jim mentioned, which we can all see and probably understand the reasons, considering everything else that was happening in the world. But it is quite remarkable that it's happened at a time when, you know, we've seen really more at least potential news on environmental issues coming out of Washington than in many, many years. And while there have been stories, it does seem that, because the print stories aren't really picked up on the network news, that those stories don't really seem to resonate as they would have in the past.

And that’s really a frustration because, as Jim pointed out, this is a time when the coverage could really serve a very important public purpose. And that is to clue everybody in about what's going on so we can have a healthy debate on what should happen and why.

CURWOOD: How well informed do you think the public is now about environmental issues, particularly lately as environmental stories haven't been getting the play that they had even a year ago?

CLIFFORD: I would guess that the public, in general, isn't aware of the developments that I think Dan was talking about a minute ago, simply because they're not being reported on television. And not that many people are reading those newspapers that do write about these issues a lot. I don't want to presume to say what people know, and how aware they are of things. But I know that, if I were to base my knowledge of current affairs in the environment on watching television, I don't think I'd know much.

CURWOOD: What about you, Jim Detjen? I mean, you're sending all these students out into the world to do environmental journalism. Where do you see the prospects for the beat over the next ten years?

DETJEN: We've discussed some of the inadequacies and maybe some of the problems with environmental reporting. But I really think the general curve has been upward. The number of members of the Society of Environmental Journalists is really at record heights. The number of programs in environmental reporting at education and in universities are very high. We had more Pulitzer Prizes won for environmental journalism in the 1990s than in all of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s combined. So the general trend is upward. And I see that as quite positive.

CURWOOD: Frank Clifford is an editor at the Los Angeles Times and author of “The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of a Vanishing Way of Life Along the Continental Divide.” Dan Fagin is President of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a reporter for Newsday in New York. And Jim Detjen currently directs the Environmental Journalism Program at Michigan State University. Thanks to you all for joining this conversation.

FAGIN: Thank you, Steve.

DETJEN: Thank you, Steve.

CLIFFORD: Thank you.



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