The Changing Landscape of Environmental Journalism

By Joel Campbell

Note: This is an editorial piece; the opinions expressed in it are related to the author’s personal experience, and are not necessarily those of West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

The loss of a dominant print culture has allowed for an evolution in media coverage. Smaller media outfits discuss issues that corporate media tends to stay away from. While this has led to greater niche coverage of many issues, some areas remain largely untouched.

Environmental news often does not have a human-oriented paradigm. It also has the grave misfortune of being innately inaccessible to most Americans. A large part of this is due to the scientific illiteracy rate in America. Part of it also lies with the difficulty of divorcing science from its language. Scientific jargon can be translated and reduced, but only to a certain extent.

Consider E. coli in Michigan’s rivers. In order for it to be an issue of human concern, a certain threshold must be crossed. This threshold is expressed in “parts per million” or another unit of measurement. The explanation of what “parts per million” means and why crossing the threshold is important often eludes media conversations. It is too detailed for a 6 p.m. news program.

Every publication contains a bias inherent to it. Some issues are covered, some are not. Publications funnel news through seven principles that further reduce coverage. If a story is not timely or in physical proximity to readers, it does not get reported. The same fate awaits the article that does not contain an element of human interest. This is where environmental news suffers. It often does not fit the standard news paradigm.

Issues such as nonpoint source pollution are harder to report than if a local farm pollutes the river; nature does not respect human boundaries. Typically an incident or “happening” has to occur for environmental news to be reported. New films, protests, and crises fit the paradigm of newsworthiness. They contain conflict, impact, and shock. They are timely and have a strong human element. Someone can be interviewed. The environment finally fits the news paradigm. People have made it interesting.

This is what happened in Flint. The declaration of a state of emergency, the possibility of a political scandal, and other fast-moving revelations spurred the national media’s attention and coverage dramatically increased. It was suddenly too good a story to pass up. Poisoned children and corrupt politicians make for a far better story than lead passing its federally-allowed threshold.

It is not that people would not have cared. It was just not a news item. For many, looking up Flint’s water quality report probably ranked as high as checking Kent County’s air quality. With such a small media apparatus still in place it is no wonder that the media consistently pursues human interest stories over a technical discussion. It is easier to cover and sell a human story than a rich, nuanced and highly technical report.

Stories that seem remote are humanized by the author to connect a diverse population with an event. The horror of having a child poisoned does not need to be explained to a parent; it is implicit. Finding a way to report on technical, ongoing environmental issues in the mass media is needed.

In a small way that is my task here at WMEAC. Publications such as Great Lakes Echo that exclusively cover environmental issues have taken the first steps. The lack of existing scientific reporting has personally inspired me to research every facet of the issues I have encountered, and it is easy to quickly be lost down the rabbit hole.

Perhaps one of the hardest challenges to come to terms with when you walk into an eco-journalist position is how much there is to cover. You compare it to other niche presses and realize that the environment receives a fraction of the mainstream attention that business does. There is plenty to be covered. We are biological beings that interact every moment with the environment. Growing an interested audience and developing a more viable mainstream environmental press would be a powerful step towards protecting our environment.

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