Green Fatigue

By Keith Kloor | March 4, 2013 11:00 am

On Saturday, the International Herald Tribune (a global version of the New York Times) reported on its Rendezvous blog: “Environmental warning fatigue sets in.” The post was a quick summary of a new poll that reveals:

Environmental concerns among citizens around the world have been falling since 2009 and have now reached twenty-year lows, according to a multi-country GlobeScan poll.

This is the sort of news that would almost certainly have appeared on the New York Times Green blog, but on Friday the Times shut it down, which triggered immediate waves of angst and outrage in journalism (and environmental) circles. The move shouldn’t come as a total surprise. Two months ago, the Times dismantled its “environmental desk,” which essentially was a pool of reporters and editors dedicated to environmental issues. (Nobody was fired; reporters were assigned to other areas of the paper.)  So has environmental fatigue set in at the Times?

Some perspective is warranted. After the NYT announced it was closing down its “environmental desk,” the Atlantic noted:

Environment reporting in general has been declining in recent years. But the Times has been running more environment stories than any other newspaper, according to a recent study by the Center for Science & Technology Policy Research.

Additionally, after that January announcement, Dean Baquet, the paper’s managing editor for news operations, said:

We have not lost any desire for environmental coverage. This is purely a structural matter.

Perhaps. But as Margaret Sullivan, the Times‘ Public Editor, wrote at the time:

Symbolically, this is bad news. And symbolism matters – it shows a commitment and an intensity of interest in a crucially important topic.

And now, the shuttering of the Green blog reinforces the perception that, contrary to what Baquet has asserted, the NYT is downsizing its environmental coverage. I don’t see how the latest move can be read any other way.

Bill McKibben may not be the most impartial observer, but these sardonic observations are spot on:

 

Andrew Revkin drives home this point in his “farewell” Dot Earth post on the Green blog’s demise:

The news side of The Times has nine sports blogs; nine spanning fashion, lifestyles, health, dining and the like; four business blogs; four technology blogs (five if you include automobiles as a technology); and a potpourri of other great efforts, with four of my favorites being the Learning Network blog, Scientist at Work, the IHT Rendezvous blog on global news and Lens, run by the paper’s photo staff. You can tour the paper’s blogosphere here.

I would like to have thought there was space for the environment in that mix, even though these issues are still often seen by journalists weaned on politics as a sidenote (remember Candy Crowley‘s post-debate comment about “all you climate change people”?).

There’s more to it than that, I think. Environmental journalism has, unfairly or not, a perception problem. Bud Ward, writing ten years ago in Harvard’s Nieman Reports, discussed a charge then hurled at environmental journalists: “greens with press passes.” Ward, himself a veteran environmental reporter and now the editor of Yale’s Forum on Climate Change & the Media, wrote:

Those four words sum up the view—and for many environmental journalists the nagging frustration—that reporters covering the environmental beat often are seen not as environmental reporters but as environmentalist reporters. Is it something they said that earned them such a derisive nickname? Or something they did? Or perhaps something they didn’t say or didn’t do?

Though causes remain undetermined, this perception has become an occupational hazard. And it’s a perception the most dedicated U.S. journalists—swearing allegiance to the practice of independent journalism, not to environmental values per se—find particularly annoying. Especially frustrating to many is that this view often persists in the newsroom itself, not just outside of it. Being labeled a “green reporter” by a newsroom colleague is for many an insult. Plain and simple.

Does that perception still linger in newsrooms? More importantly, is it true?  Personally, I don’t think the “greens with press passes” accusation is fair. (Well, maybe at some places–but not across the board.)  Reporters on the environment beat (especially in newspapers) work within the norms of the profession,which means that stories on problems (oil spills!) and conflict (climategate!) and the latest study on fracking, climate tipping points, etc get played up. It is a gloom and doom beat, as science journalist Michelle Nijhuis has pointed out:

Environmental journalists often feel married to the tragic narrative. Pollution, extinction, invasion: The stories are endless, and endlessly the same. Our editors see the pattern and bury us in the back pages; our readers see it and abandon us on the subway or in the dentist’s office.

Might this endless (and often simplistic) tragic narrative be wearing out the public and wearing thin in newsrooms?

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    I’m really surprised as the Science section’s Most Popular was always well populated with Green Blog posts…which is why I won’t miss it at all:) I go to the NYT science section for science, not for infinite global warming coverage. This seems fishy – I’m fairly certain it was quite popular but I could be wrong.

  • http://twitter.com/dropeik david ropeik

    As someone who helped create the Society of Environmental Journalists (early board member) and was an enviro reporter during my 22 years in TV news, I can promise you that there remains FAR too much environmentalism masquerading as journalism. Including in too many cases in ‘mainstream’ media.

    I can also report that this recent version of the struggles of the enviro beat are not new. It was hard to get enviro pieces into the news for those ON the beat, back in the 80′s, unless breaking news broke, which is less the case on this beat than some others. That’s part of the problem, the ‘issue’ nature of these stories. Another is the ‘science-y’ nature of them, which is an impediment with editors for stories, or coverage of the beat in general.
    It is also probably true that the lament about this is from a tiny group of people (myself included) who focus on this stuff, and not from the general public…a bit of navel-gazing Woe is Us, if you will.
    And finally, most newspaper reporters will tell you that blogging is a pain in the ass that keeps them from doing better reporting. I suspect that some of the NYT enviro reporters are, in part, relieved by the demise of the blog. The real test of the reductions at the NYT, and Julie Eilperin’s Wash Post move to the White House, is how those papers cover the stories themselves…how much and how well. I’m worried about what these changes portend for that, more than these symbolic steps which are causing all the lament, but which don’t yet reveal how overall enviro coverage itself will be changed.

  • http://twitter.com/Roddy_Campbell Roddy Campbell

    Greens with press passes is a reasonable description of the Guardian, which has highest level of enviro coverage here. I’m not saying the reporters are necessarily biased in their reporting, although many are, but they are, to a (wo)man, greens.

  • thingsbreak

    When the media ownership and talking heads are sufficiently invested in talking about something, it will get both enormous coverage and corresponding public concern. This can actually happen even when the ostensible problem under discussion is being grossly over- rather than under-emphasized. The recent obsession with the debt and deficit is a shining example.

    The press, and therefore the public, is absolutely convinced that the deficit is growing, facts be damned. http://on.msnbc.com/WZ0PHq

    • Tom Scharf

      Wow, congratulations on probably the most deceptive post I’ve seen in a long time. Did you use the Jedi mind trick when you intentionally obfuscated total debt and yearly deficit?

      Debt when Obama started: $10T
      Debt now: $16T

      for the record T = $1,000,000,000,000.

      The total debt is in fact still growing at an alarming rate, as we borrow around 40 cents on every dollar we spend. The ridiculous disinformation you are working from here is that the *** rate *** of total debt growth has leveled off after record breaking deficit additions in the past few years (yeah stimulus!).

      This years deficit will probably be smaller than last years deficit (BTW this year isn’t over yet and deficit projections are notoriously low, especially from the WH).

      Saying you have shrunken this year’s deficit after posting horrendously large numbers in the previous years is nothing to be proud of. Unless you are a liberal apologist.

    • Tom C

      TB -
      The deficit is around 8% of GDP. Economists have long used a figure of 5% of GDP as an alarm level. Yeah, no problem here. If your numeracy with physics is anything like that with economics it is no wonder you are confused about AGW.

    • kdk33

      Wow.

    • Buddy199

      “National Debt has increased more under Obama than under Bush”

      http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-57400369-503544/national-debt-has-increased-more-under-obama-than-under-bush/

      “Mr. Obama doesn’t mention the National Debt much, though he does want to be seen trying to reduce the annual budget deficit, though it’s topped a trillion dollars for four years now.

      His latest budget projects a $1.3 trillion deficit this year declining to $901 billion in 2013, and then annual deficits in the range of $500 billion to $700 billion in the 10 years to come.

      If Mr. Obama wins re-election, and his budget projections prove accurate (LOL!!!), the National Debt will top $20 trillion in 2016, the final year of his second term. That would mean the Debt increased by 87 percent, or $9.34 trillion, during his two terms.”

  • bobito

    I think environmental reporters are in a bad place right now. The BIG topic is climate change, and with that, how does a story about removal of a Nuclear plant or hydroelectric dam look? Or stopping fracking? Or a story about stopping GMO plants that are more heat/drought tolerant?

    Not sure how one could honestly report on environmental issues, without pissing off, and turning off, the people that really care about the main-stream environmental issues.

    Unless you are a hippy bashing environmental reporter, of course… ;)

    • JonFrum

      “Hippy bashing” – code for ‘I have no rational answer, so I’ll hide behind this.

  • PEHarvey

    I think “greens with press passes” work well with “greens with science degree”. Maybe, I should have written “works”. English is not my first language

  • JonFrum

    “Personally, I don’t think the “greens with press passes” accusation is fair…”

    I can’t see you, but I can’t imagine the words being typed with a straight face. You know as well as the rest of us that the kind of person who chooses to do environmental reporting as a regular gig is greener than Kermit. In public, they’ll swear up and down that they’re just being objective, but in private, with friends, when they feel safe, they talk the green talk and walk the green walk.

    So-called ‘factual’ stories are always heavily laden with assumptions. The assumptions in reporting on nuclear power safety, agriculture and energy are all weighed down with assumptions that come right out of 1970s orthodox environmentalism.

  • Tom Scharf

    Surely this is an environmentalism tipping point, eh? ha ha.

    There is no doubt the public has AGW fatigue. What else can explain the summary dismissal of end of world predictions by “science”, biggest threat of our time, etc. hyperbole? You simply cannot turn up the volume any louder.

    One should not be surprised that most green reporters are essentially activists. Are not most sports reporters big sports fans? One difference though is that sports reporters can be quite harsh criticizing the home team, a theme rarely seen on the environmental desk.

    It should be noted that the NYT spent almost two weeks silent on ClimateGate before it finally showed up on a blog there. They claimed to not want to report on “stolen” e-mails, which is a bit rich as they routinely reveal national security secrets. I will throw them a bone as they did not report on Bush’s recently stolen e-mails on the front page.

    • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

      I was thinking about this activist/fan thing too, trying to think of similar topic areas. I was thinking science/health/nutrition might be analogous. But the best science/health/nutrition writers are knowledgeable and “fans” perhaps, but that doesn’t make them activists. They’ll call out some bad interpretations, or at least not buy the hype (which is sometimes pitched by the scientists, no doubt). And they are good at context of the field because they’ve been around.

      They also will fix things when they’ve got something wrong. That’s something I don’t see the activists do.

  • jh

    The death of “environmental journalism” is a hopeful development. If this so – and I’m not yet convinced – but if it’s so I have a few possible ideas as to why.

    One reason: Environmental journalism is, by definition, advocacy. Take, for example, dam removal projects. What do “environmental journalist” report on with respect to dam removal? How society will make up the lost power? How shippers will move products that were moved by barge before damn removal? The economic impact of dam removal in the conservative heartland where it occurs? The cost of replacing the power? No, no, no, and no. They don’t report on any of these things. They report like this: “It may cost more in the long run, but environmentalists say its worth it because bla bla bla”. They report the environmentalists point of view almost exclusively.

    Environmental issues are more appropriately handled by science reporters (like Keith), that have a background in science (that’s alot to ask for any reporter) and report on the technical issues involved, not just the blows between loggers and greens or fishermen and greens or what have you.

    Two reason: the population of scientifically literate people has grown dramatically over the last few decades. But they don’t want to get their news about scientific issues from a less educated, scientifically illiterate reporter.

    Three reason: Environmentalism is much more popular when people think they can afford it. It’s not very popular in hard times. Which once again supports my oft-stated maxim that economic growth preserves the environment.

    I could think of more.

  • Luís de Sousa

    Reporters on the environment beat (especially in newspapers) work within the norms of the profession

    As long as you journalists continue believing that you’ll continue to see interest wane and green pulpits closing down.

  • MIchael Larkin

    “Might this endless (and often simplistic) tragic narrative be wearing out the public and wearing thin in newsrooms?”

    If so, it’s about time.

  • JonFrum

    “Personally, I don’t think the “greens with press passes” accusation is fair. (Well, maybe at some places–but
    not across the board.) Reporters on the environment beat (especially
    in newspapers) work within the norms of the profession,”

    Hot off the presses – Juliet Eilperin, has been pulled from the Enviro beat by the Washington Post. Who is Juliet Eilperin? Eilperin is married to Andrew Light, who works on climate as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

    Let’s see – second most influential newspaper in the nation, husband on the Green Industrial Complex payroll…. no…. no fair accusation here.

  • BBD

    So. Absolutely no sports fans allowed to become sports journalists then ;-)

    While laying in to environmentalists who have written on the subject for a living is entertaining to a certain type of commenter here, we have had no *balance*.

    Here is some *balance*! Mediamatters reviews the WSJ misrepresenting environmental threats since 1976.

  • JonFrum

    Returning to this: “Personally, I don’t think the “greens with press passes” accusation is fair.”

    Here’s a link to Roger Pielke Jr, and his run-in with NY Times ‘green with a press pass’ Justin Gillis:

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2012/04/interview-with-activist-journalist.html

    So now I’ve posted two examples, from the Washington Post and New York Times – the pillars of the American journalism world. And the accusation isn’t fair? Am I cherry picking? It’s not like I found two examples from the Madison Daily Worker and the Berkeley Post. One would think that these two institutions would have the highest of journalistic standards, no? Apparently, no.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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