Some of my recent posts have brought up the question of objectivity in environmental reporting. Climate change, itself, is a hot-button issue… one that stirs up questions of factual inaccuracies or skepticism by the general public.
Even recently, I have noticed a lack of coverage on key environmental issues, which I can only imagine is due to this sense of denial by American people. Over the past several years, perhaps brought on by disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake, environmental reporting has become a staple for major media outlets. Still, some seem reluctant to qualify it as objective.
The Society of Environmental Journalists’ mission statement includes a vision of : “Credible and robust journalism that informs and engages society on environmental issues.”
The key word, for me, in that statement is “engage.” Reporters don’t necessarily ask for a call to action, yet they aim to inform readers for whatever purpose the reader would like to use that information.
Still, in covering environmental issues, a call to action generally slips in much of the time, especially when talking about global climate change.
SEJ cites environmental issues as “critically important” in its statement. The organization itself promotes the spread of environmental reporting in major media and independent news outlets. It creates a cohesive group of reporters, editors and public relations officials to connect and share information.
Journalists who focus on the environmental beat live and breath it. To these journalists, these are some of the most important issues.
Is that objective?
Ultimately, by choosing to cover certain news stories, a journalist is making an opinionated decision, no matter what the topic. He or she chooses to report on certain aspects of an issue and interview specific sources.
On the Web, journalists have another aspect to utilize–interactive components. Should stories be opened up for debate? Should they portray scientific theories as cold hard facts? How do environmental journalists report on these findings without being biased?
All of these questions are tricky, and many may need to be left to on a case to case basis. In recent news, CNN shattered any wishy-washy stance on the issue of global warming with this headline: New Climate Study Deals Blow to Skeptics.
What once was hotly debated on CNN and other broadcast stations is now being reported on as fact. While this may be a huge victory for public awareness, it also begs the question, how do environmental journalists deal with skeptics? These skeptics will always consider the media to be biased and unjust to other theories.
While the answer is not an easy one to come by, journalists can use Gallup polls to determine public opinion and gauge a better understanding of how their constituents feel on certain issues.
Take the following graph from Gallup:
Majority of Americans believe in global warming according to this poll, and majority even recognize that it has already begun. Environmental journalists reporting on this issue in the United States can thus have confidence that their work is serving a good portion of the population.
Gallup polls do more than just tell journalists how their stories may be received, however. They also shed light on issues that Americans are still confused or divided on. With global warming, for instance, Gallup polls have shown that Americans are still very divided on what is actually causing it.
This is where the environmental journalist steps in.
In a nutshell, it is never possible to be 100 percent objective–reporters are human and must make decisions during the researching and writing process. Yet, they can take steps to make sure they are adequately serving their audience, are reporting on valid scientific studies or surveys and recognizing that an oppositie opinion always exists.
The environment is among the hottest topics in the news today. Despite the major economic crisis, global wars and political instability, the environment is a topic that remains constant. Weather, alone, is extremely important for any major news outlet–when a natural disaster strikes, people turn on their TVs or head straight to the Web to find out what’s up.
Now, major media outlets like The New York Times and Huffington Post have added their own sustainability-related sections. These news sources are ahead of the curve. There are still many publications that do not report on environmental issues nearly at all.
How are these outlets doing in covering the environment? From a sustainability student’s point of view, I don’t think the coverage matches the scale of the issues out there. Most Americans are unaware of receding coastlines or desertification. Why is this?
I think that environmental stories are difficult to grasp. Many require the reporter to explain in lamen’s terms the science behind issues like climate change or tsunamis. It is difficult, because of competing interests, for journalists to report on these issues without being labeled as biased.
Still, now that climate change is generally accepted as a global phenomenon that is being accelerated by human devices, it is extremely important that these sustainability sections continue to grow and thrive. Sustainability teaches us that the environment encapsulates the economy and the society–without it, our world as we know it would not exist.
I hope in my future endeavors that I can help lead the charge on educating the general public about how, exactly, sustainability relates to them and their personal lives.
I feel like nearly every environmental publication, and even some broad-based publications, have written about “green living tips.” The theme does seem a bit tired at this point. Yet, green living tips have become the new dating tips, a favorite topic to turn to for magazines and online publications alike.
Who knew there were “greener” ways to trap rats? Green Living Tips is a website that publishes out of the box advice for how you can live, eat and breath more eco-consciously. The site is really an interesting addition to the World Wide Web. Not to mention, whoever bought that domain name is a genius.
Do news organizations need to cover green living tips when there already exists a communication outlet that seeks to do solely that? I think there is no right answer–it sort of depends on the circumstance. For example, “how to protest sustainably” may be a relevant sidebar to an Occupy Wall Street story.
This leads me to another question to ponder. Are sites like Green Living Tips providing a public service? Are they journalism? These types of advice sites definitely seem like a form of journalism–they consult experts and report on a specific beat. Yet, how do we know they are not biased and dedicated to a certain company? Should readers trust the advice from these sites?
Some questions to think about, but I don’t think there are any clear-cut answers for these.
Grist has done a lot of neat series like this one about rapid population growth. The premise is just fantastic. Instead of a traditional news story, or even a “traditional” multimedia graphic, the non-profit organization creates an interactive experience for the audience.
Including a “live chat” on population growth, a comic and dozens of small, interesting features, the series is truly unique. One of my favorite stories in the series was written by Ian Angus and Simon Butler, questioning whether environmental problems are caused by the 7 billion, or by the one percent. (I thought this was particularly relevant amidst the Occupy Wall Street movement).
The live chat with experts, something I’ve only seen a couple times before, will start on Halloween. I am extremely optimistic about this approach, as opposed to merely leaving a comment option for readers at the bottom of a story. These types of engagement strategies often just lead to trolling instead of an intellectual dialogue.
Grist is for the enviro-nerd. It’s not really for people who want to merely be entertained by what their reading. What it does do, I think, is get the average person to care about the environment through its stories.
The problem with only covering the environment? Some would argue that you can end up just sounding like a broken record. Others may say most stories sound too pessimistic, some even along the lines of doomsday predictions. I believe Grist does a pretty great job with these series, like the one on population. The media organization clearly takes a stand and does not downplay the severity of an environmental crisis, but it offers solutions with the reporting and encourages readers to get involved.
The recent events in Ohio, that involved the killing of dozens of endangered, exotic animals, was covered from a variety of angles. Wildlife activists marked the event as a tragedy for the natural world, but understood why police took aggressive action.
USA Today put together an interactive that detailed what types of animals had been killed, captured or were still at large. However, according to recent reports, the graphic may actually need to be updated. (The monkey that USA Today claims is still on the loose may actually have fallen prey to one of the predators).
Looking at the graphic itself, there is definitely room for improvement. I didn’t come across it until nearly all the animals had been killed or captured, so I am unsure of whether or not the news outlet was updating it as events unfolded. With mapping techniques, USA Today could have easily shown where, specifically, each animal was caught or killed. I believe this would have given some context of how far into the public the animals travelled.
The news source continues to use graphics and visuals as a major part of its reporting. I look forward to seeing some of the things they do in the future.
In researching this topic over the past several weeks, I’ve noticed a wide range of graphics and interactives that news sources use. Many have produced impressive, clean statistics in a visual way. Some, however, seem just to use graphics for the sake of adding visual, when no graphic is actually necessary. Are graphics and interactives making news stories unnecessarily complicated? Are they just adding a visual break, presenting “fluff” data that is largely unrelated or would not make it in a print story?
When it comes to scientific environmental journalism stories, there are oftentimes a lack of photographs that complement the story or add much to the context. On the web, more news sources are turning to graphics, charts, graphs and multimedia flash or HTML pieces to relay information and break up the monotony of the written. The web is different. My Advanced Online Media professor N. Dodge said people don’t want to read an enormous amount of text. Better, she explains, are multimedia pieces that share information in a variety of ways, not just words.
Some mediums, like tablets and smart phones actually may make reading a larger text story impractical. Graphic designers have to be creative, because they may be unable to use programs like Flash to create content for certain devices. While much of what I have been analyzing thus far was found in my Internet browser, some of these graphics can be accessed on a mobile device. These are all decisions journalists are now making in the digital age.
Ultimately, I believe the “value” of a data piece varies from story to story. Some provide a visual breakup of information, like this graphic from a Washington Post story about bacteria that is found in the human body. While the graphic is pretty informative, it is not complex at all. If I were going to get down to the nitty, gritty, to critique it, I would suggest it become an interactive, allowing the reader to click and learn along the way. As it stands now, there is just too much “text” on the graphic, and the pictures don’t do a whole lot to help the reader visualize exactly what is being said.
One news source that has yet to disappoint me really is The New York Times. Its data visualizations are generally striking, like this one that depicts the earth’s changing forests. This interactive tells a whole story in itself, and doesn’t merely pull out a tiny bit of information with little context. It is extremely complex, portraying intact forests, fragmented forests, ancient forests and recent losses. The reader can choose where to go, given a wealth of information as they click. This interactive, called “Changing Forests” is one of my favorite that I have seen from the Times thusfar.
One of my least favorite modes of relaying important information is through multimedia video. I, personally, feel video is better reserved for personal stories. Video for the web? Mediastorm.com does an amazing job at producing compelling multimedia videos for the web. The challenge that broadcast organizations are seeing, I find, is creating compelling content in shorter clips for the web. More and more, people want to hear characters tell the story, as opposed to seeing a talking head.
As I continue to look into how environmental journalism stories are covered by multimedia reporters, I’m sure my analysis will change.