Top environment reporters talk about journalism vs. activism
With global warming, biodiversity loss, peak oil, and other environmental problems looming large, those who report on the issues face a dilemma: Do they report the facts dispassionately, or shift to advocacy? How do mainstream reporters deal with this issue? To find out, we asked a few of them.
As you’ve covered environmental issues over the years, have you found yourself conflicted over your role as objective reporter vs. concerned citizen or activist? Do you believe your role or approach has changed, or should change — particularly as climate change and other problems intensify?
Felicity Barringer, The New York Times
The environmental beat came to me in the wake of an assignment covering the United Nations in the acrimonious run-up to the Iraq war (not to mention 30 years of journalism in other locales). The temptation to take sides has been tempered by the years. Besides, I’ve come to think that the whole framework within which one takes sides — a binary, good guys vs. evil polluters mind-set — is not always useful, and often may distort a more nuanced reality. Sure, some situations do feature outrageous cases of companies or individuals trying to outsource their emissions/discharges/noxious effluvia and pay no heed to the cost to human health. Government agencies do sometimes load the dice in making their decisions. Telling such stories honestly and factually, after listening to all sides, is an important part of what we do, and is not bias.
But many other stories — particularly the energy stories that are a crucial part of coverage, given climate change — are far more complex, technologically, economically, and politically. For instance, with the exception of John Fialka [of The Wall Street Journal] and a couple of others, most reporters don’t see this as a business beat. But some businesses, insurance in particular, may do as much to force CO2 controls as political activists. The profit motive, often seen as a negative attribute, may be the environment’s best friend when it comes to climate change.
The bottom line for me is that when a reporter takes sides in a political dispute, the reporting, its credibility, and its impact all suffer. The only side I’ll take is the side of science.
Michael Grunwald, The Washington Post
I’ve had the luxury of time to write stories that went beyond he said, she said. I’m sympathetic to reporters on daily deadlines who turn to the “pro guy” and the “con guy” to try to be fair; most debates do have at least two legitimate sides, and it takes time to determine beyond question that an argument is factually incorrect.
I’ve run into this a lot with my coverage of the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency that often manipulates economic studies to justify wildly expensive and environmentally destructive water projects that don’t achieve their stated purposes. I’ve caught them doing this again and again; in 2000, I spent a year reading their hilariously self-contradictory technical reports, and traveling around the country to see their failing projects. I went out of my way to get the agency’s side of the story — even after its commander had forbidden his employees to talk to me — but I pointed it out when documents and other reality-based forms of evidence contradicted Corps assertions.
Same thing after Katrina: I stuck to documented facts, which often bore very little resemblance to what the Corps was telling me. My editors never pressured me to hedge any of my findings for the sake of false balance; they just insisted that I stick to facts rather than rhetoric. So I haven’t quoted many angry environmentalists saying nasty things about the Corps. I’ve tried to let the facts speak for themselves. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with advocacy journalism, but The Post tries not to practice it.
That doesn’t mean we can’t make judgments. In The Post, I’ve written that the Corps is dysfunctional. In my book, I wrote that Everglades restoration is off to a rough start. But those were fact-based judgments that I could back up with documentation. Some of the reporting I’m proudest of has infuriated environmental advocates. For instance, after Katrina, when Democrats were accusing President Bush of causing the disaster by underfunding the Corps, I wrote a story pointing out that the Corps was spending more money in Louisiana than any other state, and most of it was going to economically unjustified projects that had nothing to do with protecting New Orleans.
I believe in facts; it’s our only real value-add as journalists. Anyone can provide spin.
Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker
I don’t think the problem is with the normal standards of journalism, I think the problem is with how those standards have been interpreted. Every reporter who covers climate change knows — and has known for years — that the handful of so-called scientists who reliably try to cast doubt on the seriousness of the problem are not credible.
The way I understand things, journalistic balance does not require giving equal time to those who argue, for example, that HIV does not cause AIDS, or smoking does not cause lung disease. Anyone who argues that CO2 does not cause global warming is, pretty much by definition, unqualified to pass judgment on the latest scientific findings. Why reporters have continued to quote these people as if they had a claim to scientific objectivity, I’m not sure. But I don’t think the corrective is for reporters to become activists (though I’m certainly in favor of their doing so if they want to). It is simply to apply the standards of journalism — fairly and rigorously.
Andrew Revkin, The New York Times
My role as an environment reporter is to convey what science has revealed about a question, what is not understood, what aspects of an issue can be clarified through future research, and what amount of unavoidable uncertainty society is saddled with in the end.
I don’t believe that role should change.
There is something of a false dichotomy in the notion that being an objective reporter is at odds with being a “concerned citizen.” Of course I’m concerned about the quality of the environment. My activism lies in choosing subjects like climate change and biodiversity loss that the media tend to shy away from because they don’t fit our norms (a clear news “peg,” risks relevant to daily life, and the like). Sometimes I end up playing the role of what you might call the “truth police” — meaning I’m willing to reveal any effort to distort science — either by those seeking to exploit uncertainties as a way to delay action or those seeking to gloss over them to propel action.
My other passion is conveying how science works, something that society seems to have forgotten. There is always debate. There are always loud voices at the edges of an idea (on climate, that would be the apocalyptics and the contrarians). But that should not distract from the great durable body of understanding in the middle. On global warming, for example, the core is completely undisputed: more carbon dioxide = higher temperatures = less ice = higher seas. That gets lost in the debate over details, or over whether extreme events in real time are driven by human-forced climate change.
Ross Gelbspan, author and retired journalist
For me, having started to write about climate about 10 years ago, it’s been a very clear — and at times very uncomfortable — evolution. I got into this stuff not because I love the trees. I got into it because I learned the coal industry was paying some scientists under the table to say nothing was happening. And I said to myself, “If there’s this cover-up going on, what are they covering up?” And there went the next 10 years of my life.
So clearly I began as a reporter — just following my own investigative instincts. As I learned more about the issue, I found myself moving from reporter to advocate. That really occasioned a bit of a crisis of conscience for me, since I’d spent 30 years as a journalist and have always been extremely conscious of the line between reporting and trying to influence events. Since then, I’ve graduated a bit from an advocate to a semi-activist, although it’s still critically important to me not to say or write anything of substance that I haven’t documented or verified.
In this case, the fact that the findings of more than 2,000 scientists [with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] were being submerged by a very well-orchestrated disinformation campaign catalyzed me … because I predicated my whole career on the belief that in a democracy we need honest information on which to base our decisions.
I think reporters have been essentially duped by the public-relations specialists of the fossil-fuel lobby into presenting the issue of climate change as a debate. That way, the public will continue to shrug in the belief that it’s still unsettled. For journalists, I think it’s necessary only to report on what the major scientists are saying. And if there are counter-expressions within the legitimate scientific community, to reflect their relative weight within the community. That’s neither advocacy nor activism. It’s just clear, open-eyed reporting.