Op Ed: The Green Beat Takes a Beating

The recent cuts to environment and climate reporting at the nation’s largest dailies have been roundly criticized...

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By Jing Jin via the Cornell Daily Sun, 3/11/13

The recent cuts to environment and climate reporting at the nation’s largest dailies have been roundly criticized as a fateful blunder by journalists and readers. In January, The New York Times announced that it was dismantling the environment desk, reassigning, but not firing, the two editors and seven reporters in the section. Similarly, The Washington Post is reassigning its lead climate reporter, Juliet Eilperin, to cover the White House. Most recently, The Times, at the strategic hour of 5 p.m. on Friday March 1, gave the pink slip to the Green blog, a platform which many had hoped would compensate for the move away from focused environmental coverage.

Slate noted that blogs such as Carpetbagger, which discusses awards shows, were kept on the payroll, perhaps indirectly leading Seth MacFarlane to quip on Twitter: “Hey press — y’know that frenzy you whipped up over the Oscars? Try using the same zeal over climate change. Just once. Make yourself useful.”

While I disapprove of the cut that The Times chose to make under budgetary pressures that are choking the entire industry, I have silly hope that the environment desk and the Green blog are only getting left out in the rain temporarily — not being booted out forever.

Bora Zivkovic, blogs editor at Scientific American, saw the Green blog as a way to pull those already interested in environmental issues to a comprehensive site, which published what the print edition missed. While the decision to eliminate the environment desk was supposedly made to increase the relevance and audience of environmental news, it’s important for the public to hold the editors accountable for better integrating environmental stories into political, business and societal news. Zivkovic said he sees potential for the restructuring to push environmental angles “everywhere, in all sections of the paper.” He seems to think “the greens” can subversively gain a monopoly on reporting, and he fittingly uses economic terminology to describe the ideal shift: “Instead of the environmental vertical, The New York Times will now have an environmental horizontal.”

Andrew Revkin, author of The Times’ Dot Earth blog, somewhat dramatically made the same point on his Facebook page after the environment desk’s dissolution, saying that the desk had been a ghetto for the topic and for the reporters. I agree with him when he says, “Environment is not a beat. Environmental impacts are a result of human decisions and actions.”

Any writing — in journalism, nonfiction, prose or poetry — that focuses solely on the environment can potentially obscure humans’ role in creating the environment. There is evidence that multifaceted stories make for news worth reading. University of Colorado professor Max Boykoff has identified four main themes in climate reporting — political, scientific, meteorological and cultural. When one or more of these themes are addressed in a story, “coverage intensifies and is sustained.”

But couldn’t the human angle have been brought into environmental stories as effectively as bringing the environmental angle into human interest stories? I have indeed noticed more frequent and broad mentions of environment and climate concerns in the Times, but a paragraph toward the end of a story hardly does justice to the hugeness and complexity of these concerns. These angles best serve as a complement, not a replacement, for full environmental coverage.

Financial pressures forced the Times to prioritize, and the same is true for individual reporters. When their job is to cover the White House or technology, they simply cannot devote as much time to researching and reporting environmental issues. And really, if the Times can’t support environmental coverage, I’m hard-pressed to think of a media outlet that can or will.

Last year, even as worldwide climate coverage continued its three-year decline, the Times published the most stories of any news outlet on climate change. Glenn Kramon, an editor who has been reassigned to technology from the environment desk, said then that “climate change is one of the few subjects so important that we need to be oblivious to cycles and just cover it as hard as we can all the time.” He even specifically attributed the paper’s success to the growth of the environment desk over the past four years.

As expected, there have been no public complaints from politicians or companies about the restructuring, which may lead to a decline in the volume and quality of environmental coverage — as I suspect it will.

News of corporate action and government inaction that goes unreported doesn’t enter into the public conversation on environmental protection and climate change solutions. Further, environmental coverage becomes curated by special interest sites and individuals, like Andrew Revkin. Those uninterested in the environment will never seek out these sources, and those interested in the environment will not receive balanced and in-depth reporting. In the end, we all take a beating.

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