Environment, back on the front page
By Jim Detjen Posted Oct 1 2001
President George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw from the Kyoto climate-change agreement has stirred up an international hornet’s nest. He has been denounced by environmentalists worldwide and has angered many world leaders who see his go-it-alone approach as both arrogant and scientifically misguided.
But one group benefiting from his controversial stands on climate change and other natural-resource issues are environmental journalists. From Washington to London, from Tokyo to Moscow, stories about the Kyoto agreement and the Bush administration’s opposition to it have run prominently on the front pages of many newspapers in 2001.
The environmental beat has become hot again.
“I think interest in the issue has really come alive in the past few months,” says Douglas Jehl, an environmental writer for The New York Times.
There is nothing like new controversies to inject life into old issues—and the Bush administration has done that in spades. Since Bush became president in January 2001, he has moved aggressively to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Area in Alaska to oil exploration, reversed his campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and called for a relaxation or repeal of many federal regulations.
As a result of these positions, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times have all dramatically increased their coverage. Each newspaper has assigned a full-time reporter to cover environmental controversies in the nation’s capital.
Between January and April, the three major evening newscasts on American television aired 264 minutes of news about the environment. This is 52 percent more airtime than the three newscasts devoted to environmental topics in all of 1996.
“The environmental beat is now one of the hottest beats going,” says Rob Stein, science editor of The Washington Post. And Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News, adds, “The Bush administration is putting the environment on page one. … It’s become a big policy story because of the Bush initiatives.”
Because the United States is such a powerful player on the world stage, Bush’s controversial positions have also energized environmental journalism internationally. I spent the summer of 2001 in the British Isles, teaching journalism and meeting with many European environmental journalists. Virtually all said that they are having an easier time selling their stories to editors today than they did a year ago.
Since I began reporting about environmental issues more than 30 years ago, I have watched media coverage of environmental issues grow in general in many parts of the world. But the amount and quality of coverage has often been erratic. For example, the amount of environmental reporting grew in Europe, the United States and Japan and other parts of Asia throughout the 1970s, only to retrench in the early 1980s.
But then came a series of international environmental calamities in the middle and late 1980s. The industrial accident in Bhopal, India, in 1984, which killed 3,800 people and injured more than 200,000, galvanized the news media to pay more attention to toxic chemicals. The discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica in 1985 increased concern worldwide about threats to this fragile layer of gas. The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant in Ukraine in 1986 spread radiation throughout much of Europe and fueled the growth of opposition to nuclear power. The hot summer of 1988 in the United States, along with new scientific findings, raised global concern that climate change was a real—not just a theoretical—issue.
In the 1990s new environmental concerns arose. The loss of tropical forests in South America and Asia, the spread of deserts in Africa, the decline in global fisheries and growing concerns about the availability of fresh water emerged as important issues. Threats to food supplies by bacterial contamination, Mad Cow Disease and genetically modified organisms have more recently raised public concern about food safety.
These environmental issues have spurred the growth of environmental journalism worldwide. It is difficult to quantify precisely how large this growth has been because no organization has made a serious effort to compile these figures. But the growth in the size of several environmental-journalism organizations around the world gives some indication of what has been happening in this field.
In the United States, the Society of Environmental Journalists was incorporated with a few dozen members in 1990 and since then has grown into an organization with more than 1,100 members in more than 20 countries. In 1993 the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ) was founded in Dresden, Germany, by journalists in Europe, Asia and the United States. Since then, the organization has held annual conferences around the world and today includes among its members more than 5,000 journalists in more than 100 countries. Another organization, the Asia-Pacific Forum of Environmental Journalists, serves journalists from the Middle East to the Pacific islands and has grown steadily during the past decade into an influential group.
The quantity and quality of environmental journalism, however, vary greatly from region to region. In the United States, Western Europe and parts of Asia, environmental journalism has become an accepted and important part of many news reports. But in other areas, primarily Africa and Latin America, the coverage is sparse or inconsistent. Roberto Villar, an environmental journalist in Brazil, noted that the amount of environmental reporting in Brazil grew rapidly in the two years leading up to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and then largely disappeared once the meeting ended. He blames some of this decline on the lack of interest by many editors in environmental issues.
However, it is not just lack of interest that makes reporting about environmental issues difficult. In many parts of the world, access to environmental information is limited because of restrictive government policies or laws. Few nations, for example, have laws similar to the powerful Freedom of Information Act in the United States.
In some parts of the world, environmental journalists have been threatened, harassed or even killed while doing their jobs. Here are just a few examples:
l In Albania, television correspondent Xhemal Mato was threatened by gangsters with arson and kidnapping as a result of stories he wrote about private businesses damaging wildlife in national parks. Despite these threats, Mato continued to file reports and ultimately police chased away the people who were destroying the endangered species.
l In Ghana, Ben Ephson, an environmental reporter for Business in Ghana magazine, was imprisoned for six months as a result of stories he wrote.
l In Russia, Grigory Pasko was put on trial for treason as a result of articles he wrote about the Russian navy dumping nuclear wastes into the Pacific Ocean. See “Radioactive Waste Uncovered,” Page 20.
l And in Peru, environmental journalist Barbara D’Achille was killed by Shining Path guerrillas while she was on her way to write about the impact of a rural-development project for her newspaper, El Comercio, one of Lima’s major newspapers.
Despite these incidents, modern technology has made it increasingly difficult for governments to completely control access to information. In recent years the explosive growth of the Internet has enabled journalists worldwide to obtain and exchange information. Communic-ation satellites, videotapes, compact discs and other technologies have also helped to break down the walls of official secrecy.
Perhaps a more worrisome threat in recent years has been the consolidation of ownership of the world’s media. Many journalists are concerned that the demand for higher profits by public corporations will lead to fewer environmental journalists and fewer environmental stories. They cite, for example, the decision made by executives at AOL Time Warner in early 2001 to trim back the environmental programming on CNN, one of its subsidiaries. Others worry that news organizations will curtail their reporting about environmental controversies if such coverage proves embarrassing to corporate owners. For example, will NBC’s coverage of the contamination of the Hudson River in New York be influenced by its corporate owner, the General Electric Corporation, which originally caused the pollution?
One thing is for certain. As the world’s population grows from six billion people in 2001 to an estimated nine billion in 2050, pressure on the world’s limited water, air, soil and other natural resources will only increase. Environmental controversies are likely to grow as these pressures increase. And environmental controversies, as President Bush has already learned, spur coverage by the news media.