Pre-2002 Back Issues
Amidst Red Ink and Pink Slips,
SEJ Conference Still Energizing
By Bud WardNovember 2, 2006
The Society of Environmental Journalists' (SEJ's) 16th annual convention, in Burlington, Vt., October 25-29, was a high-energy get-the-motors-running event for the more than 800 registrants, about half of them actually journalists of one stripe or another.
The meeting and associated field trips, luncheons, dinners, and general conviviality provided a veritable smorgasbord of speakers, news makers, and even a fair dose of controversy. While few actual reporters may have left town with an immediate bevy of next-day stories, a sampling of conference attendees suggests high satisfaction with the full – very full – days' events.
As with recent SEJ annual meetings, this one had its share of reporters-turned-full-time-worriers as the plight of the print and broadcast MSM, mainstream media, continued to manifest itself in shrinking newsrooms, staff cutbacks, rumored strikes in-the-offing, and general journalism malaise.
Red ink and pink slips were never far from many reporters' thoughts. Few were the major metropolitan daily reporters able to leave the meeting with enough job leads to make up for the usual shortage of breaking news stories.
On the other hand, this conference appeared to reverse a recent trend of MSM pessimism and woe with an increasing number of those willing to celebrate the opportunities and challenges in presenting news and information over the web. Few indeed appear any longer to harbor doubts about the web's greater potential for telling stories at longer length, in greater depth, with more graphics and images and color, and with a vastly improved ability to help audiences drill down for more information through hot links. More and more ink-in-the-veins reporters at least appeared willing for the first time to see themselves throwing down yesterday's note pads for tomorrow's mouse clicks, megapixels, and earbuds.
Now, if they can overcome their resistance to learning new tricks involving a whole new world of blog software and other tools more familiar to the 20s and 30s crowd than perhaps to those in their 50s soon anticipating, or perhaps dreading, their first AARP new-member solicitations.
The most widely anticipated and widely discussed session of the meeting didn't disappoint when it came to fireworks. Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, detailed his communications director, Mark Morano, to flesh out details about the pair's ongoing criticisms that news organizations are presenting a biased view of climate change science. No believers they in the "consensus science" of most acknowledged experts, Morano came armed for bear, and found plenty of it in fellow panelist Bill Blakemore of ABC News and, to a lesser extent, Andrew C. Revkin, of The New York Times. You can see the video of the lively panel at http://video.google.com.
No longer constrained by the formalities of working still for a major corporate employer and news organization, long-time environmental reporter Dan Fagin, now teaching journalism at New York University, took no prisoners in rebutting Morano's sweeping accusations of media bias. After a point-by-point rebuttal of what he sees as Inhofe's and Morano's misunderstanding and/or misrepresentation of climate science, he did so in part by invoking images of the "big lie" strategies of former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, former red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy, and various Chinese and Soviet era tyrants. Real fightin' words.
Morano seemed to barely bat an eye, though he appeared to wither some when one of his most highly regarded targets – NASA climate scientist James Hansen – in Q&A rebutted his characterizations.
If you can take the time – and you should – take it to view and listen to the video at the Google site above.
The Ihhofe/Morano-media face-off was but one of a number of SEJ meeting sessions increasingly devoted to climate change as the environmental issue of the year ... decade ... and century. In a breakfast plenary – "The Biggest Story, The Biggest Challenge" – Blakemore was joined by New Yorker staff writer Betsy Kolbert and local TV and newspaper officials to explain their approaches to the climate story.
At the official opening plenary, corporate environmental execs from Du Pont, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and DEKA Research & Development outlined seemingly ambitious and grant "go green" sustainability initiatives. Fellow panelist and journalist Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, was impressed, but not very, as he effectively ripped into their presentations as too little/too late given problems he sees befalling Earth and its growing populations.
Go beyond the MSM red-ink concerns and the fear of more pink slips to come, and beyond also the plenaries, and there was plenty of meat to take from the SEJ meeting. A few samples:
- Bill Blakemore's comment that he defines a journalist as one who knows how "not to report what he does not know when on deadline" ... and is able to change his or her mind whenever appropriate based on evidence and data, constantly testing one's own biases;
- Betsy Kolbert's remark that in reporting her three-part New Yorker climate change stories, she "read about 150 scientific papers, and I don't think I quoted one .... They're unquotable" and intentionally so.
- Great tips from long-time SEJ members and freelance e-journalists Amy Gahran and Adam Glenn on the bright promise of the digital age, along with tons of practical tips for effectively navigating it.
- A report from SEJ that it's all-time high membership number of about 1,400 has now fallen to about 1,300, primarily because newbies who registered to compete for an SEJ prize haven't maintained their memberships. The group says it has about 800 print members, and 50 or so TV and another 50 radio reporters. Throw in 135 or so students, just over 100 academics, and 45 "authors" and etc., etc., etc., to round out the membership.
- Kudos for Minnesota Public Radio's innovative and highly respected "Public Insight Journalism" initiative.
- An emphasis that print reporters need to turn early and often to the web as they lay out their story budgets, and not merely turn to it when all else fails.
- Advice from one reporter: "Never use the word 'sustainability' in a meeting with editors." Which brought the rejoinder not to use the "E" word ("environment") either. To which The Times' Revkin commenting on SEJ, joked, "This whole organization should go underground, actually."
- Advice to take a look at tree canopy as an under-reported story in many areas.
- Word that the declines in circulation are by no means limited to major metro dailies: National Geographic has lost more than half its monthly circulation since the start of the 90s, and now has a circulation of about 5 million in the U.S.
- And sage advice on the future of print journalism, this from a National Geographic editor commenting on the Web: "Search and tag ... that's the future."
- Advice to take a look at www.mophotoworkshop.org to get a look at effective photojournalism.
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