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Why the Media Stumble
Over the Environment
by Andrew Revkin
(Editor's note: This is an undated submission written by Revkin for the National Association of Science Writers and submited for us at the Second Workshop at Scripps.)
A few decades ago, anyone with a notepad or camera could have looked almost anywhere and chronicled a vivid trail of environmental despoliation and disregard. Only a few journalists and authors, to their credit, were able to recognize a looming disaster hiding in plain sight. But at least it was in plain sight.
The challenges in covering environmental problems today are far greater for a host of reasons. Some relate to the subtlety or complexity of most remaining pollution and ecological issues now that glaring problems have been attacked. Think of nonpoint-source pollution the dribbles at a gas station and then think of the Exxon Valdez.
Many other daunting impediments to effective environmental coverage lie not out in the examined world, but back in the newsroom, and in the nature of news itself. They are surmountable. But the task is and will long remain a daunting one.
An age of imminent calamity
A little reflection is useful. Most journalists of my generation were raised in an age of imminent calamity. Cold War duck and cover exercises regularly sent us to the school basement. The prospect of silent springs hung in the wind.
We grew up in a landscape where environmental problems were easy to identify and describe. Depending on where you stood along the Hudson Rivers banks, the shores were variously coated with adhesive, dyes, paint, or other materials indicating which riverfront factory was nearest. And of course the entire river was a repository for human waste, making most sections unswimmable. Smokestacks were unfiltered. Gasoline was leaded.
Then things began to change. New words crept into the popular lexicon smog, acid rain, toxic waste. At the same time, citizens gained a sense of empowerment as popular protest shortened a war. A new target was pollution. Earth Day was something newspapers wrote about with vigor, not an anachronistic, even quaint, notion. Republican administrations and bipartisan Congresses created a suite of laws aimed at restoring air and water quality and protecting wildlife. And, remarkably, those laws began to work.
Right through the 1980s the prime environmental issues of the day and thus the news continued to revolve around iconic incidents, mainly catastrophic in nature. First came Love Canal, with Superfund cleanup laws quickly following. Then came the horrors of Bhopal, which generated the first right-to-know laws granting communities insights into the chemicals stored and emitted by nearby businesses. Chernobyl illustrated the perils that were only hinted at by Three Mile Island. The grounding of the Exxon Valdez powerfully illustrated the ecological risks of extracting and shipping oil in pristine places.
Debates about wildlife conservation generally focused on high-profile species like the spotted owl or whales, making for gripping stories in which some charismatic creature was a target of developers or insatiable industries. Even some fairly complicated phenomena, like depletion of the ozone layer under the assault of CFCs and other synthetic compounds, came with conveniently vivid symbols in that instance, the stark seasonal hole discovered in that protective atmospheric veil over Antarctica.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a satellite image of a giant purple bruise-like gap in the planets radiation shield must be worth 10,000. Indeed, several years into the 21st century, according to some surveys, that ozone hole still resonates in the popular imagination incorrectly as a cause of global warming simply because it is so memorable and has something to do with the changing atmosphere.
Accuracy versus urgency
Now, however, the nature of environmental news is often profoundly different, making what was always a challenging subject far harder to convey appropriately to readers. By appropriately, I do not just mean accurately. Any stack of carefully checked facts can be accurate but still convey a warped sense of how important or scary or urgent a situation may be. Therein lies an added layer of responsibility and difficulty for the reporter.
As recently as the first days of 2004, those difficulties still made a colleague of mine nearly tear her hair as she grappled with a new paper in a respected journal, Science, positing that farmed Atlantic salmon held much higher levels of PCBs and other contaminants in its flesh than did wild Pacific salmon. The authors calculated that the risks from these chemical traces meant consumers should not eat more than one salmon meal a month despite the many health benefits conferred by such fish. The Food and Drug Administration, noting that the detected concentrations were dozens of times lower than federal limits, strongly disagreed. Some top toxicologists not aligned with the seafood industry or anyone else also fervently disputed the researchers risk calculation.
The situation was sufficiently confusing that my brother, a cardiologist and heart-drug researcher, sent me an urgent email asking: What's the poop on the risk of farmed salmon, dioxin, and PCBs? Any truth to it? I eat it as much as three times a week.
Id covered PCBs for years in the context of the remaining stains buried in the Hudsons river-bottom mud. My own instinct on this, which I conveyed to my brother not as a journalist but simply as a citizen who has had to make judgments in the face of uncertainty, was that he should eat and enjoy while perhaps avoiding the brownish fatty tissue and, sad to say for sushi-roll lovers, the salmon skin.
So what is a reporter to do? The first step is simple: know thine enemy. Recognize where the hurdles to effective environmental communication reside so you can prepare strategies to surmount or sidestep them. Here are some of the fundamental characteristics of the news process that I feel impede or distort environmental coverage.
The tyranny of the peg
News is almost always something that happened today. A war starts. An earthquake strikes. In contrast, most of the big environmental themes of this century concern phenomena that are complicated, diffuse, and poorly understood. All that nonpoint runoff from parking lots and gas stations and driveways invisibly puts 1.5 Exxon Valdez loads of petroleum products into coastal ecosystems each year, the National Research Council recently found. But try getting a photo of that or finding a way to make an editor understand its implications.
Climate change is the poster child of 21st-century environmental issues. Many experts say it will be the defining ecological problem in a generation or two and actions must be taken now to avert a huge increase in emissions linked to warming. But it generally hides in plain sight. You will never see a headline in a major paper reading: Global Warming Strikes Crops Wither, Coasts Flood, Species Vanish. All of those things may happen in coming years, but they will not be news as we know it.
Developments in environmental science are almost by nature incremental, contentious, and laden with statistical analyses including broad error bars. In the newsrooms I know, the word incremental is sure death for a story, yet it is the defining characteristic of most research.
Faced with this disconnect, reporters and editors are sometimes tempted to play up the juiciest and probably least certain facet of some environmental development, particularly in the late afternoon as everyone in the newsroom sifts for the front-page thought. They do so at their peril and at the risk of engendering even more cynicism and uncertainty in the minds of readers about the value of the media especially when one month later the news shifts in a new direction. Keep watching for the tide to change on salmon and health. It will change, and change again.
Is it good enough for a story to be right for a day? In the newsroom the answer is mainly yes. For society as a whole, Im not so sure.
The hardest thing, sometimes, is to turn off ones news instinct and insist that a story is not frontable or that it deserves 300 words and not 800. Try it some time. It violates every reportorial instinct, but its doable kind of like training yourself to reach for an apple when you crave a cookie.
The tyranny of balance
As a kind of crutch and shorthand, journalism has long relied on the age-old method of finding a yeah-sayer and nay-sayer to frame any issue, from abortion to zoning. It is a quick easy way for reporters to show they have no bias. But it is also an easy way, when dealing with a complicated environmental issue, to perpetuate confusion in readers minds and simply turn them off to the idea that media serve a valuable purpose.
When this form is overused, it also inevitably tends to highlight the opinions of people at the edges of a debate instead of in the much grayer middle ground, where consensus most likely lies. I cant remember where I first heard this, but the following maxim perfectly illustrates both the convenience of this technique and its weakness: For every PhD there is an equal and opposite PhD.
One solution, which is not an easy one, is to try to cultivate scientists in various realms toxicology, climatology, and whatever else might be on your beat whose expertise and lack of investment in a particular bias are established in your own mind. They should be your go-to voices, operating as your personal guides more than as sources to quote in a story.
Another is what I call truth in labeling. Make sure you know the motivation of the people you interview. If a scientist, besides being a meteorologist, is a senior fellow at the Marshall Institute (an industry-funded think tank opposed to many environmental regulations), then it is the journalists responsibility to say so.
Such a voice can have a place in a story if it is focused on policy questions, but it is perhaps best avoided in a story where the only questions are about science. The same would go for a biologist working for the World Wildlife Fund.
The twin tyrannies of time and space
But there are two tyrannies that often impede efforts to overcome this one. I came to newspapering after writing magazine stories and books, and so I was petrified at first about filing on a daily deadline. Early on one editor, hovering over my shoulder while daylight ebbed, gently put it this way: Revkin, this aint no seed catalog.
Somehow, through the ensuing years I adapted to the rhythm, but also to the reality of its limitations. Particularly on an issue like the environment, I understood why that crutch of on the one hand was so popular. Theres just no time to canvass experts.
And I understood why stories tend sometimes to read like a cartoon version of the world or like the transcript to a Fox TV news show. Theres just no time to do better.
And then theres space. Science is one of the few realms where reporters essentially have to presume no familiarity at all in the readers mind with the basics. Just about anyone in America knows the rules of politics, business, baseball, and other subjects in the news. But a spate of studies of scientific literacy shows just how little most people know about atoms or viruses or the atmosphere.
So all that extra explication has to somehow fit into the same amount of space devoted to a story on a stock split or a primary vote or a ball game. And it doesnt. The shrinking of an environment or other science story competing on a page with national or foreign developments is as predictable as the melting of mountain glaciers in this century.
And the material that is cut is always the stuff that matters most to researchers, and the reality of environmental and medical science the caveats, the couching, the words like may and could, the new questions that emerge with every answer.
Then there is all that labeling. Compression often removes the context for some piece of research (industry funded?) or those vital labels I mentioned a minute ago. The only solution here is to fight hard and to try to educate editors as much as possible to the importance of context and precision in such stories.
Heat versus light
One of the most difficult challenges in covering the environment is finding the appropriate way to ensure a different kind of balance between the potent heat generated by emotional content and the always flickering light of science and statistics. Consider a cancer cluster.
A reporter constructing a story has various puzzle pieces to connect. There is the piece brimming with the emotional power of the grief emanating from a mother who lost a child to leukemia in a suburb where industrial effluent once tainted the water. Then there is the piece laying out the cold statistical reality of epidemiology, which might in that instance never be able to determine if contamination caused the cancer. No matter how one builds such a story, it may be impossible for the reader to come away with anything other than the conviction that contamination killed.
Prime examples of the choices journalists make in balancing heat versus light came amid the uncertainty and fear and politicians assurances and activists hype following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Lower Manhattan was shrouded in powdered cement, silica, plaster, and asbestos. I was immersed in the story along with a host of colleagues from media both local and long distance. Some exploited the fear and peril, drawing headlines in big block letters. Some of us tried to do something dangerous stress the things that were not known or indeed unknowable, even as we wrote definitively about the one risk that was crystal clear that faced by unprotected workers clambering in the smoldering wreckage.
We were criticized by some media analysts for ignoring warnings from some experts that danger lay in the dust that settled outside ground zero. But I stand behind every word, except for one phrase written in a hurried moment (that tyranny of time!), in which I incorrectly wrote that no harmful compounds had been detected in the air. In fact they had been detected within the perimeter of ground zero, but at minute levels and never outside the immediate vicinity.
Those who highlighted potential perils focused on statements by some scientists and testing companies eager for the spotlight, who judged the asbestos risk around the area against thresholds devised for chronic occupational exposure a totally different situation. Fears grew and facts were few.
Someday, perhaps two generations after 9/11, there will be sufficient time for patterns in cancer rates among exposed populations to show an effect. But anyone claiming a clear and present danger in those early days to my mind at least was being irresponsible.
But were they doing their job? By the metric of the media, the answer is probably yes. Pushing the limits is a reporters duty. Finding the one element thats new and implies malfeasance is the key to getting on the front page.
Im just as attuned to that as any other reporter. All I hope for in my own work and that of others is an effort to refine purely news-driven instincts, to try to understand and convey the tentative nature of scientific knowledge, to retain at least some shades of gray in all that black and white.
The great divide
There is one way that journalists dealing with the environment can start working on building reflexes that improve that balance of heat and light, boost the ability to convey the complex without putting readers (or editors) to sleep, and otherwise attempt to break the barriers to effective communication with the public.
This is to communicate more with scientists. By getting a better feel for the breakthrough-setback rhythms of research, a reporter is less likely to forget that the state of knowledge now about endocrine disruptors or PCBs or climate is in flux. This requires using those rare quiet moments between breaking-news days sure, there arent many to talk to ecologists or toxicologists who arent on the spot because their university has just issued a press release.
There is another reason to do this. Just as the public has become cynical about the value of news, many scientists have become cynical, and fearful, about journalism. Some of this is their fault, too. I was at a meeting in Irvine, California, on building better bridges between science and the public and one researcher stood up to recount her personal horror story about how a reporter totally misrepresented her statements and got everything wrong. I asked her if she had called the reporter or newspaper to begin a dialogue on not only fixing those errors but preventing future ones.
She had not. She never even considered it.
It is the same kind of cynical unconcern for the presumed failings of journalism that in part prolonged the career of the disgraced former New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair. Few of the people who knew of his falsehoods called to correct them.
The more scientists and journalists talk, the more likely it is that the public through the media will appreciate what science can and cannot offer to the debate over difficult questions about how to invest scarce resources or change personal behaviors. The need for an intensified dialogue of this sort is becoming ever more vital as science and technology increasingly underpin daily life and the progress of modern civilization.
There is one more reason to sustain and nurture the journalist-scientist dialogue. Scientists have great stories to tell. They are the closest thing the adult world has to wide-eyed children. They are immersed in the grandest adventure of all, the never-ending quest to understand the world and find ways for humanity to prosper without diminishing that world.