Viewing: Covering the Broader Environmental Story
- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
Covering the Broader Environmental Story
By Fen Montaigne / 3 minute read
Many of the suggestions and caveats that apply to the climate story also are relevant to wider coverage of the environment. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Both the environment and climate story should be seen in the context of wider social and economic issues. “The thing I would try to bring to these stories is showing that they are about power and equity and justice and health and race and class and gender,” says Lyndsey Gilpin, founder of Southerly. “You don’t have to say that about every single story, but I do think that coming to stories with that context is valid for showcasing these very complex issues.” Environmental-justice stories should be an integral part of covering the environmental beat, and longtime patterns of racism, economic inequality, and government neglect have contributed to low-income communities’ and minority communities’ often being forced to bear the worst impacts of living near refineries, interstate highways, and other threats. When covering issues of environmental justice, ask your reporters, “How did things get this way? What’s the back story of how a particular community wound up next to a heavily polluting enterprise, and what resources does the community possess to deal with the situation?”
- The environment story in the U.S. is being shaped by the same trends that are leading to the deterioration of the global environment. The population of the United States has more than doubled in 70 years, from 151 million in 1950 to 331 million in 2020. Development pressure is affecting everything from coastal wetlands to Rocky Mountain wilderness. Ask your reporters to put stories in the context of these longer-term environmental changes. For example, rising seas and intensifying storms unquestionably pose a major, and possibly existential, threat to coastal communities. Reporters should examine the factors, from federal flood-insurance programs to unconstrained development policies at the local level, that have put so many people and properties in harm’s way in recent decades.
- The fossil-fuel industry is not going away anytime soon, and covering its power and its environmental impact is key. The vast majority of the world’s scientists, and even many oil-company executives, acknowledge that the world’s economies must largely wean themselves off fossil fuels if society is to escape the worst disruptions of global warming. However, the 21st-century fracking boom in the U.S. and the continuing construction of fossil-fuel infrastructure, such as pipelines and petrochemical plants, are just two examples of the continued reach of the oil-and-gas industry. Many examples of excellent journalism on this subject exist, such as ProPublica’s tenacious reporting, led by Abrahm Lustgarten, on the damage done to public health and the environment by fracking. One of the great economic, political, and environmental stories of the 21st century will be the battle over decarbonizing the global economy, and editors and reporters should see many climate and environment stories through that prism.
- Collaborations among news organizations are an important part of the beat’s coverage. This is especially true in an era when the power and resources of traditional newspapers have waned. Environmental stories can be “so complex and vary so much based on where we are, and they require so much data,” that joining forces with other news organizations makes sense, says Gilpin. In 2019, Southerly, in partnership with Climate Central and The Telegraph, in Macon, Georgia, took an in-depth look at how prescribed burning programs in Georgia and the Southeast have helped reduce the threat of wildfires. That same year, ProPublica, in collaboration with The Times Picayune and New Orleans Advocate, did a series of articles titled “Polluters’ Paradise,” examining how a spate of new petrochemical plants in “Cancer Alley,” along the Mississippi River, has led to an increase in emissions of cancer-causing chemicals in largely black and poor communities. When contemplating an environmental story or video with regional, state, or national impact, editors should consider whether collaborating with another web-based news site, newspaper, or radio or TV station would strengthen the work.
- Hold governments and businesses accountable. As it attempts to roll back environmental and climate regulations, the Trump administration was the subject of countless news reports outlining its pro-business, anti-regulatory initiatives. But there are many other examples of lax environmental oversight, at all levels of government. One strong example of calling officials to task has been the reporting of Jamie Satterfield at Tennessee’s Knoxville News-Sentinel. In a series of articles, she documented how the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned corporation and utility, had failed to protect hundreds of workers who cleaned up the country’s largest coal-ash spill — millions of cubic yards of sludge released after a dike at a TVA power plant gave way in 2008. As of late 2019, Satterfield reported, 44 workers had died from being exposed to the toxic coal ash, and more than 400 had been sickened. News organizations at all levels should examine the actions of corporations, too. While the efforts of some companies, such as Nike and Siemens, to reduce CO2 emissions and adopt more-sustainable business practices are examples of solutions-oriented corporate action, other corporations, such as those operating heavily polluting hog farms in North Carolina, deserve close scrutiny. Editors at local publications should closely follow the actions of giant corporations, such as the Minnesota-based agricultural conglomerate Cargill, to look at their impact on the environment, from deforestation in the Amazon to the plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, which is driven in part by corporations such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.