Why the Media Stumble Over the Environment


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Chapter from “A Field Guide for Science Writers,” second edition
National Association of Science Writers http://www.nasw.org
Edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson and Robin Marantz Henig
Oxford Univ. Press, 2005
The Daily Planet: Why the Media Stumble Over the Environment
By Andrew C. Revkin
Originally posted to provide context for 2006 segment of On the Media:
Much more on journalism, climate and the environment on Dot Earth:

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Why the Media Stumble Over the Environment

  1. 1. Chapter from “A Field Guide for Science Writers,” second editionNational Association of Science Writers (www.nasw.org)Edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson and Robin Marantz HenigOxford Univ. Press, 2005The Daily Planet: Why the Media Stumble Over the EnvironmentBy Andrew C. Revkin Hindsight is usually expressed in bravado-tinged phrases. “You have it soeasy now” is one. But when scanning the recent history of environmental news,the impression is just the opposite. A few decades ago, anyone with a notepad orcamera could have looked almost anywhere and chronicled a vivid trail ofdespoliation 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 wasin 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 remainingpollution and ecological issues now that glaring problems have been attacked.Think of non-point-source pollution and then think of the Exxon Valdez. Many other daunting impediments to effective environmental coverage lienot out in the examined world, but back in the newsroom, and in the nature ofnews itself. They are surmountable. But the task is—and will long remain—adaunting one. A little reflection is useful. Most journalists of my generation were raisedin an age of imminent calamity. Cold War “duck and cover” exercises regularlysent us to the school basement. The prospect of silent springs hung in the wind.
  2. 2. Ch 35. Environment/RevkinWe grew up in a landscape where environmental problems were easy to identifyand describe. Depending on where you stood along the Hudson River’s banks, theshores were variously coated with adhesive, dyes, paint, or other materialsindicating which riverfront factory was nearest. And of course the entire river wasa repository for human waste, making most sections unswimmable. Smokestackswere 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 ofempowerment as popular protest shortened a war. A new target was pollution.Earth Day was something newspapers wrote about with vigor, not ananachronistic, even quaint, notion. Republican administrations and bipartisanCongresses created a suite of laws aimed at restoring air and water quality andprotecting wildlife. And, remarkably, those laws began to work. Right through the 1980s the prime environmental issues of the day—andthus the news—continued to revolve around iconic incidents, mainly catastrophicin nature. First came Love Canal, with Superfund cleanup laws quickly following.Then came the horrors of Bhopal, which generated the first right-to-know lawsgranting communities insights into the chemicals stored and emitted by nearbybusinesses. Chernobyl illustrated the perils that were only hinted at by Three MileIsland. The grounding of the Exxon Valdez drove home the ecological risks ofextracting and shipping oil in pristine places. 2
  3. 3. Ch 35. Environment/Revkin Debates about wildlife conservation generally focused on high-profilespecies like the spotted owl or whales, making for gripping stories in which somecharismatic creature was a target of developers or insatiable industries. Even some fairly complicated phenomena, like depletion of the ozonelayer under the assault of CFCs and other synthetic compounds, came withconveniently vivid symbols, in that instance the stark seasonal “hole” discoveredin that protective atmospheric veil over Antarctica. If a picture is worth athousand words, a satellite image of a giant purple bruise-like gap in the planet’sradiation shield must be worth 10,000. Indeed, several years into the 21st century,according to some surveys, that ozone hole still resonates in the popularimagination—incorrectly—as a cause of global warming simply because it is somemorable and has something to do with the changing atmosphere. Now, however, the nature of environmental news is often profoundlydifferent, making what was always a challenging subject far harder to conveyappropriately to readers. By appropriately, I do not just mean accurately. Anystack of carefully checked facts can be accurate but still convey a warped sense ofhow important or scary or urgent a situation may be. Therein lies an added layerof responsibility—and difficulty—for the reporter. As recently as the first days of 2004, those difficulties still made acolleague of mine, the veteran medical writer Gina Kolata, nearly tear her hair asshe grappled with a new paper in a respected journal, Science, positing thatfarmed Atlantic salmon held much higher levels of PCBs and other contaminantsin its flesh than did wild Pacific salmon. The authors calculated that the risks from 3
  4. 4. Ch 35. Environment/Revkinthese chemical traces meant consumers should not eat more than one salmon meala month despite the many health benefits conferred by such fish. The Food andDrug Administration, noting that the detected concentrations were dozens oftimes lower than federal limits, strongly disagreed. Some top toxicologists notaligned with the seafood industry or anyone else also fervently disputed theresearchers’ risk calculation. Gina wrote a clear piece that explained the new findings. At the lastminute, to make sure hurried readers put things in perspective, she added a vitalextra clause to the opening sentence (italics added): “A new study of fillets from 700 salmon, wild and farmed, finds that thefarmed fish consistently have more PCBs and other contaminants, but at levelsfar below the limits set by the federal government.” Even with that proviso, and a host of researchers’ voices further down inthe story stressing that the health benefits of eating salmon were far clearer thanany small risk from PCB’s, readers remained confused. Salmon piled up in somesupermarkets. The situation was sufficiently confusing that my brother, acardiologist and heart-drug researcher, sent me an urgent e-mail asking: “What’sthe poop on the risk of farmed salmon, dioxin and PCBs? Any truth to it? I eat itas much as three times a week.” I’d covered PCBs for years in the context of the remaining stains buried inthe Hudson’s river-bottom mud. My own instinct on this, which I conveyed to mybrother not as a journalist but simply as a citizen who has had to make judgmentsin the face of uncertainty, was that he should eat and enjoy (while perhaps 4
  5. 5. Ch 35. Environment/Revkinavoiding the brownish fatty tissue and—sad to say for sushi-roll lovers—thesalmon 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 soyou can prepare strategies to surmount or sidestep them. Here are some of the fundamental characteristics of the news process that Ifeel impede or distort environmental coverage.The Tyranny of the News Peg News is almost always something that happened today. A war starts. Anearthquake strikes. In contrast, most of the big environmental themes of thiscentury concern phenomena that are complicated, diffuse, and poorly understood.The runoff from parking lots, gas stations, and driveways puts the equivalent of1.5 Exxon Valdez loads’ worth of petroleum products into coastal ecosystemseach year, the National Research Council recently found. But try getting a photoof that, or finding a way to make a page-one editor understand its implications. Here’s how I handled that story, which the science editor pitched for pageone, but was trimmed back and ran on A 14 on May 24, 2002: “Most oil pollution in North American coastal waters comes not from leaking tankers or oil rigs, but rather from countless oil-streaked streets, sputtering lawn mowers and other dispersed sources on land, and so will be hard to prevent, a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences says in a new report. “The thousands of tiny releases, carried by streams and storm drains to the sea, are estimated to equal an Exxon Valdez spill -- 10.9 million gallons of petroleum -- every eight months, the report says.” 5
  6. 6. Ch 35. Environment/Revkin Out of all environmental stories these days, none is both as important (toscientists at least) and as invisible as global warming. Many experts say it will bethe defining ecological problem in a generation or two and actions must be takennow to avert a huge increase in heat-trapping emissions linked to warming. But itgenerally hides in plain sight. You will never see a headline in a major paperreading: “Global Warming Strikes—Crops Wither, Coasts Flood, SpeciesVanish.” All of those things may happen in coming years, but they will not benews as we know it. Developments in environmental science are almost by nature incremental,contentious and laden with statistical analyses including broad “error bars.” In thenewsrooms I know, the word “incremental” is sure death for a story, yet it is thedefining characteristic of most research. Faced with this disconnect, reporters and editors are sometimes tempted toplay up the juiciest—and probably least certain—facet of some environmentaldevelopment, particularly in the late afternoon as everyone in the newsroom siftsfor the “front-page thought” in each story on the list. They do so at their peril, andat the risk of engendering even more cynicism and uncertainty in the minds ofreaders about the value of the media—especially when one month later the newsshifts in a new direction. Keep watching for the tide to change on salmon andhealth. It will change, and change again. Is it good enough for a story to be “right” for a day? In the newsroom theanswer is mainly yes. For society as a whole, I’m not so sure. 6
  7. 7. Ch 35. Environment/Revkin The hardest thing sometimes, is to turn off one’s news instinct and insistthat a story is not “frontable,” or that it deserves 300 words and not 800. Try itsome time. It violates every reportorial instinct, but it’s do-able—kind of liketraining 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, fromabortion 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 thatmedia serve a valuable purpose. When this form is overused, it also inevitably tends to highlight theopinions of people at the edges of a debate instead of in the much grayer middleground, where consensus most likely lies. I can’t remember where I first heardthis, but the following maxim perfectly illustrates both the convenience of thistechnique and its weakness: “For every Ph.D. there is an equal and oppositePh.D.” One solution, which is not an easy one, is to try to cultivate scientists invarious realms—toxicology, climatology, and whatever else might be on yourbeat—whose expertise and lack of investment in a particular bias are establishedin your own mind. They should be your go-to voices, operating as your personalguides more than as sources to quote in a story. 7
  8. 8. Ch 35. Environment/Revkin Another is what I call “truth in labeling.” Make sure you know themotivation of the people you interview. If a scientist, besides having a PhD, is asenior fellow at the Marshall Institute (an industry-funded think tank opposed tomany environmental regulations) or Environmental Defense (an advocacy group),then it is the journalist’s responsibility to say so. In a recent piece on climate politics, this is how I described Pat Michaels,a longtime skeptic on global warming who is supported in part by conservative orindustry-backed groups: Climate science is at its absolutely most political, said Dr. Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist at the University of Virginia who, through an affiliation with the Cato Institute, a libertarian group in Washington, has criticized statements that global warming poses big dangers. Such a voice can have a legitimate place in a story focused on policyquestions, but is perhaps best avoided in a story where the only questions areabout science. The same would go for a biologist working for the World WildlifeFund. But there are two tyrannies that often impede efforts to surmount this one. 8
  9. 9. Ch 35. Environment/RevkinThe Twin Tyrannies of Time and Space I came to newspapering after writing magazine stories and books, and sowas 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 ain’t no seed catalogue.” Somehow, through the ensuing years I adapted tothe rhythm, but also to the reality of its limitations. Particularly on an issue likethe environment, I understood why that crutch of “on the one hand” was sopopular. There’s just no time to do better. And there’s no space. Science is one of the few realms where reportersessentially have to presume no familiarity at all in the reader’s mind with thebasics. Just about anyone in America knows the rules of politics, business, orbaseball. But a spate of studies of scientific literacy shows just how little mostpeople know about atoms or viruses or the atmosphere. All that extra explication has to somehow fit into the same amount ofspace devoted to a story on a primary vote, a stock split, or a shutout. And itdoesn’t. The shrinking of an environment or other science story competing on apage with national or foreign developments is as predictable as the melting ofmountain glaciers in this century. Then there is all that important labeling. Compression often removes thecontext for some piece of research (industry funded?) or those vital labels Imentioned a minute ago. The only solution here is to fight hard, and to try and 9
  10. 10. Ch 35. Environment/Revkineducate editors as much as possible to the importance of context and precision insuch stories.Heat Versus Light One of the most difficult challenges in covering the environment is findingthe appropriate way to ensure a different kind of balance—between the potentheat generated by emotional content and the always flickering light of science andstatistics. Consider a cancer cluster. A reporter constructing a story has variouspuzzle pieces to connect. There is the piece brimming with the emotional powerof the grief emanating from a mother who lost a child to leukemia in a suburbwhere industrial effluent once tainted the water. Then there is the piece laying outthe cold statistical reality of epidemiology, which might in that instance never beable to determine if contamination caused the cancer. No matter how one builds such a story, it may be impossible for the readerto come away with anything other than the conviction that contamination killed. Prime examples of the choices journalists make in balancing “heat versuslight” came amid the uncertainty and fear and politicians’ assurances andactivists’ hype following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. LowerManhattan was shrouded in powdered cement, silica, plaster, and asbestos. I wasimmersed in the story along with a host of colleagues from media both local andlong distance. Some exploited the fear and peril, drawing headlines in big blockletters. Some of us tried to do something dangerous—stress the things that were 10
  11. 11. Ch 35. Environment/Revkinnot known or indeed were unknowable, even as we wrote definitively about theone risk that was crystal clear—that faced by unprotected workers clambering inthe smoldering wreckage. We were criticized by some media analysts for ignoring warnings fromsome experts that danger lay in the dust that settled outside Ground Zero. But Istand behind every word, except for one phrase written in a hurried moment (thattyranny of time!) in which I incorrectly wrote that no harmful compounds hadbeen detected in the air. In fact they had been detected within the perimeter ofGround Zero, but at minute levels—and never outside the immediate vicinity. Those who highlighted potential perils focused on statements by somescientists and testing companies eager for the spotlight who judged the asbestosrisk 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 timefor patterns in cancer rates among exposed populations to show an effect, butanyone claiming a clear and present danger in those early days was—to my mindat least—being irresponsible. But were they doing their job? By the metric of the media, the answer isprobably yes. Pushing the limits is a reporter’s duty. Finding the one elementthat’s new and implies malfeasance is the key to getting on the front page. I’mjust as attuned to that as any other reporter. All I hope for in my own work andthat of others is an effort to refine purely news-driven instincts, to try to 11
  12. 12. Ch 35. Environment/Revkinunderstand—and convey—the tentative nature of scientific knowledge, to retainat 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 startworking on building reflexes that improve that balance of heat and light, boost theability to convey the complex without putting readers (or editors) to sleep, andotherwise attempt to break the barriers to effective communication with thepublic. This is to communicate more with scientists. By getting a better feel forthe breakthrough–setback rhythms of research, a reporter is less likely to forgetthat the state of knowledge now about endocrine disruptors or PCBs or climate isin flux. This requires using those rare quiet moments between breaking-news days—sure there aren’t many—to talk to ecologists or toxicologists who aren’t on thespot because their university has just issued a press release. The more scientists and journalists talk outside the pressures of a dailynews deadline, the more likely it is that the public —through the media—willappreciate what science can and cannot offer to the debate over difficult questionsabout how to invest scarce resources or change personal behaviors. There is another reason to do this. Just as the public has become cynicalabout the value of news, many scientists have become cynical, and fearful, aboutjournalism. 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 12
  13. 13. Ch 35. Environment/Revkinstood up to recount her personal “horror story” about how a reporter totallymisrepresented her statements and got everything wrong. I asked her if she hadcalled the reporter or newspaper to begin a dialogue not only on fixing thoseerrors, but preventing future ones. She had not. She had never even considered it. Until the atmosphere has changed to the point where that scientist canmake that call, and the reporter respond to it, everyone has a lot of work to do.Andrew C. Revkin has written about science and the environment for two decades,most recently as a reporter for The New York Times. His latest climate book isThe North Pole Was Here: Puzzles and Perils at the Top of the World (Kingfisher,2006). He is also the author of The Burning Season: The Murder of ChicoMendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest (Island Press, 2004) andGlobal Warming: Understanding the Forecast (Abbeville Press, 1992). He hasreceived many journalism honors, including the National Academies ScienceCommunication Award, two journalism awards from the American Associationfor the Advancement of Science, and an Investigative Reporters & Editors Award. 13