An endangered species: The environmental reporter

Journalism has been melting down faster than Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier. Science journalism is “basically going out of existence,” as one top science reporter recently put it. And Columbia University suspended its Environmental Journalism Program even though “our graduates have done well in their careers.” If you want to hear from some of the reporters themselves, here is a piece by Tyler Hamilton, first published here. Tyler is senior energy reporter and columnist for the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily newspaper. He’s written some great stories — see “Toronto Star: ‘Why media tell climate story poorly’ “ and “Nuclear Bombshell: $26 Billion cost “” $10,800 per kilowatt! “” killed Ontario nuclear bid.”We’re doomed. It seems the mainstream media believe that the most pressing issues of our times “” climate change, environmental degradation, energy security, etc. — should be left to general assignment reporters or treated as political news covered by political reporters. Copenhagen, for the most part, was covered as a political event, yet the issues underlying this political conference were highly scientific in nature. Covering these issues properly requires a certain expertise, specifically when we’re dealing with a politically charged issue like climate change. Environmental reporters know when they’re being duped by faux experts; political or GA reporters don’t. Environmental reporters are better at explaining complex issues in a way that the average person can better understand; political or GA reporters can often make matters even more confusing to the reader or gloss over important details.

Sadly, the environmental reporter has become an endangered species. I heard yesterday that the Oregonian just disbanded its environmental reporting team and made them all into general assignment reporters. Also yesterday Keith Johnson announced that his Wall Street Journal blog Environmental Capital was “closing its virtual doors.” In October, the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism announced it had stopped accepting applications for its Earth and Environmental Science Journalism program because of “the current weakness in the job market for environmental journalists.” In a letter to its faculty, the school wrote “media organizations across the country are in dire financial straits and thousands of journalists’ jobs have been eliminated. Science and environment beats have been particularly vulnerable.”

Again, this is all happening at a time when we need this kind of experienced coverage most, and when governments and the business community both are giving environmental issues more attention than ever. My own newspaper, the Toronto Star, used to have two environmental reporters a year ago. Through newsroom attrition both positions are vacant, but given plans to downsize the newsroom there appears no desire to fill those spots. It’s discouraging to say the least.

But, hell, we can all take comfort that Sarah Palin is joining Fox News.


— Tyler Hamilton