Though environmental issues are growing in prevalence and pertinence on a national and international scale, they seem to be losing their footing in the mainstream media. In March, the New York Times announced the cancelation of their Green Blog, which was designed to provide news and commentary and foster discussion surrounding energy and environmental topics. This announcement came just months after the Times dissolved their environment desk, a team of two editors and seven reporters who have since been assigned to other departments. In the wake of these events, many creators and consumers of environmental news are wondering what impact the Times‘ decisions will have on the landscape of environmental reporting.
When the environment desk closed, New York Times editors insisted that they remained as committed as ever to covering the environment. Now that the Green Blog has also met its end, they are echoing the same defense. In their announcement, the New York Times asserted that they planned to “forge ahead with our aggressive reporting on environmental and energy topics, including climate change, land use, threatened ecosystems, government policy, the fossil fuel industries, the growing renewables sector and consumer choices.”
In an editorial for the Columbia Journalism Review, Curtis Brainard excoriated the Times for their abandonment of the environmental beat and their lack of commitment to covering some of the most pressing issues of our time. Brainard, whose sentiments have been echoed by other environmental news consumers and writers, believes that the canceling of the environment desk and the Green Blog reflects a lack of interest in the environment on the part of the Times, and that the continued commitment they speak of in their press releases is just media posturing.
It’s entirely possible that the cancelation of the desk and blog reflect a genuine disinterest and lack of prioritization on the part of the Times. It’s really too early to say. However, I would suggest that these events might reflect less the views of the Times‘ editors, and more those of the Times‘ general readership. I would also argue that, if the Times follows through on their proclaimed commitment, dissolving the environmental desk and blog and integrating their content into the rest of the paper could be a step forward, not backward, for environmental reporting.
Anyone familiar with my writing here, at Hark Upon the Green, or in The Dog Street Journal is aware that I believe in the crucial importance of writing about the environment. At the same time, writing for an “environment section” of a newspaper strikes me as strangely analogous to writing for the “people section.” This “people section” would be ludicrous, if it existed. Aren’t all stories about people, in some way? Similarly, the environment is central and foundational to all of our actions. It underlies and surrounds everything that we do as individuals, as communities, as countries. I firmly believe that environmental issues, and therefore environmental news, cannot be extricated from the social, the political and the economic.
Dean Baquet, the managing editor for news operations at the New York Times, spoke with Inside Climate News about the decision to close the environment desk. When the environment desk was founded, he said, the environmental beat was “singular and isolated.” Today, Baquet stated, environmental topics are highly interdisciplinary, “partly business, economic, national or local, among other subjects…they are more complex.” Embracing this complexity, and emphasizing the crossover between the environmental beat and other news sections, may point the way forward for environmental reporting.
Among the disappointed commentators on articles about the Green Blog’s demise, some pointed out that the blog did not draw a great number of reader comments. Maybe the Times did not ruthlessly slash this news beat as much as they laid to rest an already dying section. Perhaps, as much as environmental advocates might wish differently, the environment is simply not at the top of the average citizen’s list of concerns.
A poll by the research consultancy GlobeScan asked participants how serious they considered various environmental issues to be. The issues included air pollution, water pollution, species loss, automobile emissions, fresh water shortages, and climate change. Results of the survey demonstrated that concern about all of these issues, save climate change, had reached its lowest point since tracking began 20 years ago. Environmental issues worldwide may have been supplanted in recent years by more immediate economic and political concerns. In the United States, we may simply be too distracted by the economic crisis and political debates on health care reform, immigration and gun control to give a second thought to the environment, or to seek out environmental news in the “Green” section of the paper. For many of us, “Green” translates to “Things that can wait. Things that happen slowly. Things I don’t have to think about right now.”
Perhaps, in isolating and sequestering “the environment” from the rest of the news, we encourage this nonchalant attitude towards the environment. Perhaps we are also missing the opportunity to connect the environment to values that are held closely to people’s hearts – health, economic security, and human rights, to name a few. A story about climate change could just as easily go in the New York Times‘s “World” or “Health” sections. Hydraulic fracturing might find a home in the “Business” beat, while news on alternative energy sources would fit naturally under “Technology.” By deleting the environmental section of their paper, the New York Times may simply be moving environmental coverage from the bottom rung of the interest ladder and into realms that garner more public attention. All issues are connected, anyway. The environment belongs with the other social issues of our day as much as it merits its own category. To quote Audre Lorde, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
Still, it will take a concerted effort on the part of news organizations and journalists to make sure the environment has a place in this interdisciplinary vision of journalism. Without the space to fill in newspapers and on web pages, environmental stories, and those who write them, will have to fight for their space in the media. On the upside, this fight will likely force environmental stories to adapt, and therefore to improve – to become more integrated, relatable, and human than ever before.
Originally published at unsilentspring.wordpress.com