Environmental Journalism

Environmental reporting (or environmental bias in writing news and stories) constitutes one of the biggest challenges for the journalists today. Unfortunately, the media system decides what are the mainstream news and journalistic style. Ecological awareness is incumbent in a liberal society, a society that is able to create a ‘social responsibility’ type of mass media, as Siebert sees it. Eastern European societies still need a series of developments in the field.

Environmental journalism theorists insist on ‘risk assessment’. The question ‘how risky?’ puts journalists in front of a situation in which they should know and learn many indicators that create uncertainty. Bernadette West separates this question into two sides: technical and non-technical. On the technical side, the journalist wants to know „how many people are likely to be injured …, or how much ecosystem damage is likely to be sustained” (Bernadette West, Peter M. Sandman, Michael R. Greenberg – „The Reporter’s Environmental Handbook”, Rutger University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1995, 6). The methods to predict such outcomes belong only to scientists. However, the journalist should be „aware of the advantages and drawbacks connected with these methods” (West, 6). On the non-technical side, says West, a different question rises: „How upsetting , frightening, or enraging is the situation likely to be to the people who must endure it?” (West, 6). Technical people say that non-technical, unscientific aspects of risk should not play any role, or maybe a little one, in risk policy. But, an ethical question arises: should coerced risks be handled as the voluntary risks? This is the dilemma in which the journalist as well as the risk manager is trapped (West, 6).

David B. Sachsman went even further and proposed the setting of an environmental agenda. The five-year study Reporting on Risk made in the 1990s and written by the so-called „Rutgers group” made some generalizations about environmental communication today (David B. Sachsman – „Reporting Risks and Setting the Environmental Agenda: The Journalist’s Responsability” in „Environmental Education for the 21th Century”, ed. Patricia J. Thompson, Peter Lang Publishing Inc., New York, 1997, 133). Government, scientists, corporate leaders, and activists are all actors dealing with environmental information. The question that rises is, knowing that government and corporations have pure economic interests within relations of power, how can scientists teach journalists about environmental risk and risk assessment?

In this sense, the Rutgers group came up with the solution: reporting on risk should consider the broad generalizations that the study they have carried on reached to (Sachsman, 133):

–      When journalists cover an environmental emergency, they concentrate on the breaking story itself and do not think in terms of background risk information.

–      The coverage of the environmental risk tends to be rather extremist (risky or not risky), than intermediate, moderate or tentative.

–      Environmental risk is usually reported in an alarming manner rather than reassuring. The story needs basic information about risk.

–      There is little intentional bias in the environmental articles. They are usually accurate.

–      Journalists do not usually seek uninvolved experts for information about risk. The risk information will never come from official sources, such as the government.

–      „The traditional journalistic values teach reporters to cover dramatic events instead of chronic issues” (Sachsman, 134). The public overestimates the impact of acute risk events and underestimates most chronic risk issues. This conception is distorted by television’s focus on catastrophes and public’s dependence on films.

–      Environmental risk and risk assessment are concepts that are understood merely by specialized reporters (who also stick with their journalistic values).

An important goal of the 21st century is to communicate environmental issues, says Sachsman (Sachsman, 136). The responsibility for a good environmental risk centered journalism and for access to environmental information falls on the scientific and educational community, government, the business and corporate world, and the activist groups. Although made for an American target-group, Sachsman offers three initial positive recommendations for providing editors and reporters with information about risk (Sachsman, 135):

1.   Funding should be sought for a program to provide environmental-risk libraries for the offices of newspapers and broadcast stations.

2.   An environmental-risk press-kit should be designed, tested and distributed (…).

3.   Continuing education programs on environmental risk for reporters and editors should be offered (…)

Another problem that we will be focusing on is fairness, and its main component, the distribution of risks relating to the distribution of benefits (West, 20).

The language of risk, however, whilst writing and reporting on climate change related issues surpasses any model. It is a back-of-the-mind issue and not a front-of-the-mind one. Since dangers posed by a runaway climate change risk are not tangible, immediate or visible in everyday life, one may not find them newsworthy. However, when the risk becomes acute and visible, it will be already too late to action.

Reporting on climate change forwards negative prescriptions. Most media materials are about saving, cutting back, retreatment, retrenchment. Naturally, these are also important; driving more economical cars, walking more often or rationalizing water consumption are positive small actions. Yet “no approach based mainly upon deprivation is going to work. We must create a positive model of a low-carbon future – and, moreover, one that connects with ordinary, everyday life in the present” (Anthony Giddens, The Politics of Climate Change, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2009, 11).

A greener economy brings about climate change positives, new opportunities for development, and new ethical imperatives that a journalist must take into account.

A newly constructed image of the environmentalist is related to eating organic food, driving a Prius and buying solar panels – it is a rather narrow and alienating approach. A sustainable economy will take off only if it provides equality and everyone’s participation. Thus, eco-equity – equal protection and equal opportunities in an economy that respects the Earth – is a concept to be used as referential.


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