By JEFF BURNSIDE
America's television network news operations are increasing their coverage of environmental issues, reflecting a pendulum swing of interest among Americans in general.
NBC News, for example, moved veteran correspondent Anne Thompson from the financial beat to the environment. "It's wonderful," says Thompson, a new SEJ member who is gleeful that she has a beat she sees as so timely and so compelling.
Perhaps the reigning dean of network environmental reporting is ABC News' Bill Blakemore, who has taken the beat to a new level of urgency – reflecting, he says, the urgency of the issue itself, particularly climate change. "Three and a half years ago," he says, "ABC leapt ahead of our two immediate competitors, NBC and CBS, in taking this story as seriously as it clearly deserves (to be). I am delighted that in the recent months, these two competitors have begun to catch up with us."
"Planet in Peril"
CNN aired an unprecedented fourhour, two-night commitment to "Planet In Peril" in October featuring reporter/host Anderson Cooper, medical reporter Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and Animal Planet's Jeff Corwin. Each examined not just climate change but environmental degradation in 13 countries. David Doss, CNN's veteran executive producer, says there are "four killers: climate change, deforestation, population and species loss. You can't actually discuss any one of those without discussing the others. They're all interconnected." Doss says the ambitious project, seen by 17 million people and about to debut internationally, is CNN's most expensive documentary ever. A sequel is in the works for 2008.
Peter Dykstra, SEJ member and CNN executive producer for science, technology, space, environment and weather, helped spearhead a one-hour special immediately after Al Gore won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize. Reporter/anchor Miles O'Brien, who fronts much of CNN's science and environment coverage, examined the accuracy of Gore's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."
CBS News is taking its evening news coverage of environmental issues to a new audience on the Internet. It's launching an Internet video broadcast called "Eco Beat," according to a CBS News ad seeking a reporter/host who is "smart, funny, irreverent and hip, oozing enthusiasm and creative energy." Because the project is still under wraps, CBS executives declined to offer details.
Waking up green
The network morning shows are getting into the action, too. NBC's Today Show broadcast live from both polar ice caps and the equator simultaneously. ABC's Good Morning America has assigned Weather Editor Sam Champion to report on environmental issues especially with green consumer themes called "Just One Thing," says ABC News spokeswoman Bridgette Maney. ABC News also aired a Diane Sawyer series "Seven Ways to Save the World" on Earth Day last April that took its crews to seven continents.
NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker launched a "Green Is Universal" week during November sweeps that incorporated environmental themes in everything from comedy scripts to Today Show segments – even email signatures asking recipients to avoid printing emails. NBC Universal boasted 26 "platforms" that joined the green theme including "Jerry Springer Goes Green."
Ironically, it was the head of Fox News, often viewed as a conservative network, who may've prodded this latest increase in network environmental coverage. Soon after Rupert Murdoch met with "An Inconvenient Truth" producer Laurie David nearly more than a year ago, he mandated a green viewpoint through his News Corp.
Will genuine environmental coverage at the TV networks continue? Or is it a passing trend intended to jump on the Green bandwagon using stunts? Blakemore says current coverage is still "well behind the reality out there." But he says the issues will become so urgent that networks will have no choice but to continue close scrutiny. "I certainly hope," says CNN's Dykstra, "because it would journalistically be the right thing to do."
Jeff Burnside is a special projects reporter at WTVJ, NBC 6 in Miami.