Help Keep SEJ And The environment In The Spotlight

May 15, 2007

 

 BY TIM WHEELER

The environment has enjoyed a terrific run in "the media" lately. Climate change has pushed onto the front page of newspapers repeatedly in the past year. It's garnered extended airtime on CNN, Fox and other broadcast outlets, and graced the covers of all kinds of magazines, from TIME to Vanity Fair, Vogue and, most recently, Sports Illustrated.

Earlier this year, drowning polar bears and melting glaciers even crowded out celebrities and crime as the top story for a few days when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest update of the scientific evidence.

Then, when "An Inconvenient Truth" grabbed two Oscars shortly thereafter, the environment went Hollywood. The documentary about former Vice President Al Gore and his seemingly lonely quest to awaken the American public to the dangers of global warming had scored big with film critics and the moviegoing public alike.

It didn't take long, of course, for old habits to reassert themselves. Anna Nicole, Britney and others took over the airwaves again and filled way too many pages of print for weeks on end.

It's easy to despair when such things happen. Sensational, sordid or even silly stories always seem to crowd out serious coverage of important issues like climate change, environmental health and sustainability.

But at least on climate, perhaps, the scale has tipped a bit in the past year. SEJ stalwarts like Seth Borenstein of the AP and Andy Revkin of The New York Times have helped keep the issue in the news. So has another SEJer, Michelle Nijhuis, whose writing about climate impacts in the West for High Country News was honored recently by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

There's a new documentary, "Everything's Cool," taking up where Al Gore left off and featuring SEJers Heidi Cullen of The Weather Channel, Ross Gelbspan and Bill McKibben, among others. Of course, true to form for this issue, there's a contrary message being peddled in another film polemic aired recently on British TV, "The Great Global Warming Swindle." (No SEJers featured in that one that I know of, which no doubt buttresses the argument that climate change is a vast, green conspiracy.)

With environmental news competing for space and air time – and fighting confusion and spin – it's vital that journalists get the background they need, talk to the right people and use all the media tools available to tell these complex but important stories. That's what the Society of Environmental Journalists has been about.

Since the beginning of the year, SEJ has stepped up to help make sure reporters have the background and contacts they need to report the climate-change story, with a comprehensive set of Web links to scientists, research papers and some of the best coverage of the topic aired or published. And in recognition that the climate story is being covered by a lot of non-specialists, we've made those links available for free to the public – not just for members only. It's a work in progress, so I hope you'll check it out and contribute your references, contacts, or just feedback.

SEJ also joined with the American Society of Newspaper Editors and other journalism groups to co-sponsor a nationwide Freedom-of-Information audit of chemical emergency plans. The results, published during "Sunshine Week" in March, were disturbing, but unsurprising. Less than half the requests to see emergency plans were complied with promptly, with requestors put off and in some cases quizzed about who they were and why they wanted to see documents that are required by federal law to be public. It's another example of how SEJ stands up for the rights of journalists, and the public, to know how their representatives are enforcing environmental laws and safeguarding natural resources.

In January and again in March, SEJ members and representatives took part in seminars for regional audiences. In Los Angeles, as part of the SEJ board's winter meeting, it was an afternoon show-and-tell about using new media to report environmental news. In March, in Colorado, SEJ members joined in a panel discussion about climate change coverage at the American Bar Association's environmental law conference.

Those activities are in addition to the usual bevy of programs and services SEJ offers. By the time you're reading this, the entries should all be in for our sixth annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment, which for the first time will include a 10th category, for student work. Plans are taking shape for another terrific conference in September hosted by Stanford University. These are among the many ways SEJ supports you and all journalists, not just its members, in covering environmental news. As the news media landscape continues its radical transformation, SEJ is positioned for a starring role as "the source for journalists reporting on the environment." With fewer training opportunities and less editorial support for all journalists, SEJ's expertise and resources become increasingly important.

But for SEJ to be there for you, we need you to be there for SEJ. Yes, here comes a pitch for money. Sadly, for all the wonderful volunteer power that makes SEJ's conferences so exciting and its publications so helpful, the organization can't provide those levels of service and support without stable funding – something that's increasingly threatened.

SEJ is in the stretch run now of a special endowment fundraising drive. The group has the opportunity to receive a $51,500 grant this year, if we can raise $103,000 in new or increased donations to the 21st Century Fund, by May 31. The offer to match our fund-raising comes from the Challenge Fund for Journalism, a collaboration of the Ford Foundation, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Hundreds of SEJ members and their friends and relatives have responded to our appeals, but many more have yet to do so. I say "yet" because I believe you value SEJ – what it's done for you and what it stands for – but you haven't realized yet what's at stake.

Journalists aren't great at asking for, or giving, money. They are good at plain speaking, so let me speak to you plainly: What's at stake is no less than the continuation of SEJ's programs and services at their current level next year and possibly in future years to come.

So it's time for all of us to take stock of what SEJ has done for us, and to give some back. We're not asking that much, really. If every member who hasn't given to date donates $60, we'll make this challenge-grant goal easily. Journalists respond to deadlines, and this one is upon us. Help SEJ help you, and keep pushing to get climate change and other environmental stories out in the spotlight more often, where they belong.

Tim Wheeler, SEJ's board president, writes for The Baltimore Sun.

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2007 issue.

TIM WHEELER