SEJ: A Rare Flower of International Distinction

October 15, 2010

President's Report

By CHRISTY GEORGE

SEJ has gone international.

We SEJ-ers have been bragging for a long time that at any given time, we represent roughly 1,500 members in more than 30 countries. And a few years ago, we helped set up a group like SEJ in Mexico. But the idea that SEJ exists around the world has truly come home this year.

The most compelling manifestation of SEJ's new global profile was winning this year's Gulbenkian International Prize, awarded for SEJ's contribution to "humanity's relationship with nature and respect for biodiversity." SEJ shared this year's Prize — and €100,000 (that's € for Euros) — with the Institute for Alpine Environment.

SEJ was singled out for environmental journalism's "contribution to creating an informed and enlightened public opinion." (See story in this issue of SEJournal.)

That's exactly what SEJ does. For real.

No one could've been prouder than SEJ Executive Director Beth Parke, who went to Lisbon in July to accept the Gulbenkian Prize on SEJ's behalf. Beth — and the core SEJ staff, Conference Director Jay Letto and Director of Programs and Operations Chris Rigel — have been there from the beginning, nurturing a fledging j-group, feeding and watering this rare new species until it grew into a flower of rare distinction — a world class perennial.

Beth knew better than most of us that SEJ deserved that award. She and other staffers at SEJ's Jenkintown, PA headquarters routinely field queries from environmental journalists abroad — from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. These are places where sometimes the biggest problem is not always stonewalling by public officials, but opponents who treat unwanted news coverage as a capital offense. One foreign journalist even sought political asylum at an SEJ conference several years back.

It's no surprise when you think about it. The pace of global environmental change is quickening, and the brunt of the impact falls on the developing world.

While there may be nothing new about reporters under fire, attacks on environmental journalists are escalating. Two Indonesian journalists were murdered within days of one another this past summer. Both wrote about illegal logging. One had recently begun reporting on coal mining.

Apart from the risks we take, we are all surprisingly similar.

I learned that myself this year, starting with a BBC World Service interview in April, looking at the state of environmental reporting, worldwide. Three of us chatted about the beat on a program timed for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day: me in Oregon, Financial Times environment reporter Fiona Harvey from London and, in Nairobi, Kenya, was Mildred Barassa, secretarygeneral of the African Network of Environmental Journalists.

Our conclusions: the environment is the most important story on the planet, and journalism is largely blowing it. (Not us, of course, but those who give thumbs up to 'celebrity news rules', and thumbs down to the latest science on methane releases from melting permafrost.)

I saw evidence of a different disconnect in China in May, on an International Reporting Project Gatekeepers trip. China's government talks bullish on moving to a post-carbon economy, and in Sichuan Province, devastated by a 2008 earthquake, we saw new buildings going up with low-flow toilets and compact fluorescent light bulbs. But when it comes to a choice between protecting the environment or growing China's GDP, the country's powerful environment minister told us GDP wins every time.

SEJ-er James Fahn has been helping journalists from developing countries gain reporting skills through Internews and the Earth Journalism Network. SEJ-ers Bob Thomas, Rob Taylor and SEJ founding president Jim Detjen have all worked with the International Federation of Environmental Journalists, helping environmental journalists everywhere become watchdogs in their own countries.

Then there's the fledgling international environmental journalists exchange program, started by Tom Yulsman of the Center for Environmental Journalism at UC Boulder, and Reggie Dale of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Starting with an invitation on the SEJ-Talk listserv in the fall of 2008, the Transatlantic Media Network (TMN) has brought together beat reporters from Europe and the U.S. three times to share stories and compare notes. The most recent meeting, in Copenhagen this past summer, looked at what went wrong at the 2009 climate summit and the state of journalism in Europe. It turns out Europe is now experiencing a news business meltdown, about a year behind the United States.

There really is a global economy, and we're all in it.

And we're hearing a lot lately from our international members, who want the same rights and privileges our North American members get. When we launched the Fund for Environmental Journalism, we heard from members abroad that they wanted to be eligible for the fund, too. When we put the word out that the University of Montana was generously making it possible to bring 20 SEJ members to this year's conference, we also heard from members beyond the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Why, they asked, can't we get a fellowship to Missoula, too?

Why, indeed?

Sure, there might be complications with visas and foreign currency and sure, there would be applications proposing projects the SEJ judges know little about. But for our international organization those are minor points compared to the value of sharing with environmental journalists from Algeria, Estonia, Iran and Nepal.

So keep your eyes open in Montana, because we did open up those SEJ conference fellowships to everyone. At 3p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 13th, in Missoula, twelve European journalists will be on hand to talk about their work — and yours.

*From the quarterly newsletter SEJ Journal, Fall 2010 issue. 

CHRISTY GEORGE