The Beat: Top Universities Rethink How To Prepare E-Beat Journalists

January 15, 2010

By BILL DAWSON

The Beat usually examines recent coverage of environmental issues. This time around, though, The Beat looks at the environmental beat itself — specifically, at a couple of recent developments related to the training of journalists to cover environmental issues.

The first event was the October announcement that Columbia University was suspending for review its two-year, dual-degree graduate program leading to one master's degree in journalism and another in environmental science.

Curtis Brainard, a graduate of that very program, reported on Columbia Journalism Review's website that the program's directors "cited falling employment in the field, the rising costs of education, and a lack of financial aid for students as the reasons for their decision."

He quoted a letter to the faculty of the university's Graduate School of Journalism, Department of Environmental Sciences and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which presented a context for the decision that will come as no surprise to readers of SEJournal:

"As you know, media organizations across the country are in dire financial straits and thousands of journalists' jobs have been eliminated. Science and environment beats have been particularly vulnerable. Although our graduates have done well in their careers, even those still employed are finding few opportunities to do the kind of substantive reporting for which the dual degree program has trained them, as they scramble to do their own work plus that of laid-off colleagues."

Not long afterward came a contrasting development in the world of journalism education. In November, the University of Montana announced it was establishing a two-year graduate program leading to a master's degree in environmental science and natural resource journalism.

"At least somebody gets it," Brainard approvingly wrote in the lead of his CJR story on the Montana announcement. He added that "many journalists, students, and bloggers criticized Columbia's decision, noting that environmental issues are at the forefront of many economic and policy debates and that specialized journalistic training prepares students for a wide array of jobs within the industry and out."

Coverage of the Columbia program's suspension included items such as these:

  • Extensively quoting from the CJR story, a post on the ClimateProgress blog was headlined "Media stunner: Columbia suspends Environmental Journalism Program even though 'our graduates are doing well in their careers.'" Blog editor Joe Romm found the decision "startling and depressing" and "amazingly shortsighted" and offered his "jeers to Columbia."
  • Journalist and author Chris Mooney had a brief blog post on Discover Magazine's website, excitedly headlined "Columbia Journalism School Cuts Environmental Journalism!" Mooney called the program suspension "yet another woeful sign of how the media industry is going" and "a horrible sign of the times."
  • In a blog post on both Huffington Post and TreeHugger, journalist Alex Pasternack reported the Columbia announcement with this skeptical note: "The program has not been canceled outright, not yet. Its directors will evaluate 'its accomplishments to date and prospects for the future.'" If a dictionary definition of the verb "ax" is accepted ("end, cancel or dismiss suddenly and ruthlessly,") then the headline seemed to indicate the deal was already done: "Columbia Axes Environmental Journalism, and Malcolm Gladwell is Okay with That." (Pasternack also cited a Time interview with the journalist and author Gladwell, who did not comment directly on the Columbia news, but suggested that "aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school.")

Kim Kastens, co-director of the Columbia dual-degree program and a faculty member in the university's Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, was not enamored of a lot of the coverage the suspension received.

Kastens, also affiliated with Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, had no complaints about Brainard's detailed reporting. But she told SEJournal that some other accounts about the Columbia suspension left the erroneous impression that the program had been terminated permanently, when it was actually announced only that no applicants would be accepted for the 2010-11 academic year.

"The most alarming misconception," however, was "the notion that this was imposed from above by know-nothings elsewhere in the university," which was not true, Kastens said. "A lot of bloggers seemed to leap to that conclusion."

In her own department, she added, it is not uncommon for a program to suspend admissions for a time when faculty members decide enough students are already in that degree pipeline.

Given the current journalism job market, the high cost of getting two degrees from Columbia was a factor in the suspension decision, she acknowledged, but added that, in light of such actions in her department, "it didn't seem like that huge a deal from my perspective."

Apart from Brainard and SEJournal, Kastens said no one writing about the program suspension interviewed her or the other co-director, Marguerite Holloway.

"I was just shocked that people would write so extensively without any effort to contact anyone," she said. "The whole notion that you check things twice and you don't just spout off did not come into play in that particular incident."

While the future of the dual-degree program is being evaluated, Columbia continues to offer other ways that students can prepare to cover environmental and related issues, Kastens said.

One still-open route is the Graduate School of Journalism's longstanding one-year program that leads to a Master of Science degree, in which students can take elective courses in environmental and science reporting. (The Master of Science in journalism was one of the two degrees offered in the dual-degree program.)

The other route is a newer program, aimed at journalists with more professional experience who want to concentrate in one subject area. In it, students can choose a science-environmentmedicine concentration on their way to an MA degree. (Religion, business and arts are the other options.)

With those two single-degree programs still in place, the notion that the suspension of the two-degree program meant Columbia was no longer offering any training for environmental coverage "was a complete misconception and caused us no end of grief," Kastens said.

Comparing the new Montana program's 2010 launch with the Columbia program's suspension was an obvious point for CJR's coverage to address, though the timing of the two announcements did not figure in all of the more limited coverage of the Montana program.

The eight-paragraph version of an Associated Press story about the Montana program that appeared on the website of the Billings (Mont.) Gazette did not mention the Columbia suspension, for instance.

Henriette Lowisch, an associate journalism professor and director of the new graduate program at Montana, told SEJournal that the program has been in the works for three years, so its announcement soon after news of the Columbia suspension was a coincidence.

The increasing prominence of associated energy and environmental issues in Montana and across the West was a highly important factor in the decision to create the program, Lowisch said. "What actually happened in Montana was that environmental and natural resource issues became a mainstream story instead of a niche story," she said.

"Now, it's not a special interest kind of deal. It's something, politically as well as journalistically, that comes up every day in the local press, so we don't have to look for it like for a needle in a haystack. It's here. These stories are jumping in your window all the time."

The new journalism program's approach is also in keeping with a broader University of Montana strategy aimed at making natural resources and environmental subjects "one real pillar in many departments," she said.

The new Montana journalism program was not modeled after Columbia's dual-degree program, she said. Instead, it will lead to a single degree with more than half of the course work in journalism and the rest in science.

Montana's master's degree program in journalism formerly accepted students without undergraduate journalism degrees. Now, Lowisch said, it will be structured so "the ideal, typical student will have either an undergraduate journalism degree or substantial journalism experience out in the profession."

A smaller proportion of admitted students will be people with science backgrounds, she said.

"Part of journalism education today is to assemble a group that can collaborate on projects," she added.

"I think actually that journalism is in a really good phase because this is a time of change," she said. "I personally think change is always a time when you rethink how to do things. " A "classic" career path in journalism was typically seen as enrollment at a highly regarded university that costs a lot to attend, then "a great job at a good-paying newspaper," she said. "Those times are over."

Looking ahead, she said, the successful job-seeker will typically be "a type of journalist that's very versatile, creative, able to work with limited resources and create quality based on limited resources."

That vision underlies the new Montana effort to prepare journalists to cover the environment, she said.

"This is a huge story. We want to train journalists to cover a story that's very important to the public debate, to harness everything we have to produce some creative, entrepreneurial people."

Journalists educated to cover environmental subjects will find opportunities to earn a living, in part because reporting on many angles such as recycling, food quality, water conservation and consumer news offers "a tangible advantage" to the public, Lowisch said.

As faculty members at Montana ready their new graduate program, Kastens at Columbia said she sees exciting prospects in the "liberating" opportunity offered by the decision to stop and evaluate whether and how the Columbia program will continue.

Now that enrollment has been suspended for the time being, "we're thinking about how to restructure the program so it will be better than what we've been doing," she said.

Possible changes could include things like more training in investigative reporting and team reporting and more integration of systems thinking into the curriculum, she said.

"I'm really deeply convinced that the public's need to know about this stuff has not gone away and is stronger than ever," she said.

Given the "total coincidence" that Columbia has "world class" programs in both journalism and earth science, she voiced hope that the university will "find a way to help people link between earth science and the public in the future."

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal. He can be contacted at b.dawson@earthlink.net.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Winter, 2009-10 issue