No Matter The Name, The Only Agenda Is Pure Journalism

July 15, 2006

 

 By PERRY BEEMAN

Some years ago, a board member or two suggested SEJ change its name.

Why? Because the phrase "environmental journalists" seemed to suggest "environmentalist journalists" to some, especially those who suspect the group has some sort of environmental agenda akin to the Sierra Club's.

The board decided to leave the name alone. Several members thought a name such as Organization of Reporters Covering the Environment (that's ORCE, not ORCA like the whale) might be less confusing.

In a way, we are victims of our own success. Changing the name would help drive home the fact that we have one agenda – supporting quality reporting about the environment – and no position on climate change, endangered species or any other environmental policies. But our name has become much more wellknown, especially in journalism and freedom of information circles. It's hard to give up a good brand name.

Name aside, we still fight the image issue.

The Des Moines Register, for which I work, offers a blog for people to respond to my stories. One helpful reader had this response to an article on Iowa's poor water quality: "Did I miss something? Are there dead bodies of children being washed ashore, all because they swam in the Raccoon River? This, like most of the Register's stories, is totally overblown. This is a weak attempt by Perry Beeman to make sure that he will continue to be the President of the Society of Environmental Journalists. What is an 'environmental journalist' anyway? Hey Register and Beeman, how about just sticking to reporting the news, and let's leave the fluff creation to the internet bloggers."

Wow, this guy is a few ears short of a bushel. I never gave a thought to my role as SEJ president when I pointed out in print that Iowa has some of the most nutrient-rich water in the world, and some rivers that carry bacteria loads just this side of raw sewage (including the Raccoon, which also is the nation's largest contributor to the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia problem). Also, I am in my second and final year as SEJ president. The newly elected board will elect a new president at Burlington.

Fluff? We don't have dead bodies floating down the river, but exposing the fact that Iowa's rivers are polluted even more than those in the rest of the Corn Belt seems a serious matter.

The central part of this guy's message is the disturbing part. "What is an environmental journalist, anyway?" I cringe at that, because I'm sure he's thinking "Birkenstock-wearing, tofu-eating Sierra Club member, green and left as can be."

In our support group, I'll say: I, too, am an SEJ member. I will add that I have never owned Birkenstocks. I have never tasted tofu. I have never belonged to the Sierra Club. I am white, not green. I am registered "no party." I write about hogmanure pollution but eat pork. I write about synthetic-fertilizer pollution but love sodas containing corn sweeteners. I love good, corn-fed beef and flavored soy nuts. I drive a Honda Accord but not a hybrid.

We are diverse people with diverse interests and lifestyles. We aren't an environmental group. We need to keep reminding people. Perhaps now more than ever. Some of our members may be environmentalists, some may shun that label. In either case, it is reporting about environmental issues that brought them to SEJ, not primarily their approach to environmental issues.

In this day of websites, blogs and agencies that try to track what we all do, we have to be especially careful to approach our work in a balanced manner. Pure objectivity really is a myth, because even the decision on a lede requires a certain amount of judgment. We are likely to write a lede about the 5 percent of waterways that are impaired instead of writing, "Ninety five percent of waterways meet standards, a ringing endorsement of commerce as we know it."

But if we fail to acknowledge the benefits of an industry along with the pollution problems, or the various opposing viewpoints in a debate, for example, we haven't done our jobs.

Assuming that we decide to stay with the SEJ name – and I don't know of any serious attempt to change it – we must be ready to explain who we are. I like to say that SEJ is "IRE for people who cover the environment." That tells editors, at least, that we are as serious, focused and professional as the Investigative Reporters and Editors. For broader audiences, we need to stress that we are an educational group, a nonprofit training ground that helps reporters report on environmental and science issues.

It's good for us to remember the difference between those goals and the platform of the Sierra Club when we get together.

Our conferences feature tables and displays from industry, government, environmental groups, universities, journalism programs, etc. Our members are there to focus on journalism, and that's what we should do. Sure, ride the energy-efficient car. But avoid using SEJ's events as a platform for any personal campaigns you might have. We have many non-SEJers at our conference, and many actively watch for biases so they can ream us in their own blogs or publications later. They often are confused about who in the audience is a journalist and about our differing memberships.

We need always to make sure people know what our group is. And what it is not.

If you receive this before the deadline for candidates, I would like to encourage you to think about running for the SEJ board. A large number of board seats are up for election this year. It's a good time to step up. We're in for quite a ride as SEJ morphs to serve journalists whose businesses are quickly changing.

Seats now held by active members Jim Bruggers, Dina Cappiello, Christy George, Don Hopey, Robert McClure, Vince Patton and associate member Rebecca Daugherty are up for election.

Also, if you have a nomination for the Stolberg Award, which honors our volunteer of the year, please contact Chris Rigel at crigel@sej.org.

If you haven't figured it out by now, Perry Beeman covers the environment for The Des Moines Register.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer, 2006 issue.

 

PERRY BEEMAN