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Issue Backgrounder is a monthly SEJournal Online column to help journalists better cover emerging environmental issues, especially challenging or underreported topics. Each Backgrounder focuses on a specific environmental topic, offering key questions, basic answers, source contacts and other resources.

For questions and comments, or to suggest future Issue Backgrounders, email Backgrounder Editor Joseph A. Davis at sejournaleditor@sej.org.


September 20, 2023

  • When nations converge this fall for the latest round of annual talks on harnessing climate change, they meet at a crucial juncture. Will the increasingly dramatic impacts of global warming, and the prospects of worse, focus their attention enough to bring about progress? In this sweeping analysis, Backgrounder assesses the varied pressures at play at the coming COP28, along with tips for covering it, from up close or afar.

August 23, 2023

  • Long-growing concern over dangerous “forever” chemicals has drawn the attention of federal and state policymakers, local communities and the utilities that provide their drinking water. But little about regulating PFAS will be quick or easy, making it a major environmental and public health story for years to come. Issue Backgrounder unfolds the regulatory moves, the politics and the larger implications of PFAS policy.

June 21, 2023

  • It’s a political knot with the potential to tangle the fossil energy industry, the clean energy industry … or both. Environmental journalists looking to better report on the impacts of permitting reform can start with our latest Backgrounder, which explores the issue’s recent history and the competing visions that have stalled changes. There’s also the “backroom problem.” Plus, get a rundown of key actors.

May 24, 2023

  • The new proposed limits on climate pollution from existing power plants will be a significant story for years to come, but one with many moving parts and numerous complications. The new Issue Backgrounder explores the larger context and history of the proposed rule, and provides six key developments to watch as you track its evolution.

April 19, 2023

  • The debate over drilling on public lands goes back decades. But now our view of how — or even whether — to use public lands faces the unprecedented reality of climate change, fire, drought, floods and the transition to clean energy. The latest Backgrounder explains how we got here and where the current battles rage, including over the Alaskan North Slope’s massive Willow Project.

March 22, 2023

  • A massive farm bill soon to emerge for debate in Congress will have enormous implications for the environment beat, affecting natural resources, environmental health and climate, not to mention food production and public health. Backgrounder lays out some of the key issues expected to be taken up in the twice-a-decade measure and provides resources for ongoing coverage.

February 22, 2023

  • With a new Congress in place and the seemingly never-ending political races to track, reporters can often learn a good deal about how environmental policy is influenced by looking into campaign and lobbying donations. Backgrounder takes a deep dive into the topic, pointing to important sources of information and data … and their limitations.

January 18, 2023

  • The complex legal obstacles that face U.S. energy projects prompted political machinations over permitting reform in the last Congress and likely will again in the new one. The latest Backgrounder explores how the energy permitting system works (or doesn’t), why Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin may really be pushing for its reform and the reason some environmentalists concede reform may have green benefits.

December 14, 2022

  • An explosion of deliberately misleading information has hit the environmental journalism beat, argues the new Backgrounder. A look at how today’s untruth industry has evolved from that of the past, particularly in the area of climate change, and how reporters have now turned it into its own specialty coverage area. Plus, seven tips on what you can do to handle disinformation on your beat.

November 9, 2022

  • Plans are nearing for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate PFAS in drinking water — and the complexity around the effort will challenge environmental journalism. In the mix are questions of environmental persistence and health risks, plus thorny politics. Our Issue Backgrounder has guidance on these and more as PFAS regulation hits this critical juncture.

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