Don't Leave Climate Change, Environment To "Boys On The Bus"

May 15, 2008


Have the news media become bored with global warming already? It was one of the top news stories of 2007, thanks in large part to the Nobel-winning labors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former Vice President Al Gore. But as presidential contenders slogged through the snowy caucuses and primaries in their quest for the White House, the topic barely registered in news coverage of the campaigns. It almost never came up in televised debates.

It's not that the presidential contenders don't have anything to say about global warming. But so glaring was the lack of attention paid on the TV networks to their climate positions that the League of Conservation Voters started an online petition demanding that talk-show hosts and debate moderators stop ignoring an issue that even the candidates seem willing, if not eager, to talk about.

The sad truth is that climate seems not to be that hot among political journalists and pundits. Perhaps they're just following the public opinion polls. A Pew Research Center survey at the beginning of the year showed that the economy is voters' top concern these days, eclipsing the war in Iraq and a slew of other issues. Interestingly, Pew found a real partisan split over global warming, with 47 percent of Democrats ranking it as a top priority for the president and Congress, compared with just 12 percent of Republicans.

The Society of Environmental Journalists is dedicated to enhancing the visibility as well as the accuracy and quality of environmental coverage. To that end, SEJ is doing what it can to keep the story fresh and prominent – at our annual conferences, with regional workshops and in an online climate reporting guide, among other things. One of the bright spots in the Iowa caucus coverage was the climate-change question posed by Carolyn Washburn, editor of the Des Moines Register. Washburn was one of the 18 top news executives who came to Stanford University last September for a daylong forum with leading climate experts, cosponsored by SEJ.

Meanwhile, several SEJ leaders — including Pulitzer Prizewinning reporterMark Schleifstein, executive director Beth Parke and me— joined hundreds of scientists and leaders in signing an online petition urging the presidential candidates to agree to a debate focused solely on scientific and environmental issues. As of the end of February, the contenders had yet to agree, but here's hoping if they do that the questions won't all be about whether they believe in UFOs – one of the lines of inquiry in one televised exchange earlier in the political season.

What are journalists who cover the environment to do? Well, instead of just lamenting how "our" issues are being ignored by the pundits, it's time for us to get busy. Sharpen our political reporting skills. Dig into the candidates' platforms on energy and the environment, research their voting records and speeches and track down their advisers. Cast a spotlight on how the next president and Congress may – or may not – tackle an issue of global importance. It's the story of the century, after all.We can't leave it to the boys on the bus.

SEJ goes to Washington, then Ottawa (sort of) …

One thing that hasn't cooled off is SEJ's devotion to freedom of information, right to know and open government. Since my last column, which focused on the efforts of our Freedom of Information Task Force, SEJ has gone where it never has before – to Capitol Hill in Washington, for instance.

I testified on behalf of SEJ at a congressional hearing in December about the Department of Interior's efforts to regulate commercial filming, still photography and audio recording in national parks, wildlife refuges and other federal lands under its management.

Well, thanks to our Task Force chairman, veteran reporter Ken Ward of the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, the issue drew the attention of Rep. Nick J. Rahall, theWest Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. He invited SEJ and a handful of other journalism groups to come to Washington to express our concerns. It was a weird experience, answering questions instead of asking them. But the hearing drew even more media attention to the issue, and Rahall sternly advised Interior officials to heed journalists' concerns in finalizing its regulation. It remains to be seen how well Interior listened, but it can't be for our lack of speaking out.

We haven't been invited to Ottawa yet, but SEJ did write to Canada's minister of the environment in February to express our concern about news reports of a new government policy barring scientists with Environment Canada – that country's EPA – from speaking directly with journalists.

The issue came to SEJ's attention via its 80-some Canadian members. After a brief consultation on the SEJ-Canada listserv, I agreed to sign a letter seeking confirmation of the new communications policy and expressing SEJ's concern about how it could affect journalists' ability to inform the public of the government's scientific work.

"Given that some 60 percent of the ministry's workforce and 80 percent of its budget are devoted to science and technology, we consider restricting scientists' freedom to communicate with us a major threat to performing our job of distributing information and analysis in a timely manner to decision makers and the rest of the public," the letter said.

We'll go anywhere, anytime— virtually, at least— to speak up for our members' ability to report what's happening with theenvironment.

Tim Wheeler covers growth and development for The Baltimore Sun and is SEJ's board president.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2008 issue


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