Gloom And Doom? SEJ's Climate Is Anything But

February 15, 2007



A reader sent me an email recently asking why my newspaper so often seemed to take a "negative slant" on the day's news. "All we hear is crime, the death of real estate, toxins, and maybe if someone is in a good mood something about how much fun this place is," the frustrated reader lamented.

My correspondent was a real estate agent, who no doubt craves upbeat news these days given slumping home sales. But he had a point – we journalists, especially, tend to focus our attention on what's wrong and overlook what's right.

So, properly chastened, let me report some good news to you purveyors of gloom and doom.

First, climate change, or global warming – whatever you want to call it – is all over the news these days. And SEJ is in the thick of it, encouraging more and better reporting of this vital issue.

Credit Al Gore if you want. I prefer to think the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had more to do with it – that, and maybe the video of polar bears swimming for their lives; or the satellite images of the Arctic ice cap looking more like a beanie this past summer, it had melted so much.

Whatever the cause, polls show public interest in climate and the environment is on the rise. So, it seems, is interest in reporting on it. SEJ's 17th annual conference at Stanford University in early September drew a record crowd of more than 900, including more than 400 journalists. That's a phenomenal turnout, given the shrinking staffs and training budgets of so many newspapers.

The conference agenda was chockfull of climate topics, from the opening plenary on covering the issue to the screening Saturday night of a new global-warming documentary, Leonardo DiCaprio's "11th Hour."

The most exciting session for me began before the conference officially got under way. Eighteen top executives of newspapers and other news organizations gathered at Stanford's business school for a day-long seminar on how to cover the climate story. The session, emceed by SEJ founder and maestro Bud Ward, was sponsored by the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting and by SEJ, with support from Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment and Yale University's Project on Climate Change.

It was a dream come true. For years, we journalists have griped about how hard it was to sell environmental stories to skeptical editors and news directors. But there, editors for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and a lot of other highly respected mainstream and online publications sat through a full day of briefings by researchers on the scientific evidence of climate change and possible policy responses. No one nodded off. The editors took notes, asked questions and vowed to do more climate coverage. Two of them even joined SEJ on the spot!

SEJ also helped organize a day-long seminar on covering climate in June in Portland, Ore., for print, radio and TV reporters and editors. More than 90 gave up their Saturday to attend that session, which was put on by the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication and the Climate Leadership Initiative at the University of Oregon, in partnership with SEJ.

Given the obvious hunger among reporters and news managers for fresh angles on climate change, SEJ plans more workshops, tipsheets and other activities on that topic in the coming year from SEJ. Staffers are gearing up now to expand the online reporting guide to climate change posted earlier this year, and we're looking to replicate the success of last summer's Oregon workshop as well in other parts of the country.

Through those and other initiatives under consideration, SEJ will be offering journalists in all media the tools and tips for delving into this most important environmental story. Bloggers and skeptics, please note: SEJ won't be telling anyone what to report, or even how to do it, but encouraging them to dig deeper, seek out the experts and ask for the evidence to back up all claims and assumptions.

Other positive news to report to you, SEJ members:

• SEJ is stronger financially today than it was a year ago, thanks in large part to the heart-warming generosity of members and of non-members as well, who appreciate the role journalists and SEJ play in improving the quality and visibility of environmental reporting. Spurred on by a matching grant offer from the Challenge Fund for Journalism, we blew past our goal and raised $130,000, earning the maximum $51,500 match. The sum raised more than doubled the size of SEJ's 21st Century Fund. We've still got a long way to go to reach our ultimate goal of $3 million, but this was a huge first step in that proverbial journey.

SEJournal is about to take on an exciting new look. This past summer, SEJ's board of directors authorized a redesign of the quarterly to enhance its visual appeal while sacrificing none of the news and features that make it must reading for anyone serious about covering the environment.

• Work is also ongoing behind the scenes to revamp the look and functionality of SEJ's website. The first essential but invisible step will be to "migrate" our databases to a new platform, one that is easier to work with. Once that's complete, we plan to revamp the website to enhance its usefulness to members and the public alike. Any and all suggestions – and offers of help – welcome

Finally, let me provide you a brief update on the topic of my last column. We had a thoughtful discussion with members at the conference about SEJ's name and whether it ought to be changed to Society for Environmental Journalism. There were mixed views on it, but members seemed to appreciate the thought behind the proposal. As journalism and the news business change, SEJ needs to broaden its appeal. We need to help and involve journalists who aren't covering the environment as a beat, while also emphasizing that the only thing we're advocating is good journalism, both old and new, but not any particular cause.

The board is working to keep SEJ vital in that changing media world. While board members haven't taken a vote on whether a name change is warranted, the ultimate deciders of that issue are you, the members. Any name change would have to be approved by the membership as a change in the society's bylaws. And there'll be plenty of notice before any such vote is taken.

Meanwhile, please let us know what you think, about SEJ's name, if you care, but also about how SEJ can help you and others trying to do your best at understanding and engaging the public in these complex but compelling environmental issues. That's what SEJ is all about, no matter what name we call ourselves.

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

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2007 issue.


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