Bookshelf: Covering the Environment: How Journalists Work the Green Beat

November 15, 2008


Covering the Environment is the essential backgrounder about the story of the century.

It is a captivating book with strong insights into the people who are now working the most important job in media history.

Although intended as a textbook for university students, it is valuable for professionals at any level who want to understand this beat. And it might also serve as a thoughtful holiday gift for a difficult editor.

Author Robert Wyss has brought a great deal of his own writing skill to bear from his 35 years as a newspaper reporter, and readers of his book will quickly realize that environmental reporting goes far beyond news and numbers, involving real people working a demanding and frequently thankless job. The book begins with reporter Mark Schleifstein's struggle to bring serious hurricane coverage to the New Orleans Times- Picayune. The stories he wrote in 2002 with John McQuaid, as many SEJ members know, won two Pulitzer Prizes and probably saved tens of thousands of lives in 2005. However, they were written under a cloud of suspicion and at a price of a few serious newsroom arguments. The predicted disaster, with a high loss of life, finally shocked the industry into taking the environmental beat more seriously,Wyss said.

The book also describes Natalie Pawelski reporting from Yellowstone for CNN; Ron Nixon investigating clear-cut logging for the Roanoke Times; KenWard Jr. of The Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette covering a controversy over mining impacts on a school; and Dan Fagin uncovering cancer clusters on Long Island for Newsday.

Each of these real world examples is tied to an important thematic lesson. Among the themes are risk communication, understanding science, interviewing scientists, reporters tools and dealing with regulators.

The book gives insights from Christy George of Oregon Public Broadcasting about the value of the first and last questions in interviewing scientists. An example of reporting tools is Jim Bruggers of The (Louisville) Courier-Journal discussing computer-assisted reporting in air pollution stories. Another example of long-form narrative is provided by Peter Lord's Providence Journal series about the human side of lead poisoning. These strong personal narratives make the material come alive.With an admirable internal logic,Wyss' writing itself shows readers an awareness of the human dimensions of any writing work.

The book also notes some of the failings of the press in communicating risk. For instance, in the 1989 controversy over the pesticide Alar, the book notes that author and researcher Sharon Friedman found only a fraction ofAlar reporting had used any risk analysis to put the threat into perspective.

Covering the Environment outlines other serious controversies, such as the debate over advocacy versus objectivity and instances when science may have been misreported for apparently political reasons. Wyss handles this at arms' length and with insight, but his stance probably won't please everyone. This is as it should be.

As he writes: "Journalists must determine what is news. They cannot delegate what should be on the public agenda to any one group, be it science, government, or political and environmental advocates."

Perhaps most memorable is this piece of advice: "Do not be intimidated."

Bill Kovarik is a professor of communications at Radford University in Virginia and co-chair of SEJ's 2008 conference.

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