SEJ President's Report: Journalism Must Rise to Challenge of Trump Presidency
By SEJ President Bobby Magill
At few points in history has journalism — especially environmental journalism — been more necessary and critical to our future. And at few points in history has the government — particularly an incoming president — been so hostile to journalists, transparency, the freedom of the press and facts in general.
Let’s take stock of our moment in history.
Last Thursday, for the first time in modern presidential history, President-elect Donald Trump, who openly mocks reporters, denied a press pool from traveling with him to the White House.
At the same time as Trump blacklisted reporters who offended him, journalists were routinely jeered and heckled at his campaign rallies, where he called journalists dishonest and sleazy. Numerous reporters have been arrested at his rallies just for doing their jobs, in addition to the many others handcuffed this year for reporting on events unrelated to the election.
Innuendo and a somewhat loose adherence to the truth pervaded the election on all sides, perhaps symbolized best by Trump’s repeated suggestions that “There’s something going on,” his denials that he said things caught on tape, and when he named former Breitbart News Executive Chairman Stephen Bannon as the chief executive of his campaign (and as of Sunday, as his chief strategist and senior counselor).
Now, Trump is flooding his transition team with lobbyists, appointing a climate change denier to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s transition and possibly appointing oil industry executives to head the departments of Interior and Energy.
It’s possible that in a year, the EPA could be a shell of its current self as Trump finds a way to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement.
Trump has pledged to breathe new life into the coal industry and exploit America’s oil resources to the maximum extent in the name of energy independence while calling climate change a hoax and brushing aside renewable energy.
Progress on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and regulating pollution could be left up to individual states as the federal government prepares to stand back from environmental protection.
The GOP, which will control both Congress and the White House, officially opposes the federal government managing public lands — a 600-million-acre trove of biological richness that harbors all our national parks and monuments, and serves to a great extent as a living laboratory for scientists studying climate and ecosystem change.
Let this moment inspire you as a journalist
The hostility towards journalism, science, climate stability and the truth is palpable.
Don’t let it get you down. Let it galvanize you. Let it inspire you to hold those in power accountable like never before. Let it force you to find new, creative ways to cut through the information roadblocks and convince your editors that environmental and accountability journalism, rather than clickbait journalism, is more critical to our democracy than ever.
Let it force you step away from your computer screen and into the places where you’ll hear and document the voices of those who are most exposed to the tainted drinking water, air pollution, rising seas, soaring temperatures, water scarcity, wildfire and other environmental challenges that mark our era.
Let it inspire you to ask questions: How can the press regain its relevance? In telling the environmental and political stories of our day, what angles have we missed? What new voices need to be heard? What long-held assumptions do we need to challenge? How is money flowing differently between lawmakers and private industry in this new era? How are environmental regulations being changed or dismantled? What innovative climate and environmental policy solutions are being developed in this new era? How can the voices of marginalized communities be better represented in our reporting?
Wherever Americans stand on any of the environmental issues we cover, they still rely on journalists to answer these questions. The public may get a lot of their information from partisan websites posting on Facebook, but for the public to be sufficiently informed about their environment they will still rely on journalists like us to ask these questions and dig for facts that partisans simply won’t.
In a country whose direction seems to be determined more and more by rumor, innuendo and misinformation, it is the responsibility of journalism as a profession to cut through this darkness with perspective, thoughtfulness and facts, and to give voice to those whose lives and thoughts may be marginalized by those in power.
SEJ plays a huge role in this. We have the ability to become a repository of great environmental journalism for both SEJ members and the public, helping all of our audiences find the most insightful and highest quality journalism that shines light on their environment in this new era.
It’s also critically important now more than ever for SEJ to expand our membership to include more journalists from disadvantaged communities and to feature at our events the voices of those most affected by environmental injustice.
Ours has long been a noble and critically important profession, and it will continue to be so in the Trump era and beyond, regardless of government and public hostility towards reporters and the media, and the rising trend of confusing facts with partisanship.
You and I will do this work in this new era out of more than just a sense of responsibility and purpose. We will do this because we still believe that an informed electorate is more apt to make the best decision than an uninformed one. We will do this because the critical environmental issues that determine how clean our air is, how polluted our water is and how chaotic our climate will become often aren’t covered in great depth by anyone else.
Most importantly, if part of what we love about our country is press freedom, government transparency, a functioning democracy, clean air, clean water, environmental justice and a stable climate, then doing our jobs well — and fearlessly — in the face of adversity is really an act of working for what we love. And for each other.
Bobby Magill is senior science and energy writer at Climate Central in New York and is president of the SEJ.