Reasons for Hope on Enviro Beat

October 15, 2013

SEJ President's Report


This has been another rough year, folks, what with newspapers folding, leaner staffs, dumped blogs and closed beats. And that sobering reality brings us to today’s word: “environmental journalism.” (Actually two words, of course, but that’s how Stephen Colbert does it.)

It sometimes seems that the term has fallen out of favor (if not off the face of an increasingly warmer planet). And it seems journalists must work harder than ever to get information in an age when government and corporate information policies come from the same frustrating playbook. (Send the reporters long and pull a spokesperson sneak.)

But it’s good to remember that environmental journalism can play an important role in digging out the information an increasingly distracted public needs to make tough policy decisions about their environment and health. (Pass out the shorthanded shovels.)

I was reminded of that in August when “The Colbert Report” focused one of its “The Word” segments on the phrase “gag gift,” and took off on fracking – hydraulic fracturing.

To set up the satire, Colbert used a story (written by yours truly) from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about how three shale gas development companies paid a Pennsylvania family, the Hallowiches, $750,000 in August 2011 to relocate and keep quiet about problems they experienced on their farm surrounded by four shale gas wells, two compressor stations and an impoundment.

The details of that confidential settlement, which was unsealed after a two-year legal battle by the newspaper, included lifetime non-disclosure and non-defamatory clauses (aka a “gag order”) that applied to the parents and their children, then ages 7 and 10. After the story broke, one shale gas drilling company quickly backed away from the image of “gagged” children. It said it never intended the agreement to apply to them, even though their attorney in the settlement hearing transcript obtained by the newspaper thought it did.

The Post-Gazette was successful in uncovering the details of that case, but as the shale gas and oil boom rumbles through the United States, there are many other cases involving confidential settlements that remain secret. A court brief filed in the Pennsylvania case in April 2012 by Earthjustice, which sought to intervene, cited 27 other confidential settlements of court cases in seven states alleging health or environmental problems caused by unconventional shale gas development claims. Six of those were in Pennsylvania.

That’s a tip-of-the-iceberg problem that hides information that, if reported, could help doctors, scientists, regulators and the public better understand the impacts and environmental and health risks from shale gas and oil development. I was gratified that the Post-Gazette provided the legal and editorial support, and money to appeal the sealing of the court record. I wonder in the current chaotic media landscape how many papers, television and radio stations have such reporting and legal resources or the will to spend them.

But there is reason for hope and, as usual, it comes from our own ranks. While resources devoted to covering the environment and the number of environmental reporters at traditional media outlets continue to decline, the number of freelance journalists and journalists working for non-profits is trending up. SEJ’s membership, weighted heavily with freelancers now, is holding relatively steady.

And I was gratified to learn too that, as reflected in the 2013 SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment, the level of excellence in our work has grown commensurate with the importance of the issues. (See coverage, page 12.)

That is a reflection on the journalists involved. Environmental journalism, despite the travails of the industry, remains populated by some of the most talented, dedicated and courageous reporters and editors ever to wear an ink stain, stand before a camera or point a microphone.

For many of us, journalism is a calling. (Like the priesthood, but with less formal clothing.) Some call it a noble profession. I prefer to think of it as a craft, like barrel-making or barbering. (Because, well, everyone needs a good haircut.) And things can sometimes get a little shaggy if we’re not out there filling our role as contrary watchdogs.

A case in point: In 2006, I returned to the Post-Gazette from a year-long Ted Scripps Fellowship in Boulder, Colorado. My first few weeks back were especially busy. I covered stories about a train derailment that spilled toxic chemicals into a blue-ribbon trout stream in northeastern Pennsylvania, killing all the fish; an agreement requiring a coal-burning power plant with a history of thousands of violations to install pollution controls; the state’s approval of controversial commercial river dredging; and the discovery of yet another new invasive insect from Asia in a field near the Pittsburgh International Airport.

On a Friday evening, as I was leaving the office for the weekend, I cut through the sports department and a friend of mine who covers the Steelers shouted out in language unsuitable for this magazine, “Jeezus H. Crackers! While you were gone everything was just great here. You’ve been back a week and already the environment has gone all to sh*t.”

He was saying we’re needed. It’s something to remember.

Don Hopey covers environment at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and the Pitt Honors College Yellowstone Field Course.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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