When people think of the most environmentally devastating industries, the print media may not come immediately to mind. But unfortunately for everyone who gets their news this way, the cost of the morning paper that lands on our stoop—and even the magazine you are now reading—may include "denuded landscapes, toxic rivers, foul air, bulging landfills and belching incinerators," according to Paper Cuts: Recovering the Paper Landscape, a 1999 World Watch Institute report.
About 5.8 billion magazines and 24 billion newspapers are published each year, according to trade figures. And the report, which culled statistics from such mainstream sources as industry trade groups, government agencies and the U.N., says the print media are one of the pulp and paper industry's biggest customers; newsprint alone accounts for 12 percent of all paper use. The growth of Web-based publications hasn't slowed the trend: The industry website paper.com has found that "the general pattern is one of mutual growth and interdependence" between print and online publications.
But as World Watch and others have found, paper-making is on a crash course with ecological sustainability. It takes about two to three-and-a-half tons of wood, or roughly 24 trees, to produce one ton of paper. Since 55 percent of all paper is composed of virgin materials (90 percent virgin for printing and writing paper, like magazines use), this results in intensive logging on both natural forests and tree plantations.
Once those logs are broken down into chips, the process of transforming that to paper is both wasteful and toxic. Paper manufacturing uses more water per ton than any other product in the world, and is one of the largest industrial consumers of energy. It's also highly polluting, creating air pollutants like sulfuric acid and carbon monoxide, effluents that are discharged into waterways, and, in the U.S. alone, some 12 million tons of solid processing waste each year, which usually gets land-filled or incinerated.
Newspapers and magazines stress the environment in different ways. Newsprint is a lower quality paper that can be made with fewer chemicals, and can easily be recycled half a dozen times. But millions of pages of newsprint are used every day, and the market for recycled fiber hasn't kept pace. Magazines, on the other hand, are usually made from high-quality glossy or otherwise coated papers, which require much more bleaching, processing and additives. These coatings, along with adhesives and color dyes, make magazines much more difficult to recycle.
Even with media consolidation, consumption is intensifying. Though it's impossible to pinpoint exactly how many sheets—or trees—are used by the print media as a whole, consider that the Washington Post, daily circulation approximately 800,000, expects to use 213,636 metric tons of paper this year (not including comics, weekend magazines and ad inserts). And, unfortunately, less than half of all paper gets recycled.
In the case of magazines, far too many go to waste, according to a report last fall in Ink Reader (Fall/99), the newsletter of the Independent Press Association. "For every one of the billions of magazines bought annually at a newsstand and presumably read, another couple are thrown away without being sold," the IPA found. Industry-wide, some 60 to 65 percent of newsstand magazines are discarded in this way. IPA's conclusion: "Recycling is so poor, the best way to reduce the environmental harm is to print them on recycled paper in the first place."
But the opposite is occurring industry-wide, in part because paper from recycled and/or alternative fibers, and free of chlorine bleaching, currently costs twice as much as standard paper. Because not enough magazine publishers request "greener" products, production of recycled paper in the U.S. has declined, leading to increased prices. This vicious cycle could be interrupted if publishers, especially the largest houses like Time Inc. and Advance, demanded recycled paper.
But because of the overlap between the print news media and the paper industry, conflicts of interest are almost inevitable. "Some media firms have equity stakes or even controlling interest in their own pulp and paper mills," according to sociologist David Sonnenfeld, a professor at Washington State University, who has studied the effects of activism and laws on cleaning up manufacturing methods in the industry. While paper prices are subject to a regular boom and bust cycle, he explains, making paper in-house protects a company from price swings. Indeed, the investor information page on the New York Times Co.'s website states, "Newsprint and magazine paper are the company's most important raw materials and represent a significant portion of the company's operating costs."
For major media companies that publish many of the top-circulation daily newspapers and weekly newsmagazines, such interlocks are not uncommon. For example, the Knight-Ridder company, owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer and many other newspapers, is also part-owner of two paper companies, the Southeast Paper Mfg. Co. and the Ponderay Newsprint Co. And the New York Times Co. (owner of the New York Times, Boston Globe and others) has a 49 percent interest in two paper mills: Donohue Malbaie of Quebec, a newsprint mill, and Madison Paper Industries of Madison, Maine, a premium paper mill.
A closer look
Arguably, the greatest environmental impact print media have is their shaping of public debate about ecology issues. Does the mutual dependency between the print press and the paper industry affect coverage of related issues such as logging, toxics and recycling?
To find out, Extra! studied coverage of three representative issues in selected print publications owned by major media companies: daily newspapers the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, L.A. Times and Portland Oregonian, and the weekly newsmagazines Time and Newsweek.
Through this research we discovered that environmental revisionism, often by non-science reporters at leading publications, has marked coverage of areas where the papers themselves have a financial stake or have come under attack for their environmental performance. Among the possibly self-serving truisms that have emerged at papers like the New York Times and L.A. Times: Clearcut logging is necessary and even good for forests. Dioxin is nothing to worry about compared to smoking cigarettes. Recycling is pointless . . . maybe even bad for the environment. Such contrarian statements have often been repeated by other outlets as cutting-edge wisdom.
Stories that were not slanted in this manner often positioned environmental issues as a debate between two equally credible sides, a common framework for covering such issues (see Extra!, 4-5/92). Such stories typically failed to evaluate claims and counter-claims made by each side, leaving readers with little ability to judge where the truth lay.
And all too often, publications ignore or give cursory mention to pulp and paper's role in environmental problems, and they rarely discover and disclose the publication's own connection to the topic.
CASE STUDY: The Press and Forests
The fate of America's national forests has been widely discussed in the U.S. press, and tropical rainforests have become a cultural darling. It's worth repeating, though, that less than 5 percent of the original forest cover remains in the U.S., while globally, more than 80 percent of Earth's ancient forests have been destroyed or degraded.
The timber, pulp and paper industries usually lay blame for deforestation at the feet of population growth, as people clear forests for farms and firewood. But according to studies by the World Wildlife Fund and others, it's industry—logging and mining—that destroys the most forest land. Despite the timber industry's stated practice of planting more trees than it harvests, at current rates of consumption harvesting is soon expected to exceed regrowth.
Moreover, says Chad Hanson of Earth Island Institute, so-called "managed timberlands"--particularly tree plantations in the U.S. South the provide an increasing share of our wood--are replacing natural forest strands. Biologically, they are monocultures, and therefore unable to sustain a complex ecosystem and retain biodiversity as a natural forest does. So-called reforestation is disingenuous, Hanson told Extra!: "You can't compare [one] 250-foot-tall, eight-foot-diameter tree to six seedlings."
Much of the paper we use comes from these plantations, with a small percentage coming from U.S. national forests. The rest is imported—largely from Canada, the world's largest exporter of timber, pulp and newsprint. In particular, British Columbia's coastal temperate rainforests (the world's most endangered forest type, according to the World Resources Institute) are being logged fast and furiously. One reason is the old-growth trees they contain: These giants yield more wood per tree than others, and have the longest and strongest fibers. In other words, some of the world's largest, oldest stands of trees are winding up in American newspapers and magazines.
Following a method successfully used in Europe, groups including Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace have painstakingly identified the companies that log the rainforests and the corporations that purchase their wood product. They then urge them to switch to wood products that are more environmentally benign; Home Depot is the best-known success.
One target, the Times Mirror Co. (publisher of the L.A. Times and other papers), has admittedly purchased some of its paper from a supplier, New Zealand-based Fletcher Challenge, that markets temperate rainforest timber. In response, environmentalists have returned to direct action: In October 1998, Greenpeace activists blocked a ship carrying Canadian paper, some earmarked for the L.A. Times, from docking in Long Beach harbor.
To survey how print media cover logging controversies, we looked at coverage of the British Columbia logging and paper controversy from July 1995 (when an agreement was reached to stop clearcutting Clayoquit Sound) until the end of 1999.
All of the sources studied except Newsweek and the Chicago Tribune reported directly on the B.C. logging logjam. Also, Time, the New York Times, Oregonian, Philadelphia Inquirer and L.A. Times mentioned the campaign to shift paper markets away from B.C.'s ancient forests. The latter three made reference to the presence of this wood in newspapers or magazines, including frank (though unapologetic) self-references.
The Philadelphia Inquirer deserves special note for publishing an AP story that dug up the "pulp facts" on that paper's own parent company, Knight-Ridder, and other publishers (7/5/95). It noted that though the New York Times "provided a strong editorial voice in defense of...the world's forests," it had taken heat from environmentalists for purchasing Canadian paper. The article also singled out the Wall Street Journal, Knight-Ridder and Gannett, noting that "environmentalists contend news coverage of the Clayoquit controversy has been sparse."
Overall, however, the typical framework for stories about Canada's rainforest was the standard jobs vs. environment matchup (e.g., "Economy, Ecology Lock Horns," Washington Post, 10/27/97). Although, confusingly, some stories claimed logging was important because timber is central to British Columbia's economy, while others claimed that logging must continue because the industry was lagging.
A few stories highlighted the presence of conflict between various "sides"—loggers, environmentalists, tourism proponents, Native peoples and government leaders—on how to utilize forest "resources." The L.A. Times (7/11/96) and Time (10/19/98) each had a piece focusing on such groups' propaganda strategies.
To be sure, there was sympathetic mention of Native peoples who claim rights to rainforest lands. And the environmental protests by Greenpeace and others certainly received the attention they sought. However, the emphasis was as much on disruptive stunts and arrests as on the issues their actions were designed to draw attention to (e.g., USA Today, 10/22/98; L.A. Times, 10/23/98; Oregonian, 8/28/96, 6/1/97).
The two "papers of record" in particular seemed to come down on the side of logging, placing more emphasis on what the logging industry (or Canadian economy) faced than what the forest and its inhabitants contend with. In "Loggers Find Canada Rain Forest Flush with Foes" (10/22/99), the New York Times' James Brooke portrayed the logging industry as struggling and stronger forest protection as likely to take jobs and "cost money." The Washington Post's Howard Schneider (4/22/97, 10/27/97) gave credence to the forestry industry's contention that logging ancient trees is almost unavoidable because second-growth stands aren't mature enough to harvest.
Notable was the L.A. Times' coverage of Greenpeace's harbor blockade (which was also covered briefly by USA Today). Not surprisingly, the day-one report (10/21/98) included the bland reassurances of Times Mirror Co.'s VP of communications, who acknowledged that Fletcher Challenge did supply the L.A. Times with newsprint but claimed "we understand that the companies comply with all forestry management regulations." While focusing on the drama of Greenpeace's ship-dangling, it also provided extensive details on the rainforest/paper connection.
Being taken to task over its paper purchasing does seem to have sharpened the L.A. Times' interest in the Canadian forests issue; it devoted the most coverage to the topic of any publication in FAIR's survey. For example, in a front-page article (12/8/98), L.A. Times staff writer Kim Murphy gave a thorough analysis of threats to the rainforest and scrutinized industry practices and claims. She also reported her own paper's continued use of paper derived in part from Canadian old growth forests.
CASE STUDY: The Press and Dioxin
The bleaching of wood pulp with chlorine to produce paper for magazines and newspapers often creates a toxic byproduct: dioxin. While more benign products such as oxygen or peroxide are now widely used in Europe, elemental chlorine—or, increasingly, the milder chlorine dioxide—continues to be the bleaching method of choice in the U.S. Dioxin and other organochlorides are released into water and air, persist in sludge and are even found in paper products themselves. They persist in the environment and build up in human and animal fat over time.
In her June 1993 cover story in American Journalism Review, writer Vicki Monks examined the potential conflict of interest posed when newspapers and magazines cover stories about dioxin. Monks pointed to the ownership by the New York Times and other newspapers of paper mills that might be economically or legally affected by confirmation of dioxin's deadliness. (Indeed, the New York Times was co-defendant in a $1.3 billion 1991 suit by two Canadian Indian nations who accused the paper mill it owned of polluting the rivers and fish they depend on.) Monks singled out New York Times environmental reporter Keith Schneider for downplaying dioxin's dangers, misrepresenting the findings of a 1991 EPA study. His major source, Monks noted, was Vernon Houk, a former government scientist turned industry flak. Most disconcertingly, she found that Schneider's take was regurgitated by other papers as fact—particularly his facile comparison of the dangers of dioxin and sunbathing.
To examine press coverage of dioxin, we looked at reporting on the EPA's 1994 dioxin report. This 2,000-page study, released as a draft, was produced in response to industry pressure and scientific challenges both outside and inside the EPA. Not only did it confirm a strong connection between dioxin and cancer, it uncovered a host of hormonal and immune system effects from infinitesimal exposure to the toxin. The report also stated that most Americans may already have enough dioxin built up in their bodies to do long-term harm. (A still-unsatisfied internal review board directed the agency to reassess its data yet again; the long awaited new draft was released in May 2000.)
There were two peaks of coverage: a few stories when the agency leaked the draft report to the press in May 1994, and others when it was publicly released in September. One of the early-bird stories was a front-page New York Times article (5/11/94) by Keith Schneider, which acknowledged dioxin's danger at low levels. But the story is filled with caveats and half-truths: "Uncertainty among scientists and the public...and a landslide of new data" prompted the study, he said, not mentioning industry pressure. As to policy implications, Schneider concludes that "most industrial executives and environmental health specialists say" it would be hard to reduce dioxin, and that "the traditional approach to banning individual chemicals or tightening...regulations...may have run its course."
Upon release of the EPA draft report in September, all the publications took questions of dioxin's safety seriously, but coverage tended to be coated with a residue of Schneiderist skepticism. The prevailing frame was uncertainty, highlighting conflicts of interpretation among environmentalists, industry scientists, even EPA spokespeople themselves. Comments by EPA spokesperson Lynn Goldman were used to discredit (e.g., Chicago Tribune, 9/16/94) and to bolster the report's bad news (e.g., Washington Post, 9/14/94). This back and forth "could give you whiplash," as Newsweek's science writer Sharon Begley pointed out in an exceptionally thorough, skeptical-of-industry article (9/19/94).
Net result: Despite grave headlines such as "Dioxin Dangers May Be Worse Than Suspected" (Chicago Tribune, 9/12/94) and "EPA Cites Dioxin as Possible Carcinogen" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/12/94), reporting gave the overall impression that dioxin's effects and danger were still ambiguous.
In particular, the print press advanced the notion that data on dioxin's effects on humans are quite limited, and made much of the fact that these were extrapolated from animal studies. But as Stephen Lester, science director of the Center for Health, Justice and the Environment, told Extra!, animal studies are the standard method for evaluating toxicity of chemicals: "They say we need more studies, and those are going to be done on animals. Then when the results come out, they say, 'Well, those studies were just on animals.'"
Missing from most articles was commentary from people affected by dioxin. An exception was USA Today (9/13/94), which quoted Times Beach residents as saying the EPA report proved what they knew all along.
The impact of any news, pro or con, about dioxin and health was diluted by the fact that stories in the same publication contradicted each other. While the L.A. Times published a condensed version of a straightforward New York Times story about the report on September 12, it also published a massive three-part series by staffer David Shaw (9/11-13/94) on "risk analysis," with headlines like "'Cry Wolf' Stories Permeate Coverage of Health Hazards" (9/12/94) and "We're Safer and Healthier Than Ever—And Also More Afraid of What We Eat, Drink and Breathe" (9/11/94). In the first article, Shaw praised Keith Schneider for his courage in challenging the environmental press establishment on dioxin.
Schneider's contributions: an obituary for dioxin pangloss Vernon Houk (9/13/94), which was considerably longer than the AP dispatch on the EPA findings that the Times published the same day on page A14. In the obit, Schneider wrote, "some scientists say [the EPA report] confirms some of [Houk's] findings on dioxin." On September 14, the New York Times published Schneider's "EPA Moves to Reduce Health Risks from Dioxin," which emphasized that cigarettes are more dangerous than dioxin.
While the paper industry's connection to dioxin was usually mentioned in passing, some newspapers made sure to distance themselves. The Washington Post (9/12/94) reported that "the pulp and paper industry already severely limits the use of chlorine in paper manufacturing, a response to concerns about dioxin's health effects." An editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer (9/19/94) dismissed concerns: "Environmental activists and community groups have hissed at their two favorite villains in the dioxin drama: paper manufacturers and hazardous waste incinerators. Their hands, though, are clean, or at least relatively so, according to the report."
The Oregonian (9/13/94), on the other hand, was candid, noting that the Northwest's pulp and paper industry was "the largest producer of dioxins in Oregon and Washington." The paper named two local mills that used chlorine to bleach paper, noting that their treated wastes were "discharged into the Columbia River."
Though not available when Extra! first began researching this article, coverage of the latest draft dioxin report, mentioned earlier, is worth noting because it further illustrates trends among certain papers. The news: Among other things, the cancer risk from dioxin exposure is tenfold what was once thought, especially for children and those with diets high in meat and milk. The Washington Post led coverage with its front-page story on May 17.
But the New York Times buried its article (5/18/00) on page A27. Penned by science reporter Gina Kolata, the article all but spat on the report, quoting a number of "scathing" responses by scientists from the EPA's internal advisory board. One called the draft "ill-timed, politically rather than scientifically motivated" and "an embarrassment to science and certainly toxicology." The L.A. Times did not cover the report at all—except in one sentence in an editorial (5/18/00) touting the reduced rate of cancer deaths in America, headlined "Clean Up Your Act, Live Longer." To their credit, all the outlets that covered it mentioned pulp and paper as a dioxin source. (In addition to the New York Times and Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today and Time also ran stories.)
CASE STUDY: The Press and Recycling
The U.S. EPA has declared that recycling is second only to "source reduction" as the most environmentally sound and efficient way to handle waste.
And trash that's recovered and recycled into paper or other products not only reduces waste, it's long been an established component of the pulp and paper industry. Organizations like the Newspaper Association of America and paper trade groups like to brag that they recover over 40 percent of paper manufactured in the U.S., even as they resist higher mandatory recycling rates. Why? Because it saves raw materials (and therefore money). For each ton of used paper, almost a ton of new paper can be made—and since it's already been processed, less energy and fewer chemicals are needed.
Still, according to World Watch, huge paper consumption means the overall volume of paper waste is several steps ahead of the growth in recycling. Thus, the U.S. sends more paper to landfills than is consumed by all of China (Earth's No. 2 paper consumer).
Given all this, common sense holds that even more recycling should be encouraged. Instead, in a now-famous June 30, 1996, cover story, the New York Times Magazine declared that "Recycling Is Garbage."
This 7,000-plus-word article by staffwriter John Tierney revived the Wall Street Journal's shibboleth that environmentalism is a religion—or perhaps, a superstition. The one-sided article virtually mocked recyclers, unearthing the claims of conservative economists and think tanks to advance the case that most recycling was anywhere from pointless to actually harmful to the environment. We have plenty of landfill space for all our waste, Tierney argued, and no shortage of raw materials. Why bother when there are so many more important causes to address?
The story generated an unprecedented reader response (over 2,000 letters, according to the New York Times, mostly negative). "Recycling Is Garbage" even led to rebuttals published in 1997 in the industry trade magazines Journal of Industrial Ecology (#3/97) and Technology Review (10/97), to say nothing of an 86-page rebuttal—complete with press conference—published by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1997.
Sensibly, most publications in our sample chose to ignore Tierney's treatise; Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn (7/2/96), for one, was moved to criticize it, pointing out that the arguments weren't new, but "contain all the excuses a person could ever want to put everything out with the trash and forget about it."
However, we discovered, the New York Times piece, emanating from the "paper of record," caused a variety of regional papers (including two in our sample, and many others, typically owned by the largest media companies) to publish numerous anti-recycling editorials, op-eds, columns and letters that also trashed recycling, citing Tierney's arguments. Papers proclaimed "Recycling May Be Worst Choice for Planet Earth" (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 7/31/96); the Kansas City Star (8/17/96) saw the "Folly of Recycling Revealed."
"Recycling is de rigeur," conservative columnist Deborah Saunders wrote (Chicago Tribune, 9/25/96), "although, as John Tierney demonstrated in a New York Times Magazine piece, it is rarely cost effective and sometimes consumes more energy than it saves." Up to three years and much debunking later, Tierney's piece was sometimes still trotted out to debate recycling, both pro (Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/24/99) and con (Star Tribune, 8/29/99).
Moreover, there was almost no original reporting included in the pieces spurred by "Recycling Is Garbage"; Tierney's statistics and conclusions were simply recited as facts—sometimes nearly verbatim. For example, a column by Kansas City Star editorial board member E. Thomas McClanahan (6/16/98) repeated the erroneous assertion that recycled newspaper pollutes more than virgin. Syndicated advice columnist Jeffrey Zaslow (Chicago Sun-Times, 8/29/96) cited Tierney in his answer to a reader about whether to recycle plastic shopping bags: "John Tierney...offered statistics to show that recycling costs more than it saves and that there's actually plenty of landfill space available."
None of the pieces mentioned either newspapers' and magazines' paper waste or recycling efforts— except a photo in the Chicago Sun-Times (11/8/99), captioned: "Recycling plant workers sorting through newspapers. But the effort doesn't save trees, and raw materials are often significantly cheaper than the cost of recycled paper."
Only Tierney himself mentioned his own newspaper outright when discussing recycling, acknowledging the Sunday Times uses 75,000 trees per week. In an editorial addressing the future of New York City's own recycling program (7/29/96), the New York Times distanced itself from Tierney's revisionist arguments, noting "this page has long advocated recycling." It pointed out that the city paid more to dump its waste than to pay vendors to accept recyclables.
What neither Tierney nor the editorial page mentioned is that the New York Times Co. owns part of two paper mills, whose wares it not only uses but sells. As it states on its website, its forest products division "acts as a hedge against price increases through profits earned from the sale of paper." Meaning it maintains its bottom line in part by encouraging consumption of virgin paper. Also not mentioned: Virgin fiber production (in the form of direct subsidies on raw materials such as wood and water),incinerators and landfills are often subsidized, World Watch found, "put[ting] recovery and recycling at an economic disadvantage."
Where do we go from here?
Is it possible to draw a direct, possibly deliberate connection between the media's links to paper and printing and their environmental reporting? As Monks suggested in her American Journalism Review article (6/93), it can't be proven that reporters and editors have been briefed on the fact that their employer owns a paper mill, say, or that they censor themselves because they know that the magazine they work for is printed on stock containing pulp from threatened forests. But somebody at each company is aware, or should be. It's also not unreasonable to suggest the print media would rather avoid alienating those large advertisers whose paper-packaged products keep their presses humming.
Mind you, the paper (and printing) industries are slowly cleaning up their act, whether under force of law, public pressure or enlightened self-interest. For example, the L.A. Times reduced the size of its pages last year and the Chicago Tribune is in the process of doing so. The magazine publishing industry has gotten behind developing adhesives that allow more paper to be recycled.
And Time has begun to consider environmental performance in choosing the suppliers that get its business—partly, it seems, because of pressure from the environmental group Greenpeace. In 1991, Greenpeace took Time to task for presenting itself as being friendly to the environment on its pages (remember "Planet of the Year"?) while being hostile with the pages themselves. Through its use of some 700 tons of chlorine-bleached paper per week, charged the environmental group, 179,400 pounds of organochlorides were released into American waterways. The magazine eventually switched to elemental chlorine-free paper, but claimed it was not feasible to go totally chlorine-free.
Until recently: Now, Time spokesperson Peter Costiglio told Extra!, the magazine has begun using some totally chorine-free paper, and most of its suppliers are in the process of having the forestry practices on their lands certified by independent third parties. Giant print media companies, with their economies of scale, should expand on this example.
While reducing consumption is the best way to limit environmental damage—publishing more online, for example—changing the purchasing patterns of print publishers could have a powerful effect, those interviewed for this article attest. Newspapers and magazines can create markets for totally chlorine-free paper, 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, or paper made from alternative fibers such as agricultural waste, hemp or kenaf. (This is already taking place in parts of the world where lumber is in short supply.)
If such changes are made, the print press needn't take such a cautious or defensive posture when it reports on environmental topics close to home. Until then, it should make a consistent effort to reveal its connections and conflicts of interest, so the news will be worth the paper it's printed on.
Miranda Spencer writes frequently on environmental and other issues for Extra!. This articled was funded by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.