Rachel Carson wouldn't recognize many "environmental journalists" today
I knew I was in trouble when, walking into a “leadership summit” of the Society for Environmental Journalists, I tested out what I was planning to say with a young reporter.
SEJ should accept investigative reporting as being a part of environmental journalism—after all, I noted, Rachel Carson, the mother of environmental journalism, practiced investigative reporting.
“Rachel Carson,” said the reporter, who covers the environment for a Florida newspaper, “isn’t she the lady who worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service?”
Investigating the Environment
Much of the SEJ, a group now consisting of more than 1,000 journalists who cover environmental issues, has a problem with investigative journalism—or anything else that could be labeled “advocacy.” Later in the day, Noel Grove, the incoming editor of the group’s quarterly publication, SEJ Journal, asked the assemblage whether they thought it would be a good idea for the publication to go from being printed on 30 percent to 100 percent recycled paper.
“That would be advocacy!” came a chorus in reply.
The scene was a gathering of officers, the board of directors and some two dozen rank-and-file SEJ members from around the U.S., brought together this past summer at the University of Colorado in Boulder–where SEJ was formed five years before–to consider the group’s future direction.
I had come to see if I could contribute to the debate over what is broadly labeled “advocacy” in the SEJ–a line of tension in the organization since its start. The meeting began with participants introducing themselves and explaining why they had come. At my turn, I noted that I’ve been doing environmental journalism for 25 years–for a daily newspaper (like most of the officers and board members), on television (including numerous video documentaries), with scores of magazine articles and through three books. “What I’ve tried to stress, as do some other journalists who focus on the environment,” I said, “is to combine environmental journalism with the techniques of investigative reporting.” I also noted that I teach environmental journalism and investigative reporting at the State University of New York and thus had an opportunity to think about the combination.
Investigative reporting, which reached its crescendo in the muckracking era (1900-1914) is aimed at exposing corruption and abuse by individuals and institutions. A good definition, I suggested, is that of the late Paul Williams in his book Investigative Reporting and Editing: telling “how things really work”–not what some corporate executive or government official claims, but finding out, as close as you can, how things truly work. The aim is, by exposing facts, to right wrongs. It’s a form of journalism that’s long been an instrument of social change.
And that was exactly what Rachel Carson was doing when she wrote Silent Spring in 1962—seeking to expose and thus end the use of pesticides.
Beyond “Both Sides”
So I suggested that SEJ, in considering its future, eliminate from its “Strategic Plan” the line stating that SEJ functions “in a journalistic, non-advocacy framework.” Make it, I recommended, just a “journalistic, professional framework.” And eliminate the subsequent line that “SEJ cannot afford to be viewed as a tool for environmental advocacy.”
Those lines, I said, buy into exactly the strategy that the chemical industry used to try to discredit Rachel Carson: claiming she was an “advocate” and seeking to smear her factual, hard-hitting reporting. The SEJ, I said, should accept investigative reporting like other forms of environmental journalism, such as the nature narrative.
The reality in the U.S., unfortunately, is that most reporters, aren’t given an
opportunity to do investigative reporting—that the owners of media institutions aren’t comfortable with journalism as a means of change. Most journalists reporting on the environment do it through conventional coverage: reflecting “both sides,” “balancing” them. But even here, I suggested, journalists must and can do more. Especially in a day of media being manipulated by well-funded PR operations that tell people “toxic sludge is good for you”—the title of John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s book—journalists covering environmental issues need to go deeper.
I had a hand-out at the ready, copies of a chapter of a book titled Greening the College Curriculum that I co-authored with Antioch College journalism professor Ann Filemyr. In the chapter on teaching environmental journalism, we hold that the most effective form of environmental journalism is one that relies on the principles of investigative reporting, building on the foundation laid by Carson in Silent Spring” And we go on to note that “environmental reporters should be prepared to ask probing questions, to challenge fundamental assumptions, and to make clear connections. Those who have chosen to work at this kind of reporting have an unusual responsibility as messengers who raise issues which directly affect the health and survival of humankind and the biosphere.”
Our chapter argues that “it is not acceptable simply to poke a microphone in front of the face of the spokesperson for Exxon and be told that the mess in the Prince Edward Sound is not that bad, and then write an article which simply juxtaposes the ecological destruction with the corporation’s denial.” We call our approach to environmental reporting “Deep Journalism.”
Well, that was my rap, and I can’t say it made a big impression. A couple of people, just a couple, said they agreed that investigative reporting can be a valid form of environmental journalism. But most didn’t seem overly interested.
No Templars Need Apply
From its outset, the SEJ has been concerned about what it regards as “advocacy”—no matter for whom or for what. Jim Detjen, then the environmental reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was quoted in the lead story in the second SEJ Journal (“The Advocacy Debate,” Winter/90-91): “While I agree that the media’s coverage of environmental issues is often sorely lacking, I don’t think advocacy journalism is the answer…. If major newspapers, magazines and broadcast stations adopt an advocacy philosophy, the media will be treading on dangerous ground that could alienate readers and viewers and cause them to stop trusting the media.”
His statement was followed by that of Amal Kumar Naj, technology and environmental issues reporter for the Wall Street Journal: “Another problem with advocacy journalism is that it assumes the media’s ability to judge scientific evidence. We as journalists simply aren’t in a position to know with certainty whether the scientific evidence which forms the basis for many environmental concerns is valid. The scientists themselves don’t know.”
William J. Coughlin, editor of the Washington [N.C.] Daily News chimed in: “Leave the crusading to the Knights Templar. You’d be better off if you keep in mind that your job is reporting, not crusading.”
The statements were excerpted from the Gannett Center Journal issue on “Covering the Environment” (Summer/90) and also included opposing views. Gerry Stover of the Environmental Consortium for Minority Outreach recommended that “the mainstream media should take a lesson from their more progressive brethren.”
“Ten years may come and go, and we may not be the victims of massive environmental disaster,” Teya Ryan of CNN‘s Network Earth noted. “But what if we are? What if ‘disaster’ comes in a form that makes it hard to recognize: more cancers, fewer new medicines, escalating infant-mortality rates? Will we want to study the problem some more? How long can we remain dispassionate? I suggest taking out a journalistic insurance policy—information with a message, a message with a solution.”
To counter “advocacy” in SEJ, the organization’s bylaws have from the beginning insisted that active members work for “regularly published, general circulation newspapers, magazines and newsletters, as well as radio and television stations and networks.” Environmental journalists who work for publications of what would be considered “advocacy” groups are relegated to SEJ associate member status and can’t vote.
This has caused a running conflict in SEJ. As investigative environmental journalist David Helvarg, who wrote The War Against the Greens, related, only partly tongue-in-cheek, in his SEJ Journal article (Winter/95) about the group’s 1995 national conference in Boston: “The annual SEJ business meeting involved some debate over whether freelance writers who also worked for advocacy groups should hold full memberships. One side argued that people working for advocacy groups lack the professional objectivity of, for example, broadcast journalists working for GE, Westinghouse, Disney or Rupert Murdoch. (That model of non-‘advocacy’ journalism, John Stossel of ABC, was a featured speaker at the conference.)” Stossel once told an interviewer (Oregonian, 10/26/94): “It is my job to explain the beauties of the free market.”
At the SEJ board meeting I attended, there was also a decision to have the organization vote at its 1996 annual conference, in St. Louis, on a new bylaw barring members from engaging “in lobbying related to environmental issues.”
The vote was put off, however, after a storm of member opposition. One SEJ member on the group’s Internet list- server urged a look at “all the muckrakers” and environmental writers “like John Muir. Even those newspaper reporters who expose a situation and brag about forcing the government to take action…. We could probably start, if the amendment should pass, by having a good old-time witch hunt, crosschecking the SEJ list with the Investigative Reporters and Editors list to get out all the investigative types.”
“This proposed new wording would have excluded Rachel Carson from SEJ because she lobbied as an amateur,” another SEJ member protested. “Are we afraid of journalists with a point of view?”
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury whose books include Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power. He writes regularly for Extra!.