BookShelf: “Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism”
Edited by David B. Sachsman and JoAnn Myer Valenti
Routledge, $250 (hardback), $47.65 (ebook); 20% discount available — enter the code FLY21 at checkout
Reviewed by Emilia Askari
a book giving information such as facts on a particular subject or instructions for operating a machine.
"a handbook of poisonous plants"
Source: Google’s English dictionary, provided by Oxford Languages
If we held a hypothetical contest to create an enticing title for this soulful collection of essays by our colleagues around the globe, I doubt that the “Handbook of Environmental Journalism” would win.
But this 442-page volume is a much better read than a more traditional, scholarly handbook, precisely because it is written mainly by journalists.
Published with an academic imprint — Routledge — and edited by two distinguished professors with decades-long connections to the Society of Environmental Journalists (and former SEJournal editorial advisory board members) David Sachsman and JoAnn Valenti, the writing is much more accessible, personal and engaging than one would expect to find in a tome analyzing veins of peer-reviewed research.
And though there are no checklists of explicit instructions on how to operate as an environmental journalist, there are some delightful bits of advice.
(One example is a tip from Florida journalist Craig Pittman: “If your editor invites you to a Christmas party, by all means GO.” It seems Pittman once shared a yuletide conversation at his editor’s home with a new acquaintance who steered Pittman into a multi-year, prize-winning project about wetlands destruction.)
Clearly, one ambition of this book is to capture, for the historic record, how some prominent environmental journalists across the globe think about their work today.
The numerous authors share, with real feeling, their eyewitness, primary-source accounts of how environmental journalism is practiced, and how it is evolving at this moment of great change for both journalism and the environment.
A glimpse into colleagues’ work around the world
The majority of this handbook’s 37 chapters discuss the state of environmental journalism in parts of the world outside the United States, advancing and expanding on a chapter on environmental reporters written by Sachsman and Valenti in Routledge’s 2015 “Handbook of Environment and Communication,” as well as the pair’s 2017 book, “Environment Reporters in the 21st Century,” also published by Routledge.
For me, as a journalist based in the United States, these glimpses into our colleagues’ work in other countries create a welcome counterbalance to the U.S.-centric perspectives that dominate my news feeds.
Until I read the handbook chapter by southern Africa journalist Fiona Macleod, for example, I had not heard the “swashbuckling tales” of the impressive Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism team, connecting journalists in Namibia and China to report on threats to black rhinos.
I had not known enough about the impressive work of Brazilian journalist Gustavo Faleiros, who recalls covering the death of rainforest activist Chico Mendes, and calls for more “pantropic” journalism.
During a global pandemic that began in Wuhan, China, I was delighted to read something from Wuhan that didn’t reference COVID-19: a survey of environmental journalism in China by Ji Li, who has produced several environmental news shows on China National Radio, and now directs the Environmental Science and Communication Institute at Wuhan University’s Centers for the Studies of Media Development.
Documenting courage, commitment, creativity
In a review such as this, it’s impossible to capture the richness of the many handbook chapters from all corners of the world, documenting the courage, commitment and creativity that our colleagues bring to the obstacles threatening environmental journalism as a profession, as well as the subjects of our reporting.
Michigan State University Professor Eric Freedman outlines some of those threats in a chilling chapter on environmental journalists under attack, while book author Carey Gillam elsewhere summarizes attempts to combat misinformation campaigns.
One of Europe’s leading researchers of environmental communication, University of Leicester’s Anders Hansen, discusses the politics and other societal forces that influence environmental journalism, both broadly and inside newsrooms.
In the handbook section on environmental journalism in the United States, SEJ members will recognize many of the authors.
Reading this handbook gave me new and
interesting insights into how some of the
authors’ most famous stories developed.
Although I have called many of them colleagues and friends for decades, reading this handbook gave me new and interesting insights into how some of their most famous stories developed.
What a treat to read freelancer Rae Tyson’s account of breaking the Love Canal story of chemical waste; freelancer Jane Kay’s memory of the anonymous call about a radioactive gas release in Tucson; and freelancer Len Ackland’s strategy for analyzing mountains of information about the Rocky Flats bomb factory.
People who teach environmental journalism may especially appreciate the candid chapter by NOLA.com’s Mark Schleifstein on how journalists try to report fairly, figuring out when and how to set aside their own opinions and grievances.
Schleifstein tells how he stepped back to cover Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, even as his own home was flooded in 15 feet of water that had breached an inadequate levee.
“Yes, I am biased. All journalists are. … I also have to recognize where I have problematic biases that could push my reporting in improper, or inaccurate, directions, and when that happens, I have to deal with it,” he wrote.
A call for collaboration between journalists, educators
I do wish there were more chapters in this handbook with contributions from U.S. journalists working outside of mainstream outlets.
For example, I missed hearing from people reporting for ethnic news outlets, or for journalism nonprofits. Some of these nontraditional news perspectives get more attention in the four handbook sections focused on environmental journalism in other parts of the world.
This handbook is a sort of symbolic
‘portkey’ between academics and
environmental journalists in far-flung places.
Because this handbook is a sort of symbolic “portkey” between academics and environmental journalists in far-flung places, I think one of its most intriguing chapters is an essay on environmental journalism education by Bernardo Motta of Roger Williams University.
Motta promotes more collaboration between practicing environmental journalists and journalism educators. That would, Motta argues, lead to “more access to practical and applied research, more efficiency and efficacy in newsrooms, more useful in-depth reporting, improved financial and management tools, and, above all, better-educated journalists.”
So while “Handbook of Environmental Journalism” may strike journalists as a boring title, it is a solid signal aimed at people who buy important books for academic audiences.
In fact, I’d encourage you to email your favorite academic librarians and recommend that they work this handbook into their budgets (it’s $250 for the printed hardcover and $47 for the ebook version). That will encourage those who teach about anything related to environmental journalism — professors of environmental engineering, climate policy, communication studies, information science, etc. — to find this handbook and assign their students to read a few chapters. That way, all those future world leaders may think about the challenges that professional environmental journalists face, and the value we contribute to society.
Meanwhile, any environmental journalist who can budget for this book — whether current, former or future — will surely find inspiration and entertainment there.
Emilia Askari teaches environmental and public health journalism at the University of Michigan. A former reporter for the Detroit Free Press, she served as SEJ’s second president and is currently a member of the SEJournal editorial advisory board, plus SEJ’s awards and diversity committees. While hoping to find a good pawpaw patch this summer, Askari is completing a Ph.D. in educational technology from Michigan State University, studying how schools can teach high school students to use social media in civic ways.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 20. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.