Long View Finds a Wealth of Great Journalism, Innovation

September 26, 2018

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Coast Guard members evacuate survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Innovative journalistic endeavors, such as the site Hurricane Harvey Live Megathread hosted by Reddit, provided a valuable communications tool during the August 2017 storm and its immediate aftermath.  Photo: Travis Magee/U.S. Coast Guard. Click to enlarge.

EJ Academy: Long View Finds a Wealth of Great Journalism, Innovation

By Bob Wyss

It is easy these days to gaze across many traditional newsrooms and get discouraged about the state of journalism. If one is lucky enough to even have a job, that is.

But I’ve just finished a 2-year review of the state of environmental journalism, while producing a second edition of my textbook, “Covering the Environment,” published by Routledge. What I found since the book was published in 2006 truly surprised and impressed me.

Some of what I see may not be all that startling, considering that we are all aware of how technology has so radically changed journalism. Still, I was taken aback by how many innovations and digital opportunities have developed and helped produce great quality journalism about the environment. Unexpected opportunities abound.

I also found that we are increasingly smarter in understanding the science of climate change and in talking to scientists. Plus, both in the United States and around the world, we are becoming increasingly adept at reporting the global ramifications of how the environment is evolving.

The second edition of “Covering the Environment” by EJ Academy editor Bob Wyss was published in July 2018.

Big picture trends reflect journalism excellence

Here are seven major findings in how journalism has evolved in the past decade:

  1. Great journalism on the environment continues.  It is impossible to cite all of the excellent work; the Society of Environmental Journalists annual awards are a better comprehensive resource. But one striking development is the range of journalists producing this work. Consider the reporting of Curt Guyette of the American Civil Liberties Union and his groundbreaking work about the Flint water crisis. Or the investigations by InsideClimate News, which already had won one Pulitzer Prize, and that was before it won a second for its 2015 investigation of how ExxonMobil conducted a public campaign minimizing climate change when even its own scientists had told them it was real.
  2. Collaborations are increasingly effective and important. Nonprofits such as InsideClimate News have been especially effective in working with more traditional news organizations. One example was when it worked with the Center for Public Integrity and the Weather Channel to report on how massive fracking operations were impacting the Eagle Ford Shale area of East Texas. Globally, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based in Washington, has worked with local reporters throughout the world not just on big political stories like the Panama Papers but important environmental stories such as how mining waste is poisoning animals and humans in Peru.
  3. Startups and innovations come in all shapes. Digital platforms offer many opportunities. Consider the work of Julia Kumari Drapkin and iseechange.org, which reviews contributor comments to find trends that develop climate stories [FULL DISCLOSURE: The editor of SEJournal has worked with Drapkin on an ongoing climate change news project]. Vice News, Vox and others were not around 10 years ago and are having a major impact. Social media continues to affect journalism in both positive and negative ways. It can especially be effective in distributing news rapidly, such as in Houston in 2017 during the flooding following Hurricane Harvey. Twitter messages were collected by Reddit and placed on the Hurricane Harvey Live Megathread for more accessible and rapid distribution.
  4. Visual journalism is more important than ever. Let’s face it, digital is a visual platform and the New York Times 2012 multimedia production of Snow Fall, the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek is one landmark example. But there have been numerous other examples, such as Losing Ground by New Orleans-based The Lens and ProPublica, which used mapping and other visual software to illustrate Louisiana’s receding coast. University journalism programs have also served as laboratories for multimedia development, including the University of North Carolina and its production of Coal: A Love Story.
  5. Data is a gold mine for environmental journalists. One excellent example is the Wet Prince of Bel Air, a story produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting, which examined satellite data to identify the biggest cheaters during a lawn-watering moratorium in drought-stricken Los Angeles. “The environmental beat is the Saudi Arabia of data,” said Joseph A. Davis, a Washington-based freelance journalist and an SEJournal editor. Material in the United States collected by federal and state agencies is so vast and rich, he said, that it “could be exploited almost endlessly.”
  6. International journalists continue to pay a price for their increasingly powerful work. I found some extraordinary reporting being done by journalists in developing nations. But if U.S. journalists feel threatened under the Trump administration, those perils pale in comparison to what international journalists face, especially in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Reporters Without Borders examined the period between 2010 and 2015 and found 10 journalists had been murdered. “The lack of protection from the government and unresolved attacks on journalists have a chilling effect,” said Imelda Abano, editor of the Philippine EnviroNews.  Here is my personal suggestion on this issue — SEJ should consider seeing what it can do to help.
  7. Scientists and journalists can work together. When I wrote the first edition of “Covering the Environment,” the report “Worlds Apart” and others were distressed at the misunderstandings cropping up between the two sides. At least some of that was probably an outgrowth of the 1980s and 1990s when journalists at times misunderstood the science of climate. Yet organizations such as COMPASS, based at the University of California at Santa Barbara, have worked tirelessly in recent years to bring scientists and journalists together to forge greater understanding. There are now a multitude of resources for journalists and scientists, and many graduate university programs now train scientists in how to get their findings out to the press and public.


Reporting on climate change remains a challenge. …

Yet, when a project is done right, the conclusions

about what we are currently doing

to the environment become inescapable.


Reporting on climate change remains a challenge in an atmosphere where some politicians sow mistrust and thwart sound public policy. Yet, when a project is done right, the conclusions about what we are currently doing to the environment become inescapable.  

Take one last example, the 2013 Seattle Times series by Steve Ringman and Craig Welch called “Sea Change: Pacific Ocean Takes Perilous Turn.” The series of stories was accompanied by a powerful nine-minute video that took the viewers from the Pacific Northwest to other global troubled spots including Papua New Guinea, graphically demonstrating the ocean’s environmental distress. [Editor’s Note: Read SEJournal’s feature on that project.]

For Ringman, who had been a traditional news photographer for 30 years, it was an eye-opening experience. As he reported afterwards: “Never in my wildest dreams did I think shooting stories with large sensor digital video cameras would be in my future.”

But doing what was once unthinkable is what is now sustaining our future.

Bob Wyss is a retired University of Connecticut professor of journalism, former newspaper reporter and editor, and the author of “Covering the Environment” (second edition).

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 34. 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.

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