Fledgling to Full Grown: SEJ’s Impact on Environmental Journalism

September 1, 2015


“The late 1980s were marked by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the growing hole in the ozone layer and other environmental catastrophes.” Jim Detjen

With SEJ currently celebrating its 25th anniversary year, we asked some of the society’s founders — among them luminaries in the environmental journalism profession — to share their thoughts on what the organization has meant to the field, where SEJ is going next and what they see as the big environmental stories of our time. Here are their insights.

What were you doing in 1990 and what led you to help start SEJ?

Phil Shabecoff: Covering the environment for the New York Times. Like other founders I recognized the environment was insufficiently recognized as a major subject by most media. Also it was clear that there needed to be standards for reporting on the environment.

Jim Detjen: I was a science and environmental reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The late 1980s were marked by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the growing hole in the ozone layer and other environmental catastrophes. We felt that a national organization of environmental journalists was needed to help us communicate about these issues better and to provide support and training for environmental journalists.

Bud Ward: I directed a division of a large nonprofit National Safety Council. I headed Environmental Health Center and published Environment Writer for environmental journalists. I saw a need to better help environmental journalists around the country “network,” and learn from peers. Tom Harris of the Sacramento Bee had brought to my attention the value of EW in doing this, and the formation of SEJ greatly improved prospects for doing so.


Robert Engelman: I was a science, health and environment reporter for Scripps Howard News Service (SHNS) in Washington. An op-ed I wrote for the Wall Street Journal, I’ve always surmised, brought me to the attention of David Stolberg, a Scripps Howard executive, who was at that point already discussing with Jim Detjen and others about founding SEJ. We knew each other slightly already as he occasionally visited the DC bureau from his base in Cincinnati. David asked me if I would be willing to join the small group and make the DC SHNS bureau a temporary office while SEJ organized itself and applied for 501(c)(3) status. I, of course, was happy to be asked. After meeting with Jim and others in some early organizational gatherings in DC I took on the role of secretary to manage the “office” (my desk) and much of the phonework and paperwork required to get the organization going.

Bowman Cox: I was launching a second environmental publication for a trade newsletter publisher in Washington. After working briefly in local news and association communications in Oklahoma, I had discovered a career path in the trade press where I could write about issues of national importance. I loved my work and I wanted my peers to know there was another option besides local news or PR. I got involved with SEJ to help build connections and facilitate information sharing between the environmental trade press and the general news media.

Julie Halpert: I was working as an environmental journalist at Inside EPA, a trade journal in Washington, D.C., my first journalism job out of college. I was approached to start SEJ when I was relatively new to the environment beat. At the time, there was little emphasis on the importance of environmental news. We were still reeling from President Reagan’s moves to ratchet down EPA regulations. There was just a beginning of recognition of the importance of public understanding of these issues. I thought the time was ripe for an organization that helped to put these issues in the forefront.

Tom Meersman: Working as a reporter/producer at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. I knew that there were many reporters writing great stories about the environment, but outside of national media, much of the regional work was difficult to access. I wanted to know more about what other environment reporters were doing, who they were and how we could learn from each other.


What was SEJ’s most important contribution over the past 25 years?

Shabecoff: Bringing environment into the mainstream of journalism and providing guidance and standards for a generation of reporters and editors.

Detjen: Creating a network to help support environmental journalists around the world.

Ward: Establishing a sense of community and shared successes and challenges during an especially challenging time for traditional news media outlets.

Engelman: Helping environmental reporters (and reporters occasionally covering environmental stories but interested and wanting to do more) become part of professional journalistic community and gain both pride in their work and needed education for the task.

Cox: Information sharing.

Halpert: Advocating for the importance of making environmental coverage in mainstream publications a priority.

Meersman: Its rich annual conferences, which offer something for everyone, no matter what level of experience they have or what “platforms” of journalism they practice.

What do you think will be SEJ’s role in the next 25 years?

Shabecoff: Helping a new generation of journalists keep the public informed about what is happening to the environment and what is being done and not being done about environmental issues.

Detjen: It will continue to evolve as news technologies change. But its central role of assisting environmental journalists and educating the public about critical environmental issues will continue.

Ward: Continuing to adapt to the quickly changing nature of how the public accesses and consumes news and information on environment and energy, natural resources, etc. Help in the transition to an even more digital news culture. Try to keep apace of changes still in their infancy, but certain to continue and to provide daunting challenges.

Engelman: Similar. I expect the work to expand and the stories to grow in number, complexity and breadth requiring more continuing education and community interaction.

Cox: There will be more information sharing, particularly around sustainable business models for environmental journalism.

Halpert: Trying to adapt to the fast-changing journalism landscape, as publications have migrated online and there are fewer resources for dedicated environmental journalists. With the significant dwindling of the environment beat, there will be significant challenges for SEJ to tackle.

Meersman: More of the same, I hope, evolving to meet the needs of writers, producers and academics as journalism changes.

What do you think has been the biggest environmental story of the past 25 years?

Shabecoff: No question it is climate change.

Detjen: The growing importance of climate change and its impact worldwide.

Ward: No question climate change.

Engelman: Climate change, in all its aspects. But I would argue that the environment itself is the real story the way the influence of human activity has altered global and local environments well beyond changes in the atmosphere and climate.

Cox: How or whether to deal with greenhouse gas emissions from consumption of fossil fuels.

Halpert: The scientific consensus around climate change. Never has science been more certain on an environmental issue.

Meersman: Climate change.

What do you think will be the biggest story in the next 25 years?

Shabecoff: I am afraid it will still be climate change, as well as the continued toxification of the environment.

Detjen: Climate change and its widespread impact. No question continued adaptation to climate change and related water resources impacts.

Engelman: More of the above, more intensely (unless scientists are greatly mistaken about the human-biophysical interface). The environmental story seems likely to increasingly interact with more immediately understandable human stories, such as natural disasters, conflict, migration and institutional efforts to grapple with mitigation and adaptation of all kinds.

Cox: How or whether to deal with greenhouse gas emissions from consumption of fossil fuels.

Halpert: I think climate change will continue to dominate the news, as we see the unfolding impacts. But another big area will be transportation, as we try to make our modes of transport more sustainable. Self-driving cars, which can significantly reduce emissions as driving is made more efficient, are on the horizon and that bears tracking.

Meersman: Climate change.

Bowman Cox lives in Rockville, Md., and works at Informa, a multinational publisher based in the U.K.

Founding SEJ president Jim Detjen, retired, is Knight Professor of Environmental Journalism Emeritus at Michigan State University, in Okemos, Mich.

Robert Engelman is senior fellow at Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C.

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Tom Meersman is a reporter at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minn.

Philip Shabecoff is now an author living in Becket, Mass.

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections, living in White Stone, Va.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer/Fall 2015. 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.

SEJ Publication Types: