Media Critic: Who Will Do Regional or Local Investigations in Science?

July 15, 2009
Self-image courtesy Curtis Brainard.

Whether it's the latest climate change research or a fresh take on the impact of the newspaper world's implosion on science and environment coverage, Columbia Journalism Review's Observatory is a key online resource.

Its mission: Critique science and its coverage. Curtis Brainard, The Observatory's editor, took time recently to answer a few questions from the SEJournal about his blog — everything from how it operates to his views on key upcoming issues.

Be sure to check out The Observatory.

What follows is an edited version of our e-mail conversation.

Can you tell us a little about your background, especially about how it relates to covering science and environment?

I completed a dual master's-degree program in earth & environmental science journalism at Columbia. It was an incredible program, requiring students to complete a research project that provided hands-on experience with laboratory and fieldwork. Mine involved collecting pristine fossil corals and using radiocarbon dating to glean insights about fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field and the influx of cosmic radiation. Completing that thesis gave me a better understanding of the scientific method, which has helped me recognize articles that are insightful, accurate, credulous, exaggerated, etc. It has also encouraged me to look for coverage that explains the work that scientists do in addition to the results they produce. On the journalism side of things, I don't actually have any professional newsroom experience. That often gets an eyebrow raise out of other journalists, but in some ways I feel it's an advantage, or at least that's how I rationalize it ... I also like to drop the line (all in good humor) that Bob Costas was never a great ball player, but he knows the mechanics of the game as well as any athlete on the court. I don't actually know anything about sports.

How did you come to CJR or the Observatory?

I was simply in the right place and the right time. When I graduated with a degree in environmental journalism in 2006, climate change was exploding onto the media scene. With global warming well on its way to becoming one of the biggest stories around, CJR's editor, Mike Hoyt, was looking for someone to parse all that coverage. I'd actually begun contributing to the Web site as a student and continued to work there on a temporary basis for about nine months after graduation.

But my work drew a wonderful reaction from the journalism community, which seemed to be looking for some kind of arbiter. With all of the controversy surrounding climate science and skepticism, shortcomings in the coverage quickly became part of the story itself — not unlike what happened at the beginning of the Iraq War. So, Hoyt and Brent Cunningham, our managing editor, decided to make the gig permanent. In January 2008, we launched The Observatory, CJR's first full-time desk dedicated to critiquing science, environment, and medical news (and a lot of the politics and business thereof).

Can you detail how the blog works, in terms of production?

It's basically an intern (who rotates every three months) and me at the moment. Both of us try to average about two columns a week, one of which is often a roundup of one of the week's big stories and one of which is something more enterprising. In 2008, I had a decent freelance budget and was able to publish one or two outside contributions per week, which was very nice as we've attracted some top-notch, veteran, mid-career, and beginning science writers. Usually, they pitched ideas, but I have occasionally assigned pieces as well. Unfortunately, like so many of the publications that I cover, CJR's discretionary budget has all but vanished. Hopefully, that's temporary and I've had a few saving graces in the meantime. First and foremost is my colleague Cristine Russell, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (among so many other credentials), whom we recently made a CJR contributing editor. She and a number of other very dedicated journalists have made Feature contributions with little or no compensation. Though I don't purport to speak for them, I think they believe strongly in CJR's effort to advocate for a free and strong press.

What do you focus on?

I focus mostly on climate change and energy because that's my area of expertise and that is the biggest story on my beat right now. With the Obama administration and so many industries finally getting behind global-warming mitigation efforts, however, I've spent more time writing about the politics and business of climate, and less about the science. In fact, keeping up with the flow of news has become increasingly challenging. When I started this job just three years ago, it was fairly easy to keep track of climate and energy stories. These days it's like sipping from a fire hose, but that's good. A lot of people rightly argue that press still doesn't hammer climate and energy issues as well as it could. On the other hand, they are clearly not the obscure beats they once were just five years ago.

How is your blog faring? Is it finding more interest in this changing media world?

The Observatory continues to draw very positive reactions from readers. Since the launch two years ago, our readership has grown from 5,000 or so unique visitors per month to just under 15,000. During our most successful months, that's jumped as high as 25,000. So, yes, there seems to be a lot of interest in media criticism, which is probably attributable to the tumultuous state of the industry. But we're also dealing with the same tightening of financial resources as everybody else. Like many new outlets, we rely on a high degree of support from non-profit foundations, and obtaining grants has become much more competitive.

Has the media's coverage of climate change improved? Or how would you characterize how it's done?

Absolutely. Though there are still voices at major publications that deny the reality of human-caused climate change, most news coverage has moved past the question about whether or not global warming is real, and on to questions about what to do about it. For instance, the whole "balance as bias" dilemma, whereby reporters would quote a skeptic in articles about the basic science simply for propriety's sake, has largely faded from the news.

On the other hand, opinion polls show that most of the public is still not engaged on the climate and energy issue and that a record number think that the media exaggerates the risks of global warming. So many outlets, especially in television news, still aren't hammering this issue hard enough.

And there's plenty of room for improvement quality-wise, too. Now that reporters have largely accepted the basics of man-made climate change, the story has actually grown more difficult, dealing now with the much more complicated and uncertain science related to the timing, severity, and location of specific impacts. Then there is the matter of following the politicians' and businesses' attempts to deal with the problem. Trying to gauge the climatic and economic consequences (good or bad) of various proposals and attempts to mitigate warming is very difficult.

Much recent coverage has focused on the layoffs and financial difficulties in the print world. What do you see as emerging and important there?

Yes, this has become the other area — in addition to climate and energy — that I focus on most heavily. It used to be that I rarely wrote about breaking, industry news, but now there is something to be covered almost every week. Obviously, it's a very discouraging time to be working in journalism with so many layoffs, buyouts, and closings. There are fewer staff jobs for specialized environmental reporters and fewer resources available to those who do have jobs. Tragically, this is happening at a time when environmental issues are finally getting more attention from the political and business realms.

On the flipside, there are a lot of new online environmental news start-ups — both magazines and blogs —that are filling the vacuum. But they're not filling all of it. These outlets provide only a limited number of jobs. They offer mostly opinion and some advocacy writing, rather than objective news writing and investigations. And, in terms of readership, many people have argued that they tend to reach mostly those who are already interested in environmental issues, rather than bringing these subjects to a wider demographic. I guess I try to balance my coverage between "hope and despair" as I once put it in a headline. But I hope I come off as emphasizing the former. My job is to encourage the idea that we can improve journalism.

Are there some crucial things you'll be watching in the near future on that front?

Well, the fate of newspapers will be the fate of science and environmental journalism at newspapers. They're hemorrhaging jobs like mad, as so many of this journal's readers are painfully aware, and I certainly have no idea what will staunch the bleeding. However, I can say that it's been phenomenally impressive to watch how well print reporters have transitioned to the Web over the last few years. I really have no idea how practical it is —because there's still no reliable business model for any kind of (web) journalism — but I would love to see them band together regionally, as they've talked about doing in the Northwest, to establish new, online outlets. Those might then work out new content sharing as distribution platforms. That might lead to interesting mergers and partnerships, such as some of those we've seen in the last year.

For example, The New York Times and The Washington Post now run content from E&E Publishing and Grist, respectively. Online, one of the things to watch is the rise of scientist-run blogs, especially those that have been picked up by major outlets. That's happened at Discover magazine, for instance, which has also pulled a couple blogs away from Seed's community. I'm also keenly interested in different types of ventures, such as Climate Central, which contributes climate coverage to the News Hour and has an office that is half scientists and half journalists. We're really going to have to expand the boundaries of the traditional newsroom, but there's great potential in experimenting with a variety of these models.

The SEJournal is working on a piece about major awards won by enviro reporters this year. There's an impressive list. How does that jive with what's happening in the mainstream press? Are more/fewer quality pieces being produced?

Obviously, there are still tons of talented environmental journalists out there. But if you look at the membership roles of groups like SEJ and the National Association of ScienceWriters, more and more people are becoming freelancers.

With fewer and smaller news outlets there is less space for their work overall and it's also harder for them — and staff reporters as well — to find support in the form of travel and expense budgets, research assistance, and just time to report. For all of that, however, environmental issues are a very hot topic right now; I don't give a damn what the Gallup polls say (which is the opposite). It started with climate, I think, and has grown into larger concern for natural resources, the global economy, national security, and health. So whether its fisheries, energy, the Arctic, or environmental toxicology, journalists are making sacrifices or doing whatever it takes to get the job done. And plenty of newsrooms, even in their dilapidated state, know good work when they see it.

What is being lost in these hard financial times?

My biggest is probably for investigative reporting ... new online outlets are helping to mitigate some of the industry's decline, (but) they tend to provide more commentary than incisive news. And I'm especially worried about locally focused investigation. Blogs may be opinion-oriented but they are also predominantly focused on national news and the Beltway. So although it's a shame that many regional papers no longer cover the EPA because they closed their D.C. bureaus, plenty of people are bird-dogging Lisa Jackson and following the latest climate change studies published in Science and Nature.

But who is watching all the municipal waste departments out there, looking over the environmental impact statements of local energy projects, or paying attention to water quality? Who will be keeping track of all environment-and energy-related stimulus money as it filters down to the lowest levels of government and out to businesses and contractors? Regional news outlets are the only ones who can reliably monitor such things. That's exactly where we've lost so many of our very best journalists.

Are there any hopeful developments that you'd point to?

Only that there are a lot of very smart people thinking about new ways to keep the public abreast of important and interesting issues related to science and the environment. J-Lab is a good example. Also, the Knight Foundation is pouring some $100 million into over 100 new media projects over the next few years.

And, honestly, the dedication of groups like SEJ gives me hope. I'll be sitting on a media-focused panel at the annual meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association this fall. SEJ's executive director and my co-panelist, Beth Parke, helped get that on their agenda — that's a real testament to the value of the organization.

Michael Mansur, a former SEJ board member and longtime environment writer, is SEJournal editor.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer 2009 issue.

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