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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March/April 2010

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Bytes of Note - The Changing News Environment

People who care about the environment should care about the news. The quality, quantity, and topics of information, analysis, and opinion from news providers influence what people do to the environment, who gets elected, and what laws get passed. Whether by choice or circumstance, people get their news from different media and on different platforms: print, TV, radio, the Web, mobile devices, and mixtures of all of these, each source having its own strengths and weaknesses. Who profits then determines in part how the market reproduces itself, that is, which news sources thrive and which ones cease to exist, which in turn influences the quality, quantity, and topics of information available to people.

Trouble in Print

We are at an important time regarding this topic. Major newspapers, long viewed as the most authoritative news source, are in trouble, losing print circulation and advertising revenue as they struggle to come to terms with how to make money from the Web.1 In the meantime, they reduce staff in order to cut costs.2 At the same time, the shift from network to cable TV programming is well established, increasing pressure to sensationalize news and sell it from a niche perspective, not necessarily a neutral or authoritative one. On the plus side, cable is providing channels that give coverage of certain issues in detail, and free sources of news, both conventional and decentralized, are abounding on the Internet.

Print newspapers have seen closure of international bureaus,3 decreasing coverage of local government,4 and perhaps most relevant for environmental coverage, decline of the science and environment beat. In 2002, Harvard's Nieman Center published a 33-item collection of articles on the challenges and successes of environment reporting, oddly placing it beneath a Web site banner introducing the issue's other feature, immigration reporting.5 More recently, in February 2008, Curtis Brainard reported in the Columbia Journalism Review on the pessimism of science reporters for the future of the beat in traditional publications,6 commenting on a Wilson Center conference called “The Future of Science and Environmental Journalism.”7

In what Charles Petit in one of the articles cited below termed a “layoff parade,” newspapers have been getting rid of science and environment reporters, issuing pink slips and securing buyouts from, among others, Wade Rawlins of the Raleigh News & Observer,8 Kevin Mayhood of the Columbus Dispatch,9 and John Johnson Jr. of the Los Angeles Times.10 Andrew C. Revkin of the New York Times signed off on December 21, 2009 .11

Of course, science news is only part of the story, as sustainability news should be much broader, encompassing economics, social analysis, religion, international policy, real estate, metropolitan news, national policy, and so on.12 Environmental coverage is likely to suffer when any desk of the newspaper suffers cuts.

Some newspapers have been taking other cost-cutting strategies for getting rid of reporters. The Boston Globe has cut its standalone science section.13 At least one national newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor, has gone online-only.14 Another shift may be a transition to subscription-based online newspapers. Those without the means to pay for such subscriptions should be aware that local public libraries often provide access for library card holders to subscription newspapers, content aggregators, and newspaper archives. For example, see the Boston Public Library,15 the District of Columbia Public Library,16 and the Las Vegas Public Library.17

It will be interesting to see what becomes of “print” journalism. Web sites of science journalism organizations such as the National Association of Science Writers, the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and the Society of Environmental Journalists will be good places to follow the story.18 The World Federation of Science Journalists is the global association of science journalism associations and provides links to the broader global picture.19 The Knight Science Journalism Tracker20 links to some other associations and presents science journalists' comments on others' work. Those hearty souls who are interested in pursuing a career in environmental journalism, whatever that means in the future, can explore options for education using the Nieman Foundation Web site.21

New Ways to Read

Those who are consumers rather than producers of print journalism will be adapting to new technologies as well. RSS22 feeds allow news outlets (newspapers, blogs, audio, and video) to push particular free content to readers' computers and mobile phones, so that time searching the Web is reduced. Readers access this system using a free account with an RSS reader Web application, such as the Google Reader.23 Individuals log on to the Web application and search for news streams of interest, whether from an entire newspaper or TV news channel or perhaps only the environmental section. These news streams then can be selected to appear on a continuing basis on the reader's screen.

Or, on the other hand, readers can look on a news outlet's Web site to find a link to send its news stream to an RSS reader. This is usually done by clicking on the standard orange RSS icon.24 Links to content from several news outlets are then displayed side by side in sections on the Web page of the person's account. CommonCraft's video “RSS in Plain English” explains this process simply and clearly.25

For example, if you want to add the IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development),26 the best specialized news source on international environmental negotiations, to your Google Reader feed, log in to your Reader account, click on “add a subscription,” and type in the keywords <linkages iisd>, then click “subscribe.” The IISD should now show up on your account's home page on Google Reader. Alternatively, if you are looking at a specific article in the Christian Science Monitor,27 click on the RSS icon in the same column as the story, and you will be shown a link to click on to subscribe to the Monitor's environment feed. Click on the RSS icon on the banner of the page, and you will be presented with a list of the paper's 16 topical news feeds (including environment), 11 blogs, and two audio podcasts.

Many people now access news on mobile phones and other such devices, and newspapers and other news outlets have begun to format a separate table of contents for these devices' small screens. Many of these mobile sites can be viewed on desktop or laptop computer screens as well as mobile phones, including those for the Los Angeles Times,28 Chicago Tribune,29 and USA Today.30 Some people will find this appealing because it simplifies the look of the page and cuts down on advertising, both in the table of contents and in the stories themselves. Google also maintains a service that allows users to convert a Web site into a simpler, mobile-friendly arrangement,31 with varying degrees of success.

Electronic book readers, such as the Kindle, also present a new way to read. Farhad Manjoo's review in Slate of the Kindle as a news reader32 is positive, but points out that Kindle readers receive no graphic cues as to the relative importance of stories, as you do when reading print, such as pagination, the place on the page, and headline size.

Broadcast News

Television news was once known for objectivity, presenting the various substantive sides to an issue, and news programs were often supplemented by an articulate and clearly distinct opinion segment similar to the op-ed pages of a newspaper. For example, Walter Cronkite was highly trusted as a thorough and objective voice. He is said to have swayed public opinion on the Vietnam War with a 1968 editorial that he clearly prefaced with the statement that was an “analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective.”33

Integrity in TV journalism was upheld in part through the fairness doctrine. The fairness doctrine was a policy of the Federal Communications Commission that, because of limited bandwidth on the broadcast airwaves, TV journalists were required to give time on the air to sensible competing viewpoints on serious issues.34 With the widespread adoption of cable TV, and the ability for many competing channels, the FCC in 1987 decided to do away with the fairness doctrine, allowing TV news to take on more partisan viewpoints and to blur the line between news and opinion, at the same time as it became more sensational on both the broadcast and cable networks because of greater competition for ratings.

While there has been an increase in sensationalism, there have been some positive developments as well. A 24-hour news cycle ushered in by CNN35 has meant the availability of information in times of crisis, and the specialization of cable channels has meant that deeper attention to environmental issues is more readily available on TV these days, on channels such as Animal Planet,36 the National Geographic channel,37 the Weather Channel,38 Al Gore's Current TV,39 and the stalwart PBS.40

On radio, Living on Earth,41 from Public Radio International, is the jewel of environmental news and comment. According to the Web site, the program can be heard by 80 percent of the United States, though it's not clear whether this is population, radio markets, or some other measure. Transcripts are available for shows from 1992 to the present, and audio downloads are available for shows from 2001 to the present. NPR42 produces a strong set of environmental radio stories as well.

Blogs, “New Media,” and Blended Media

In devoting attention to the state of newspapers and broadcast news, this column necessarily devotes too little attention to environmental blogs and other “new media.” Blogs—serial Web reports produced by anyone, including journalists, public relations experts, environmental experts, and interested citizens—are an emerging force in news and opinion. Jason Falls presented a snapshot of the most popular environment, sustainability, and green blogs in late 200943 using the PostRank algorithm that “gathers where and when stories generate comments, bookmarks, tweets, and other forms of interaction from a host of social hubs.” Twitter, one of the social media applications that Postrank uses to rate blogs, was featured in an earlier column in this magazine.44,45

To some extent, the distinctions among print, TV, and radio news, and between formal and informal news, are breaking down on the Web. Newspapers now produce Web pages, podcasts,46 and video.47 Broadcast radio outlets such as the BBC have a significant text presence on the Web,48 as do TV networks.49 Blogs may present thoughtful comment, but some lack much in the way of identifying data about the writer's point of view, which prevents readers from assessing objectivity and reliability. News writers troll Twitter for eyewitnesses, and more people turn to Twitter during crises, expecting information faster from their peers than from news outlets.50 Pictures and video shot by citizens are scooped up by news organizations.51 Citizens in turn post video from news programs and generate news parodies.52 Bloggers are being given credentials to the White House press room.53 All these changes mean that it is an exciting and interesting time for news.

Beyond the News

Certainly there are other sources of information and opinion beyond the news that shape people's understanding of the environment. Strong courses on science and environment in primary school, secondary school, and college surely have a large positive impact. The EPA's Web site links to many teaching resources in its environmental education section.54

Religion also shapes the viewpoints of many people. One resource worth mentioning is the Bill Moyers program “Is God Green?,” which focuses on evangelical Christians who recognize the science of global warming and who encourage action to reduce greenhouse gases and their impact.55 A second is the Uppsala Interfaith Climate Manifesto56 written by international leaders from different faiths, which calls for “effective leadership and action in view of the global threat to the climate.” Finally, despite the proliferation of multiple, independent voices with the rise of blogging and other uses of the Web, much of the dialog on environmental issues remains polarized, with the conflict egged on by such voices as Rush Limbaugh's pronouncements on current events from beyond the raggedy fringes of civilized discourse.57 Fortunately, there are thoughtful conservative news commentators, such as Michael Gerson, who acknowledge the science of global warming,58 and liberals and conservatives alike should take note of and look for opportunities for dialog on that basis.


2. The blog Paper Cuts describes and maps newspaper layoffs and buyouts by year:


4. See “Remembering Newspapers” by G. Terry Madonna:


















22. RSS stands for “really simple syndication,” but the whole phrase is rarely used.





27. For example,

















44. George E. Clark, 2009, “Environmental Twitter,” Environment, September/October, pp. 5–6,

45. See also this listing of environmental journalists on Twitter:












57. See, for example,


GEORGE E. CLARK is the environmental research librarian at the Harvard College Library.

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