Can Universities Be The Future Home of Environmental Journalism?

Consider me somewhat skeptical of the arguments, well-presented by Jayni, that The New York Times’ killing of the Green blog will somehow enhance the paper’s environmental coverage.  It reminds me a little of the attempts of law schools to teach ethics not with a specific class but with the suffusion method: it’s an easy way to avoid doing what you don’t want to do.  And there are grounds for a strong suspicion as to why the Times no longer wants to run the blog or pay the reporters to cover these issues: there isn’t any money in it.  As Jayni observes, the paper is happy to run blogs on the Red Carpet and automobiles.

This isn’t pure cheapness on the Times’ part.  Even the nation’s Paper of Record is staring at its own fiscal cliff.  Consider the following graph, assembled by economics professor Mark Perry:

Newspaper ad declines

Media critic Jay Rosen points out that the advertising peak came when blogging software became available, but I don’t think that that is it.  It’s that the internet so vastly expanded the media universe that the advertising money has so many other places to go.

This collapse in newspaper sustainability should really worry anyone committed to democracy: simply put, newspapers generate information necessary to governance and progress (however you want to define the latter term).  Without them, meaningful public participation is really impossible. 

What to do?  Many have proposed that newspapers — which are generally for-profit entities — should start seeking philanthropic dollars.  That’s tricky, because it is hard for foundations to give grants to for-profits.  In any event, the green shoots (so to speak) of strong non-profit journalism are emerging, with entities such as ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, or the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.  It seems to me, however, that one is looking for the natural locus of unifying philanthropic dollars with serious journalism, there is one place to go: the university.

In many ways, serious journalism and serious scholarship are two sides of the same coin.  They both exist to produce knowledge.  To say this in an academic audience is akin to heresy: if a stuck-up academic wants to insult someone, he or she will call their efforts “journalism.”  And of course there are differences.  Academic scholarship will try to put information in a theoretical framework that can explain and predict events and advance new hypotheses.  Journalism generally doesn’t do that; it is generally more at home in the relentless acquisition of facts (when it is doing its job, of course).

But one can easily over-emphasize these differences, and most academics do, because of the need to justify our position and professional prestige.  Many scholarly articles — particularly from law professors — rely heavily on journalistic accounts of the world.  To the extent that we are assembling our own facts, we really are doing journalism — and there is nothing whatever wrong with that. Think of scholars such as Sudhir Venkatesh, Elijah Anderson, or Theda Skocpol as outstanding instances.  Conversely, the best journalism takes a theoretically informed approach and then tries to identify broader patterns and causal connections that mere fact-gathering will not reveal.  Nicholas Lemann, Elizabeth Kolbert, and James Fallows come to mind as outstanding examples.

Journalism embedded within a university not only dovetails nicely with the scholarly mission but also has some promise for creating better journalism and better scholarship.  By working together, academics can generate a set of good questions that need to be answered in order to understand social reality, and journalists can provide the sort of rich factual basis to determine whether these theories have purchase as well as generating new theoretical questions.  Nowhere would this work better in my view than in the environmental field, which often involves complex scientific questions but meta-question about what the science actually means.

Already, some universities are beginning to pioneer the new approach.  There’s the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University, Chuck Lewis’s Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, and the Schuster Institute at Brandeis.  In education journalism, Columbia houses the Hechinger Report, which is a sort of pro publica for schools coverage.

The Times’ decision to de-emphasize environmental coverage is just the sort of prod to bring this new thinking to environmental centers in universities.  The old expression about the weather is that everyone complains about it but no one does anything about it.  The same must be said for reporting on the environment.  And that is even more true because so much environmental reporting is now about the weather.  The time is now to get out of the box and embrace the new challenges posed by the radical restructuring of American journalism.

, , , , , , ,

Reader Comments

42 Replies to “Can Universities Be The Future Home of Environmental Journalism?”

  1. Very well put! I think this is a good direction to go in. After 27 years as a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in D.C., I am now finishing up my Masters in Writing at Johns Hopkins. There is a great possibility for cross-over between Hopkins’ environmental program and their writing program. They already have a science and medical writing concentration. Great idea! In fact, maybe that will be my future employment!
    Congrats on the Freshly Pressed.

  2. Very well put! I think this is a good direction to go in. After 27 years as a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in D.C., I am now finishing up my Masters in Writing at Johns Hopkins. There is a great possibility for cross-over between Hopkins’ environmental program and their writing program. They already have a science and medical writing concentration. Great idea! In fact, maybe that will be my future employment!
    Congrats on the Freshly Pressed.

  3. It’s certainly a unique position. Advertising dollars come from corporations, but many of the environmental problems we see today are caused by corporations. Can car companies advertise somewhere that also focuses public attention on ocean acidification? Can fertilizer companies advertise somewhere that brings public attention to rising drug and pesticide levels in fresh water sources?

    I think embedding journalism in universities has great potential. Academic journals are normally dry and only read by other academics, and journalism is normally flashy but many times not taken seriously. Combining the two will benefit academics a lot, not sure about journalists.

  4. It’s certainly a unique position. Advertising dollars come from corporations, but many of the environmental problems we see today are caused by corporations. Can car companies advertise somewhere that also focuses public attention on ocean acidification? Can fertilizer companies advertise somewhere that brings public attention to rising drug and pesticide levels in fresh water sources?

    I think embedding journalism in universities has great potential. Academic journals are normally dry and only read by other academics, and journalism is normally flashy but many times not taken seriously. Combining the two will benefit academics a lot, not sure about journalists.

  5. It’s a great idea to partner between journalism centre and the science researchers /faculties of sciences/engineering. Not just law.

  6. It’s a great idea to partner between journalism centre and the science researchers /faculties of sciences/engineering. Not just law.

  7. The big problem with the university approach is that you will be classifying journalists as belonging only to the educated class, and therefore we will only get one similar viewpoint, not to mention the cost increase associated with the endeavor will make universities beholden to special interests. they already indoctrinate students with politically correct environments that are detrimental to an academic environment. In order to justify the program, it would have to engage in reporting to justify its cost, just like the “Save the Bay” program did in Maryland. they falsified data in order to secure funding. the higher education program in our country is seriously broken already, I would never place any trust in academic journalism. The idea that jouralism should be objective was the dream of Pulitzer, but we can already see the impact of biased media in the modern world, this idea would result in just more of the same.

  8. The big problem with the university approach is that you will be classifying journalists as belonging only to the educated class, and therefore we will only get one similar viewpoint, not to mention the cost increase associated with the endeavor will make universities beholden to special interests. they already indoctrinate students with politically correct environments that are detrimental to an academic environment. In order to justify the program, it would have to engage in reporting to justify its cost, just like the “Save the Bay” program did in Maryland. they falsified data in order to secure funding. the higher education program in our country is seriously broken already, I would never place any trust in academic journalism. The idea that jouralism should be objective was the dream of Pulitzer, but we can already see the impact of biased media in the modern world, this idea would result in just more of the same.

  9. I believe it is very important for journalists to be well informed about the topic they are writing about, especially when it comes to the complexity of turning scientific information into something the everyday person can understand. I got my degree in two separate majors: Environmental Studies and Journalism. It would have been nice if there was more of a crossover.

    http://lakeeffectlife.wordpress.com/

  10. I believe it is very important for journalists to be well informed about the topic they are writing about, especially when it comes to the complexity of turning scientific information into something the everyday person can understand. I got my degree in two separate majors: Environmental Studies and Journalism. It would have been nice if there was more of a crossover.

    http://lakeeffectlife.wordpress.com/

  11. I thought the point was to acquire knowledge through scholarship, not to produce knowledge. Unfortunately, newspapers and universities appear to serve the same masters, corporate wealth. A truly free press, or a liberal academe, would be effectively buffered against interference from sponsorship agendas. Do you think that can actually happen in this country?

  12. I thought the point was to acquire knowledge through scholarship, not to produce knowledge. Unfortunately, newspapers and universities appear to serve the same masters, corporate wealth. A truly free press, or a liberal academe, would be effectively buffered against interference from sponsorship agendas. Do you think that can actually happen in this country?

  13. Some interesting aspects there thanks, Jonathan.

    The future of the media and how it will present and support itself in the future is of great interest to me.

    I’m an Australian freelance cartoonist, specializing in Editorial/Political, and I find work opportunities are diminishing as the transition from print to Internet progresses(?).

    Editors are very reluctant to take on cartoonists. They use excuses such as budget, or “readership don’t like cartoons”, or “happy as we are”, etc.

    Only a few decades ago, newspapers and magazines thrived on cartoons and illustration. Reduction of cartoons and illustration were followed in many cases by reduced circulation.

    I can not understand why the editors, in pursuit of greater numbers, don’t include more variety such as cartoons, in an endeavor to attract and keep more readers.

    Maybe they should experiment (6 months) and include several good Editorial/Political cartoons, and then watch it attract more readers and advertising.

    http://cartoonmick.wordpress.com/editorial-political/

    Cheers

    Mick

  14. Some interesting aspects there thanks, Jonathan.

    The future of the media and how it will present and support itself in the future is of great interest to me.

    I’m an Australian freelance cartoonist, specializing in Editorial/Political, and I find work opportunities are diminishing as the transition from print to Internet progresses(?).

    Editors are very reluctant to take on cartoonists. They use excuses such as budget, or “readership don’t like cartoons”, or “happy as we are”, etc.

    Only a few decades ago, newspapers and magazines thrived on cartoons and illustration. Reduction of cartoons and illustration were followed in many cases by reduced circulation.

    I can not understand why the editors, in pursuit of greater numbers, don’t include more variety such as cartoons, in an endeavor to attract and keep more readers.

    Maybe they should experiment (6 months) and include several good Editorial/Political cartoons, and then watch it attract more readers and advertising.

    http://cartoonmick.wordpress.com/editorial-political/

    Cheers

    Mick

  15. I think the key point of this post is this: “There are grounds for a strong suspicion as to why the Times no longer wants to run the blog or pay the reporters to cover these issues: there isn’t any money in it.”

    And this is sad. It means no one will pay for a future generation of reporters with the skills to write about the environment. This closes yet one more avenue to anyone desiring a career in environmental issues. Environmental law is on the rocks; environmental policy hires one person for every 900 applicants; corporate environmental managers are overworked and underinformed.

    Universities may find the option suggested here attractive for no other reason than it may be the only remaining place for their graduates with degrees in environmental studies to find a job.

    http://theflyblog.com/

  16. I think the key point of this post is this: “There are grounds for a strong suspicion as to why the Times no longer wants to run the blog or pay the reporters to cover these issues: there isn’t any money in it.”

    And this is sad. It means no one will pay for a future generation of reporters with the skills to write about the environment. This closes yet one more avenue to anyone desiring a career in environmental issues. Environmental law is on the rocks; environmental policy hires one person for every 900 applicants; corporate environmental managers are overworked and underinformed.

    Universities may find the option suggested here attractive for no other reason than it may be the only remaining place for their graduates with degrees in environmental studies to find a job.

    http://theflyblog.com/

  17. I agree! It’s the same in the UK at the moment – environmental issues seem to be shunned as ‘global warming atrocities’. I think only one or at most two universities here do a course resembling Science communications or journalism.

  18. I agree! It’s the same in the UK at the moment – environmental issues seem to be shunned as ‘global warming atrocities’. I think only one or at most two universities here do a course resembling Science communications or journalism.

  19. Well written – India definitely needs this very desperately. Industry is majorly suffering as protestors, green activists, environmentalists are stalling projects in name of pollution and creating fears in the mind of the farmers, villagers where projects are to come up. Since villagers don’t understand – Government organized public hearings are getting disturbed even before the project proponent can present his case of what the proposed project will offer – economic benefits, environmental pollution, social benefits etc.

    The media in these remote places are local reporters or “stringers” employed on per-story basis and their lack of understanding coupled with the lackadaisical attitude of the local Govt. administration & canards & issues being pushed by the above group – reporting takes a different turn. Even before project proponent can talk or present his case – enough damage is done on the ground and since environment reporters are not there or lack of understanding of the subject – projects are getting stalled and huge investments are stuck.

    In the power sector in India alone – USD$20 billion from nationalized banks (taxpayers’ money) and private equity in the form of equity is stuck as projects are stalled due to both lack of proper information dissemination on the project and also lack of knowledge and understanding – issues gets blown out of proportion and work is stalled.

    This kind of initiative should help but newspaper managements also need to strengthen their reporting network and keep training budgets to handle these issues on regular basis. Senior reporters should be sent to project sites once in a while and stay in touch with the developments to avoid biased reporting. Companies, Govt. administration and civil society – basically stakeholders to the project company need to AGREE TO DISAGREE and work together for inclusive development. The Government machinery should stringently ensure conditions are adhered to and the project developers are pulled up in case of variance and the media is also under the scanner to avoid misreporting.

    Companies and project developers also should partner and help in this education initiative and maybe support these by helping fund some scholarship, give awards for reporting and/or look for ways & means to have better environment reporting done from project sites.

  20. Well written – India definitely needs this very desperately. Industry is majorly suffering as protestors, green activists, environmentalists are stalling projects in name of pollution and creating fears in the mind of the farmers, villagers where projects are to come up. Since villagers don’t understand – Government organized public hearings are getting disturbed even before the project proponent can present his case of what the proposed project will offer – economic benefits, environmental pollution, social benefits etc.

    The media in these remote places are local reporters or “stringers” employed on per-story basis and their lack of understanding coupled with the lackadaisical attitude of the local Govt. administration & canards & issues being pushed by the above group – reporting takes a different turn. Even before project proponent can talk or present his case – enough damage is done on the ground and since environment reporters are not there or lack of understanding of the subject – projects are getting stalled and huge investments are stuck.

    In the power sector in India alone – USD$20 billion from nationalized banks (taxpayers’ money) and private equity in the form of equity is stuck as projects are stalled due to both lack of proper information dissemination on the project and also lack of knowledge and understanding – issues gets blown out of proportion and work is stalled.

    This kind of initiative should help but newspaper managements also need to strengthen their reporting network and keep training budgets to handle these issues on regular basis. Senior reporters should be sent to project sites once in a while and stay in touch with the developments to avoid biased reporting. Companies, Govt. administration and civil society – basically stakeholders to the project company need to AGREE TO DISAGREE and work together for inclusive development. The Government machinery should stringently ensure conditions are adhered to and the project developers are pulled up in case of variance and the media is also under the scanner to avoid misreporting.

    Companies and project developers also should partner and help in this education initiative and maybe support these by helping fund some scholarship, give awards for reporting and/or look for ways & means to have better environment reporting done from project sites.

Comments are closed.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

READ more

POSTS BY Jonathan