Environmental journalism is defined as “the collection, verification, production, distribution, and exhibition of information regarding current events, trends, issues and people that are associated with the non-human environment” (Wikipedia). After the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the uprising of the environmental movement, journalists began covering environmental issues such as pollution, pesticides, land use, and other environmental aspects. Journalists also began covering environmental policy around this time because of the boom in grassroots environmental organizations.
Environmental journalists, like all journalists who report on a specific topic consistently, must have an in-depth understanding of the information behind the topic they are covering, whether that knowledge is about historical environmental events, environmental policy, scientific research done on the topic, or all of these mentioned. Environmental journalists must be able to convey this confusing, wordy, and complex information in a way that makes sense to the average person but doesn’t take away from the importance of the topic being reported. Often, “the science in environment stories is seldom black and white” (Valenti 220).
Because of close relationships with environmental groups and a need to serve the public interest, some environmental journalists, such a Michael Frome, believe that “journalists should only enter the environmental side of the field if saving the planet is a personal passion, and that environmental journalists should not shy away from environmental advocacy, though not at the expense of clearly relating facts and opinions on all sides of an issue.” Clearly, this brings up ethical concerns among the environmental journalism community. This paper explores various ethical considerations associated with environmental journalism.
Conflicts of Interest
Conflicts of interest are a common ethical issue that environmental journalists face. According to The Ethical Journalist, conflict of interest is defined as:
A journalist’s self-interest or loyalty to another person or organization that the journalist permits to alter, influence, or take precedence over his or her duty to the audience… There are actual conflicts of interest, in which the journalism is subverted, and apparent conflicts of interest, in which a journalist does or says something publicly that causes the audience to perceive a conflict of interest or a bias, even though the journalist’s reporting is appropriate (Foreman 377).
Advocacy journalism is a genre of journalism that intentionally and transparently adopts a non-objective viewpoint, usually for some social or political purpose. Advocacy journalists are often criticized for reporting under a conflict of interest. Phil Vine, a journalist at Greenpeace in New Zealand, has come under fire from former colleagues after joining the environmental campaign organization as a self-proclaimed advocacy journalist. Vine, a former broadcast journalist with 25 years of experience, realized that “crossing this perceived rubicon between ‘recognised’ media and a campaigning organisation ‘with an agenda’ meant that I would have to leave the tribe, hang up my pork pie hat with the reporter card in it” (Vine 45). He claims that Greenpeace hired him for his investigative journalism skills, and that is his main occupation with the organization. He does not see himself as a spokesperson or press release writer; he sees himself as a journalist acting in the public interest, saying “I don’t think my new job could be any more attuned to the public interest. Without getting too preachy, halting climate change is in all of our interests” (Vine 50).
Environmental reporting produced by universities can also present conflicts of interest. DeLene Beeland, a freelance journalist who used to work as a science writer for the University of Florida Natural History Museum, says that while she never experienced outside pressure, some of her colleagues in the agriculture department were not as fortunate. “Sometimes specific companies, like Chiquita Bananas, would want to fund a study about the health benefits of bananas… and there you have some clear conflicts of interest; someone who’s paying for a specific study and hoping for a specific outcome.”
If Vine describes himself as a journalist, and journalist’s primary loyalty is to the audience, is his association with Greenpeace damning of his reputation and credibility? Vine doesn’t think so. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics says that reporters are to label advocacy and commentary, and by defining himself as an “advocate journalist” and following the same ethical standards, Vine believes his credibility shouldn’t be tarnished despite his ties to an organization with an agenda, and that “a healthier response might be to celebrate journalism wherever it happens rather than raising the drawbridge and preparing for a siege” (Vine 50). Even mainstream environmental journalists, such as Mary Landers for the Savannah Morning News, says that “journalism is evolving… I have a lot of hope is some of the non-profit sites. Something’s gotta give, cause people are hungry for information.” Beeland also mentions that she experienced backlash from colleagues while writing for the university. “I just thought to myself, ‘If the goal is to make the public more educated and aware, then it doesn’t matter who you’re writing for: the truth of the story is getting out.’”
David Poulson, a writer for the online news website “Great Lakes Echo,” talks about an overlapping topic: reporting with bias. Bias is a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair. Many environmental journalists either have or are perceived to have a bias favoring the environment and/or against things, people or groups that harm the environment.
Great Lakes Echo is a project of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. Original content is produced by students, faculty, professional journalists and Capital News Service, an organization that is part of Michigan State University’s Spartan Online News Network. The content focuses on the environment of the Great Lakes Watershed. Poulson explains in his article:
Environmental journalists are rightly cautious about getting painted green. It’s often a cheap shot by critics who feel wronged by coverage – fair or not. In my view, and the view of many of my generation, journalism is the keyword in environmental journalism. You seek truth regardless of where it lies… All that said, perhaps it’s time for journalists to admit a bias toward a clean, sustainable environment… I admit that the cleaner water and air become, the better off I am. I favor the stuff. Environmental journalists should feel no shame in such an admission, or even if such values influence the angles they take when reporting.
Mary Landers admits that she, too, struggles with her personal biases, even while writing for a news entity. “I try to be aware of my biases, but I try to compensate where I know that I’m biased. Sometimes I think I overcompensate if I know that I’m sympathetic to a certain environmental concern.”
Vine says that non-governmental organization (NGO) journalism will be biased, in Greenpeace’s case towards the environment; however, he says that that bias is in the public interest. “Bias in favour of the planet is intentional and transparent… As journalists, we come to stories with inherent biases — personal, financial, or institutional. The manifest biases of the mainstream are far less easy to spot.”
Because they are less easy to spot, does this mean that the “manifest biases of the mainstream” are worse than the upfront, expected bias of reporting for an NGO? Does the transparency of bias gain a reporter trust? Landers mentions that while she tries to be aware of her biases, “I don’t know if I always succeed. If you asked some politicians, they would say I failed.” Kanni Huang states that credibility is related to views and values, and “when online news readers hold stronger pro-environmental attitudes, the more likely that they will perceive the news content as more credible on the environmental news site which presents the ecocentric worldview” (10-11). In 2014, a Gallup poll reported that only one in five people trusted the news media. (Foreman 60). This information suggests that readers trust what they know; if they know a journalist is biased, they can make a decision whether or not to trust the reporting. If readers are skeptical of a journalist’s bias, they cannot make that decision, and they cannot trust the journalist.
What do environmental journalists do, however, when readers perceive bias that isn’t there?
Accuracy and Fairness
According to Gene Foreman, “accuracy and fairness are the essence of journalism” (197). This means verifying your information, using original sources, providing context, and getting the story right. This means telling all sides of the story.
Or does it?
Climate change (also known as global warming) has seen the harm of telling “all sides of the story.” As Landers points out, “I think that there are issues where things are portrayed as bias when they’re not. For instance, I don’t think that there are two sides to global warming. I think that there’s science and there’s not science.” However, journalists, environmental or not, have fallen into the trap of telling all sides of the story of climate change, despite some sides’ lack of legitimacy. This fear of perceived bias and lack of fairness gave rise to the (ironically) inaccurate and illegitimate claim that climate change doesn’t exist and/or isn’t caused by human activity. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt describes the “alternative body of facts” about global warming (and other environmental and health topics) created by scientists such as Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer that was distributed to journalists. Like smoking in the 1960’s, climate change has been presented as “a great debate rather than a scientific problem in which evidence was rapidly accumulating… balance was interpreted, it seems, as giving equal weight to both sides, rather than giving accurate weight to both sides” (Oreskes, Conway 19). The used these tactics in each environmental issue: “discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, and promote doubt”.
Doubt is crucial to science — it drives science forward — but it also makes science vulnerable to misrepresentation, because it is easy to take uncertainties out of context and create the impression that everything is unresolved. While “participants in the marketplace of ideas are said to seek the most original, truthful, or useful information” and that “good ideas — political, scientific, and social — will prevail in a free market,” we have seen that clearly, this subject is an exception (Middleton, Kent, et al. 31). In the New York Times article “How Americans Think About Climate Change, in Six Maps”, authors Nadja Popovich, John Schwartz, and Tatiana Schlossberg show the miscommunication between climate change and its effects on individuals.
Clearly Americans understand that climate change is an issue; however, they don’t understand that it will harm them directly in the future. By perpetuating an idea of doubt about the science of climate change and fostering a false understanding of it not being “our” problem, we are digging ourselves further into the dilemma.
Today when journalists talk about climate change and give no or little voice to the “other side,” they are perceived as biased and their reporting is seen as unfair. This opinion is evident in the “Letters to the Editor” section of the Savannah Morning News: letter headlines the day after a story about climate change was featured on the front page included both “Save global warming stories for next April Fool’s Day” and “Don’t give in to environmental alarmists”. Yet many journalists argue that shielding the reader from “that one percent of scientists that are still trying to debunk it” (Landers) is in the public interest and their reporting is accurate and fair, despite what the average reader may think. For Vine, it was climate change that moved him out of mainstream journalism into Greenpeace (44).
Like bias, readers ultimately make the decision if they believe that a reporter or an article presents information with the “essence” of journalism. Journalists, news or non-profit, “should ensure that they maintain high levels of factual accuracy and fairness in their work to maintain credibility” (Vine 52).
The SPJ Code of Ethics suggests that journalists 1) seek the truth and report it, 2) minimize harm, 3) act independently, and 4) be accountable and transparent. JoAnn Valenti says:
Environmental communication should be viewed as a discussion between parties with significant but possibly different stakes in the outcome of the conversation. The goal then of ethical environmental communication is not persuasion, ‘but rather public debate and discussion that leads to appropriate individual actions and/or policy outcomes’ (227).
We cannot expect journalists to be completely objective, unbiased, and/or free from conflicts of interests. We cannot expect reporters to share the “other side” of a story when the other side is illegitimate. But we can hold journalists and communications specialists from all news and nonprofit organizations to these ethics codes within their own settings, and “journalists uncomfortable with the appearance of an ‘advocacy’ role may more comfortably consider engaging in such activism an ethical responsibility. If journalists do not advocate complete information, the consequence is misunderstanding and poor judgments” (Valenti 229).