Learning to cover environmental crimes

Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

By Eric Freedman
More than 30 journalists, press officers and EJ educators learned a lot about covering environmental crimes at a Society of Environmental Journalists conference panel in Oklahoma City.
The criminal justice system plays a key role in enforcement of environmental laws and implementation of public policy. Courts are venues for confrontation in newsworthy conflicts–some with serious human impacts. Cases are as diverse as toxic dumping, poaching, illegal asbestos removal, trafficking in endangered species, destroying wetlands and filing fraudulent reports with environmental regulators — all topics that we cover in Green Gavel stories on Great Lakes Echo.

The panel, organized by Knight Center director Eric Freedman, featured Michael Freeman, a criminal investigator with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality; Deborah Harris, chief of the Environmental Crimes Section, Environment & Natural Resources Division, U.S. Department of Justice in Washington; and Steve Oberholtzer, special agent in charge of the, Mountain Prairie Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, based in Denver.
The panel explored the role of federal and state environmental, public land management and natural resources law enforcement agencies and the criminal courts as sources for news tips, story ideas, documents and people to interview.
From a law enforcement perspective, the panelists agreed that coverage of arrests, convictions and sentences can deter future violators. As Freeman told the SEJ audience, “Unless those stories get out, we completely lose that deterrent effect.”
And Harris said, “You can tell the story of how an offense can affect people or species.”
Two questions: Why can environmental crime lead to great stories for environmental journalists? And why do news organizations miss so many of those great stories.
First, by definition environmental crimes mean conflict and emotions — a/k/a key elements of newsworthiness. They involve good guys and bad guys — or at least allegedly bad guys. There are always victims, some human, some not. They involve crimes against society — jeopardizing public health, stealing resources like wildlife, plants and fish, and damaging natural features like lakes, forests and rivers that belong to all us. Many cases involve greed, and some involve corruption and conspiracy.
In some cases, tens of millions of dollars in fines, restitution and cleanup costs are at stake.
For journalists, there’s another benefit to these stories: Even when investigators, victims, government regulators and defendants won’t talk to us, there are usually available documents that do talk. Among them: arrest records, indictments, legal briefs, hearing transcripts, regulatory reports, scientific studies and corporate records,
So why do we — journalists — fail to cover many of these crimes?
Sure, Cecil, the lion that a Minnesota hunter allegedly killed illegally earlier this year in Zimbabwe, drew international headlines. And National Geographic recently published a major investigative report about illegal international trafficking in “blood ivory.”
But most poaching and endangered species smuggling cases draw little or no media attention.
I see several major reasons for our shortcomings here:
Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors often have policies or legal constraints that limit what they can say to the press and when they can say it. Authorities also select which cases to publicize through press conferences and news releases and which not to. Many cases involve lengthy and complex undercover investigations by multiple agencies and with confidential informants. Some involve technical scientific evidence that journalists may find tough to understand and explain to audiences. Others involve what seem on the surface to merely be dull technical violations — failing to secure an emissions permit or to file required reports with regulatory agencies — yet even those can have serious environmental impacts.
In addition to deterrence, other benefits of coverage from a law enforcement perspective include:

  • News stories generate tips about other environmental crimes.
  • Authorities sometimes learn about environmental crimes from press reports.

Here are a few take-aways from the panelists and from my own experience reporting on environmental crimes:

  • As a crucial part of covering the environmental beat, journalists should get to know agency officials, including communications officers, before a crisis or breaking story.
  • Journalists should understand how each agency on their beat handles press questions. For example, are rank-and-file agency employees, including law enforcement officers and district-level managers, allowed to talk to reporters without clearance from headquarters or the public affairs office?
  • Learn what types of records are available on an agency’s website beyond press news releases, such as internal newsletters and reports to the state legislature, municipal officials and Congress.
  • Learn what types of court documents are available, online and at courthouses. If your news organization, public library or local university library subscribes to LexisNexis or Westlaw, learn how to use those legal databases. If you cover federal criminal and civil litigation, sign up for PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). It’s the online system with 24/7 pay-per-page access to all federal criminal case filings: motions, briefs, judicial decisions, indictments, presentence reports and sentencing.

Finally, here are examples of recent environmental crime stories from the Knight Center:

  • “What Is a Critter Worth?” Earth Island Journal, Winter 2015, by Eric Freedman.
  • “Great Lakes Region a Hotspot for Black Bear Poaching,” Great Lakes Echo, September 22, 2015, by Courtney Bourgoin.
  • “Property Owner Snared in Ohio Trapping Case,” Great Lakes Echo, May 4, 2015, by Eric Freedman.
  • “Arsonist Gets 5 Years for Superior National Forest Fires,” Great Lakes Echo, December 22, 2014, by Eric Freedman.
  • “Environmental Violators Go to Jail in Crackdown,” Great Lakes Echo, November 14, 2014, by Eric Freedman.
  • “Sentencing Ahead in New York Clean Water Act Criminal Case,” Great Lakes Echo, October 20, 2014, by Eric Freedman.