Challenges of covering the environment

By Kara Headley

Among biggest challenges facing environmental reporters are political barriers and danger, according to a recent panel at Michigan State University.

As environmental issues often span borders and so must their reports, the journalism experts said. Tensions within governments can make it a dangerous job to report those issues.

“Environmental journalism has been characterized as one of the most dangerous news beats,” said Eric Freedman, the director of the university’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. “Journalists are vulnerable because these kinds of stories often involve economic power, political power, corporate greed, government corruption, government incompetence, and in many cases, particularly in the developing world… conflicts over indigenous rights to natural resources and land.”

Freedman spoke as a member of a panel convened by MSU’s Environmental Science and Policy Program.

Much of the danger comes when the journalist must physically go into the field for a story, an action that can have lingering effects.

“We engage with the subjects,” said Genevieve Belmaker, contributing forests editor with the publication Mongabay. “We have time to think and to process what we’ve seen, sometimes we’re witnessing something violent [or] deeply disturbing on a human level… if we’re sensitive, it might really affect us, and that stuff starts to pile on.”

Bruno Takahashi, associate professor of environmental journalism and communication at Michigan State University, discsussed journalism challenges in Latin America.

“Violence against journalists is on the rise… in many Latin American countries,” Takahashi said. “Reporters Without Borders and a bunch of other organizations track cases of violence against journalists… there are many cases related to environmental activism.”

Jennifer Weeks, the environment and energy editor for The Conversation, identified challenges posed by the current political climate.

“Another challenge… is finding… mainstream conservative views,” said Weeks. “In US academia the opinion tends to skew liberal, and so we could fill our page with nothing but critiques of everything Trump is doing. We really try to find legit conservative perspectives, not just on the environment but on all kinds of issues.”

David Poulson, the Knight Center’s senior associate director, said that technology poses a challenge by discouraging face-to-face interactions with sources. And that can mean journalists don’t have the same opportunity to develop stories they stumble over by accident, and also make them less persistent in following up unexpected leads.

“I think we’re losing the persistence aspect, and… technology sometimes keeps us from doing this,” he said.

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