Can environmental journalism change the world?

By Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Ask environmental journalists what news stories have changed the world and you’ll provoke a slew of thoughtful – and sometimes conflicting replies.

That’s what I found after Reporters without Borders interviewed me for a piece on environmental journalism. One of their questions: “What are the most important environmental investigations in modern history, the ones that ‘changed the world’”?  My immediate thoughts:

The Flint water crisis because it involved a massive public environmental health threat to thousands of vulnerable people, scientific questions, environmental justice and government misuse of power while triggering similar journalistic and government investigations of a dangerous weakness (lead pipes) in water systems across the U.S. and beyond.

Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring, which gave a major boost to environmentalism and environmental awareness internationally. I know she was a biologist, but the question said “environmental investigations.”

Before I responded to Reporters without Borders, I headed to the Society of Environmental Journalists listserv and solicited suggestions from my fellow members. Here are some of their thoughts:

Nancy Gaarder of the Omaha World Herald, suggested the Love Canal (New York) toxic waste story “because it helped usher in” essential environmental statutes “that protect us today.” She also ticked off the Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown (Pennsylvania) because it “brought about the nuclear power protections in effect today,” the dioxin contamination that left Times Beach, Missouri, a ghost town and the Bhopal Union Carbide chemical gas leak disaster in India. Flint was on her list as well.

David Biello of TED “put in a plug for” the Massachusetts contaminated aquifer case that became the fodder for the 1980s bestselling book and movie A Civil Action.

Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times Picayune volunteered the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in what was then the Soviet Union and is now in Ukraine.

Erica Gies, an independent writer and editor, put Bhopal on her list but made this cogent observation about most of the early candidates: “These suggestions are good but are pretty U.S.-centric. I’m struggling to come up with international ones myself at the moment.”

Detroit Public Radio contributor and former Great Lakes Echo columnist Gary Wilson put forth the Exxon Valdez (Alaska) oil spill as “a watershed moment in oil transport” and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but hedged those offerings with a “maybe not.”

Schleifstein jumped back into the discussion, saying yes to the BP spill “both because of the significant damage caused over such a large area of the Gulf Coast, and more importantly, because of the billions in fines/fees from the spill now being used for restoration projects, what could become the world’s largest environmental restoration experiment.”

Jim Bruggers of InsideClimate News suggested Chicago Tribune coverage of the Great Lakes and pollution “which directly led to the passage of the Clean Water Act,” the Missoulian’s reporting on the Bitterroot clearcutting controversy (in Montana) that spurred congressional approval of the National Forest Management Act and Louisville Courier-Journal’s reporting that spurred passage of surface mining legislation. He added Times-Picayune coverage of depleted fisheries and the threat of hurricanes.

Emily Gertz, the founder of (de)regulation nation, wondered whether there should be a distinction between “influential journalistic investigations” on one hand and the effects of environmental disasters, issues and activism on the other. For influential journalistic investigations, she cited recent coverage by InsideClimate News and the Columbia Journalism School’s energy and environment project “on what Exxon knew about climate change, and when it knew it,” as well as the Chicago Tribune’s investigation of flame retardants, among other projects.

SEJ treasurer Christy George followed with InsideClimate News coverage of the Kalamazoo River (Michigan) oil spill that “called attention to the especially viscous Canadian dilbit oil” (bitumen diluted with lighter petroleum products to make the oil easier to transport in pipelines). As for the first time the Cuyahoga River (Ohio) caught fire, it “had a lot to do with sparking the environmental movement.” She credited singer-songwriter Randy Newman with popularizing the dramatic event “with his wonderful song, ‘Burn On,’ with such lyrics as ‘Cleveland, city of light, city of magic…’”

Meaghan Parker, SEJ’s executive director, also named Bhopal. In addition, she suggested “the ongoing and escalating murders of environmental activists in Brazil, Peru, Honduras,” as well as “incredible activists/investigations in China that have arguably directly affected the largest number of people (just given the size of the country) but also through global supply chains.”

Some journalists’ contributions to the discussion were more philosophical, or perhaps more skeptical (as journalists should be – remember that the now-defunct 1970s left-radical magazine Scanlan’s Monthly used this tribute to skepticism as its slogan: “You love your mother but you cut the cards.”)

For example, Knight Center senior associate director Dave Poulson wondered, “Do the myriad of climate change investigations really fit if we’re looking for, as the question asks, ones that ‘changed the world?’ Isn’t that the problem? They haven’t changed the world. Or do they work because they are changing the world, but perhaps not fast enough?”

Poulson’s response led environmental storyteller John Messeder to write, “May I suggest that even if we are destined for disaster, and even though none of the mentioned stories may have actually made significant progress toward turning around the symptoms of our disease, their telling has slowed down the sickness, maybe giving us time to work against those who deliberately try to make the patient sicker by denying there is any sickness at all. The more stories made public, the more people who had not paid much attention begin to notice. And in that, they change the world.”

Finally, Bruggers gave a pat on the back to reporting efforts of SEJ members and said, “This beat has been rich with opportunities for making a difference at the local, regional, national and international level.”

To which I replied: “I’d add that there are so many more opportunities to do so, despite the abysmal depletion of human resources – a/k/a staff and freelance journalists – available to provide in-depth and informed environmental coverage.”





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