Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

17 Jan 2018

Journalism and sustainability

Posted by Michael Keating

News media have long played a critical role in the functioning of democratic societies. They help us understand what is happening in our neighborhood, country and the world. When they do their job well, they hold the powerful, particularly in governments and business, accountable for their actions or inactions. That is why the continuing cutbacks in traditional journalism in Canada and many other countries is important to the future of our economy, environment and the health of our society.

A seismic shift in how we get our news is underway. Since the early 2000s, more and more people get their news digitally, and expect it to be free. This shift is sapping the advertising dollars from traditional media, and shifting it to new media giants, such as Google and Facebook. Newspapers are struggling to move online while maintaining their long-existing formats. Larger papers seem to be holding on so far, but the small and medium-sized ones are having a hard time surviving financially. In late 2017, 36 small Canadian newspapers shut down, the largest mass closure of newspapers ever in this country. In the past nine years, 234 local Canadian news outlets have closed. Remaining papers are often getting smaller and reducing staff. Some print only a few days a week. Some have stopped the presses forever and gone digital. Even two decades ago a handful of major outlets – big papers, magazines, TV chains, and news services – set much of the public agenda by their decisions about what to print and broadcast. Now, many younger people ignore the traditional media and rely on electronic news feeds. The result has been a fragmentation of news and information sources.

According to Beth Parke, founding director of the Society of Environmental Journalists, the U.S. environmental reporting scene varies by region, often depending on local demand. Famously, the New York Times disbanded its environmental team a few years ago, but has since created a climate and environment page. In other cases, public outcry has helped maintain environmental coverage. The SEJ also provides funding and brokers grants from other organizations to support environmental reporting in the United States and Canada.

What does the shift to digital mean for sustainability? On the plus side, there are many more voices being heard. Some of them are experts, who can now broadcast to a world-wide audience with a few clicks, bringing attention to important environment issues. Others on the web are simply skimming off stories from major media and reposting them. And still others are used the Internet as a way to try to cast doubt on established scientific information about issues such as climate change and toxic chemicals. They use media tools in an attempt to stall or delay actions such as a switch away from fossil fuels. When people get news from a traditional outlet, there is some guarantee of professional quality. When they click on a link from a social media alert, there is no guarantee of quality or accuracy.

A classic newsroom.

A classic newsroom. Note the amount of research material.

A good media organization employs trained and experienced journalists, overseen by professional editors who check for fairness and accuracy. It has the resources to fund long-term, in-depth reporting. A healthy media organization can resist outside pressures by people who want to suppress some stories, or have them slanted in their favour. In the 1980s, when I was environment reporter for The Globe and Mail, I would get days, weeks, even months to do major series on environmental issues, such as acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, climate change, forestry, toxic substances and water, especially the state of the Great Lakes. I had voluminous files that allowed me to track promises and performance by governments and industries. A steady stream of stories by me and other environment reporters on issues such as acid rain helped push change. It was a time when many if not most large newspapers had an environment reporter. Now, the title “environmental reporter” has almost disappeared from Canadian news media. In a recent Internet search, I could only find eight people in Canada with this title. In addition, there are some freelancer environment writers, and some science reporters, who cover environment as part of their beat. The Society of Environmental Journalists has about 60 Canadian members. The lack of full-time environment reporters doesn’t mean the environment is not being covered. There are stories by general assignment, business and political reporters, but these journalists do not have the time to build up detailed files and sources that allow them to track issues, and give a broad view of what is happening. At a time for critical decisions about how to become more sustainable, there is less clarity and professional analysis in much that is disseminated online.



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