Thursday, March 1, 2007

Is it time for a Society of Environmental Journalists weblog?

As journalists, we vigorously advocate for transparency in public institutions and many other areas of society. We argue that it’s good for democracy — that the people have a right to know how decisions are made.

But as journalists, we are generally shy of public attention to how we do our jobs, let alone to what we think and believe. That’s partly because our job is to report the story, not become part of the story. In the old days, of course, one would never, ever utter the “I” word in a news story. If it was absolutely necessary to bring yourself into the story, you did it awkwardly in third person: “A reporter who witnessed the event . . .”

I think we’re also shy of public attention because we worry that people might see that beneath the public front of an unbiased, objective journalist lies a human being with biases, emotions, and personal strengths and weakness.

And so blogging about how we do our work may seem risky. But at a time when newspaper readership is declining, young people are getting their news from sources such as “The Daily Show,” and the public is increasingly distrustful and even cynical about what they’re getting from news media, is it time to swallow our discomfort and get on with it?

I think many of us would probably agree that how we do our work, and how we think, are not well appreciated by our audiences. So is there a way to do a public blog — by environmental journalists about environmental journalism — that would help us do our jobs better while also giving our audiences a glimpse of the incredible care most of us take in doing those jobs?

What would we write about in such a blog? Certainly, some, but not all, of the conversation now taking place in the SEJ listserve could migrate over to a blog. It could be a place to talk about ethics, how to cover stories, the scientific status of important issues like climate change, and attempts to hinder what we do as journalists. It could also be a place to call attention to particularly noteworthy achievements, such as awards and important stories that have made a real difference. And if we're brave, we could use the blog to call attention to examples of environmental coverage we don't like.

As Amy Gahran said last year to our Ted Scripps Fellows in Environmental Journalism, young people “are more interested in conversation than lectures . . . They expect direct interaction as a basic aspect of their media experience. They expect their perspective to matter.” Similarly, “There’s a growing need/demand for greater audience participation and a remaining need for quality news content.”

I think she’s right. Many of the young people I encounter as a professor here at the University of Colorado are pretty cynical about us journalists. They feel that we’ve been bought and sold just as surely as the politicians, and that what we write and broadcast needs to be taken with a shaker full of salt. If done right, could a bit more transparency in what we do as journalists, and some interactivity with our audiences, actually help counteract this distrust and cynicism?

A Society of Environmental Journalism blog could serve other purposes as well. Look at the success of RealClimate. It is produced by climate scientists, mostly for climate scientists. But many journalists go there to see what scientists are saying outside of peer reviewed journals. If you want to see how climate scientists think — because it might help you cover them better — this is a good blog to go to. Similarly, if you were an environmental scientist, an environmental journalism blog might be useful if you wanted to learn how to deal with journalists more effectively. In other words, it’s possible that a blog like this could improve communication between scientists and journalists. (Perish the thought — we could even ask them to do guest blogs!)

We would obviously have to put our best foot forward in such a blog. That may be difficult, since emotion rules in the blogosphere. It is without question a place for uninhibited and often unrevealing bloviation. Perhaps the content would have to be moderated to some extent, because one intemperate remark from a journalist who hits the return key too quickly could become fodder for the likes of James Inhofe. That would hurt more than it would help. On the other hand, many journalists already are too keen to give fodder to those folks — and without the agency of a weblog. For example, some of us haven’t hesitated to publicly compare skeptics of global warming to Holocaust deniers. That’s been done in good, old fashioned print.

SEJ members already engage in daily conversation through the SEJ members’ listserve. It’s like a private club. A blog is more like a coffee house — a public place to come for some spirited conversation. Maybe it’s time that we open the door and let other people in to join the conversation.

If transparency in the institutions we cover is good for the sake of democracy, wouldn't transparency in the institution of environmental journalism be good for the same reason?

-- Tom Yulsman


Amy Gahran said...


...not that I'm biased or anything. ;-)

Right on, Tom

- Amy Gahran

John Fleck said...

As a journalist who blogs a lot, and thinks it important to use the blog to discuss the underlying decision-making that supports my work, I send Amy's "yes"!

Barbara J Gill said...

I am just reading Shambhala bu Chogymam Trungpa - the part about Renunciation and Daring. I say go for the blogging!! Be open with us, yes. Barbara

HL said...

Hard to disagree with you, Tom. Journalism is not supposed to be the craft of some secret sect. It's about digging for facts, pointing out uncertainty, and, yes, letting the reader or viewer know when disagreement lurks. Our readers and viewers deserve to know how we go about doing our jobs. They will trust what we write more if they know our methods are ethical, thorough, and logical.

David said...

The short answer is "yes."

Let me respectfully suggest that you're not just doing this for yourselves.

I'm not a journalist, but a communications professional and a consumer of your journalism - so i'm not privy to your private conversations. However, I'm trying to educate myself more every day on environmental issues, and I depend on you and your colleagues to do that. I don't know if access to this dialogue will help. But as a concerned citizen, I think knowing more about your process will help me learn more about what questions I should ask of those who would change the environment for good or ill.

I don't have to tell you that environmental news happens everywhere, every day, and there isn't always a professional to cover it. We live in a world where citizens are often left to their own devices to receive, process, and distribute information. Increasingly those people are leveraging technology and taking initiative, and they're doing the best they can. But you represent the best of the best, and frankly, citizen journalists can learn a lot from you.

I also think you should start the blog out of respect for your audience. I think you know that if you fail to evolve with your audience, if you fail to converse with them in the form that works best for them, they will leave you behind.

the environmental movement has embraced technology more than most communities. it only makes sense for environmental journalists to keep pace. Today it's blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and other social media. It will be something else tomorrow.

I hope you'll seriously consider it.

- David Wescott

CEJ Admin said...

Thanks David for leaving your thoughtful response.

-- Tom Yulsman

Annie Jia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Annie Jia said...

Yes, please! As a new environmental journalist, I have started a blog for my own thoughts about the field of environmental journalism. Having a medium to articulate my ideas has proven to be tremendously helpful to me in developing my thinking.

If we could have a public forum for discussion, I think it would be that much more enlightening.

Just like open-source code and open-source research can help programs and science move forward, I think an open discussion about environmental journalism can help the field - and especially young journalists like myself - forge ahead with greater wisdom.

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