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