Reporting on the Environment Takes a Back Seat

by Matthew Freeman

December 08, 2008

Shortly before Thanksgiving, a quartet of heavyweight health organizations issued their annual “Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer.” The principal finding of the study from the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries is that the incidence of cancer and the rates of death from cancer continue to decline. That’s great news, and it’s even better news that it seems not to be by accident. The report notes, for example, that California, a state that has fairly rigorous anti-smoking laws, has seen the rate of lung cancer deaths drop by almost 3 percent over the last decade.


The substance isn’t the topic of this post, however; it’s the news coverage.


The report drew extensive media attention, even managing to break through the impressively managed story of President-Elect Obama’s piecing together of his Cabinet. In the past, the report has come out in October, but perhaps because the authoring organizations wanted to avoid competing with the presidential campaign, it came out in the relatively calm news period that surrounds Thanksgiving.


But Professor Michael D. Laiosa of the University of Rochester’s Department of Environmental Medicine makes an interesting point about coverage of this year’s report in a blog post  on Environmental Health News. Laiosa observes:

Four out of five of the nation’s top newspapers missed a key point about the state of the science when they covered an important new report that found cancer rates have declined for the first time. Specifically, only Rob Stein’s reporting in the Washington Post noted that while treatment has improved dramatically in recent years, there is a tremendous knowledge gap within the scientific and medical community about the underlying causes of cancer--in particular, the role environmental exposures play in initiating cancers.

Laiosa goes on to point out that, “non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, kidney cancer and melanoma continued to rise last year. Exposures to contaminants in our environment have been associated with all of these diseases.” Indeed, the organizations releasing the report have in the past pegged the rate of cancer deaths due to exposure to pollutants at work or in the environment at close to 34,000 per year – 6 percent of all cancer deaths.  (If that number seems surprisingly high, ask yourself when you last saw the number cited in a news story, or for that matter any news story that focused broadly on cancer deaths caused by environmental factors. Then read on for why.)


It wasn’t just the top papers that overlooked the environmental angle in the cancer study story, of course. Smaller newspapers aren’t much better at that sort of thing. One reason is that there aren’t that many environment reporters around to point out the environmental implications. If report authors don’t make a big deal about environmental effects in their executive summary or news release – as they did a couple years ago, but did not this year – the medical reporters writing the story might not make the connection.


Staffing cuts at newspapers and broadcast outlets in recent years have taken their toll on the environmental beat. The truth is that the beat was never all that well covered to begin with, at least in terms of numbers of reporters. It’s not much better today, in fact. A search of the most commonly used commercial media database in the United States found that of the nearly 880 newspapers in the nation’s top 100 media markets (a “market” often covers more than one city or community), just 181 had reporters assigned to an environmental beat. In fact, most of those reporters also had some other beat to cover – agriculture, real estate, science and medicine, or something else.


So while the very biggest newspapers have environment reporters who can immerse themselves in environmental issues and learn how they connect to other issues, a little down the journalistic food chain many newspapers' environment reporters are splitting their time and brainspace. And the rest of the newspapers carry a wire service story if they carry anything at all.  When a local must-cover environment issue crops up -- a leaking underground gas tank, or unexplained pollutants in a local river -- they assign the story to whichever reporter happens to be free at the moment the story emerges. That reporter likely lacks the environmental experience to see behind the kinds of smoke screens that local officials and industry spokespeople sometimes hide behind, and the coverage reflects it.


Broadcast coverage of the environment has its structural shortcomings as well. Four years ago, the now-defunct American Communications Forum took an extensive look at environmental coverage on broadcast outlets, and found it to be slight and getting slighter:

Most television outlets from network, to cable, to local TV have almost no coverage at all, although television is still where most Americans get their news. For example, figures from 2003 show that a viewer who watched a commercial television nightly newscast every weeknight for a month would have seen about five minutes on the environment. A viewer watching CNN or FOX or MSNBC cable channels for an entire day would have seen about one minute on the environment. For local TV news, the number is so small it does not show up in research. In 1989, nightly network news coverage of the environment peaked with 774 minutes in that year. In 2003 that number had dropped to 132 minutes.

Of course, between 1989 and 2003, climate change stopped being something only environmentalists knew and worried about and became a household phrase – little thanks to broadcast journalism, apparently.


Worse, nothing about the broader direction of news coverage would suggest improvement anytime soon. Print and broadcast outlets are shrinking their staffs, and focusing increasingly on stories with maximum curb appeal – who scored on Dancing with the Stars, and which starlet checked into rehab. In fact, one of the great contributions of Al Gore’s climate change movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” is that it helped the issue break through the clutter. The lever for that accomplishment was Gore’s celebrity, of course.


What’s particularly unfortunate about the state of environmental journalism, however, is that the inability of many print and broadcast outlets to generate a knowledgeable story on the environment makes it harder to change public policy on environmental issues. Media coverage has a funny way of motivating elected officials. So here’s hoping that the remaining environment reporters out there figure out a way to amplify their work.


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Media relations consultant Matthew Freeman helps coordinate CPR's media outreach efforts and manage its online communications. His media relations experience in Washington spans more than 30 years, and his client list includes a range of organizations active on the environment, education, civil rights and liberties, health care, progressive organizing in the interfaith community, and more.

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