Knight Center's Detjen says coverage of Bush's environmental record has been fair

As coverage of environmental issues becomes more prevalent in traditional and nontraditional media, climate change skeptics are taking aim at journalists for what they call unbalanced coverage. During today's OnPoint Jim Detjen, professor and director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, addresses the state of environmental journalism. He discusses how new media is affecting the coverage of environmental issues. He also talks about how coverage of environmental issues varies around the world.


Darren Samuelsohn: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in Washington is Jim Detjen, professor and director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. Mr. Detjen, thanks for coming on the program.

Jim Detjen: Thank you.

Darren Samuelsohn: You've been in the media business for more than 30 years, a bulk of that covering environmental issues. Assess for us the state of environmental journalism in the United States today.

Jim Detjen: I think, compared to 30 years ago, it's dramatically better. We have a whole lot more environmental reporting, many more environmental reporters. So I take the long term view that it's, the quality, in general, has gotten better, more science based coverage, more serious in-depth coverage.

Darren Samuelsohn: Have we seen more in the last 10 years, five years?

Jim Detjen: I think we see that environmental coverage of news is episodic. It waxes and it wanes depending upon news flow, depending upon, sometimes, when there are major dramatic events, like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the increasing coverage more recently of global warming. So it is episodic. It depends upon economics, what else is in the news at any given time, but in general the trend line is up. I think more and better coverage.

Darren Samuelsohn: Compare the United States coverage of environmental issues to international coverage. Do we see more in the United States?

Jim Detjen: I think it varies greatly depending upon country to country, and also at the same time, time by time. I think in Japan there often is more science coverage and environmental coverage. In London, at least on global warming issues, the style of coverage is different than you'll see in some of the news media. And I think there are other parts of the world where there's a whole lot less environmental coverage, in Africa, in areas of South America. There's some places where there's very little, but there's lots.

Darren Samuelsohn: We're seeing a big transition in the United States in the media industry today, in terms of layoff, in terms of ownership changing hands. Can you give me some sense how has that affected the media coverage of environmental and energy issues?

Jim Detjen: I think we're very much in a transition period. Some of the more serious coverage that we've seen, over many years, on the newspapers, I think newspapers have been in a general state of decline. Some of the serious coverage has declined there, although there's still a tremendous amount of very good coverage. You're seeing explosive growth in news media coverage on the Web, in newsletters and in other formats, so certainly blogs and a variety of new formats that are coming on now. So I think we're seeing lots more information now than we saw before, but some of the traditional modes are different.

Darren Samuelsohn: What do you see in terms of reader interest in environmental issues? Is it driving coverage?

Jim Detjen: I think reader interest remains high, you know, if you define environmental news in a broader way; air pollution, air issues, water issues, the food we eat, I think there's tremendous interest. And especially if you can involve things like health issues, environment and health, environment and business, there's a lot of interest.

Darren Samuelsohn: You've written before about how other beats are taking on environmental issues. Has that been a detriment to the environmental beat at most newspapers?

Jim Detjen: I think what's happening with the environmental beat is very much what happened with the environmental movement in general. The environmental movement, 35 years ago, was kind of a fringe issue. It's now permeated almost all areas of culture, so you now have journalists who are covering the environment who are religion writers, business writers, government writers, even sportswriters.

Darren Samuelsohn: Is there issues that the environmental beat is not covering well enough, that you think?

Jim Detjen: I think there's an awful lot of areas we're not covering well enough. I think some of these areas are very complicated, everything from non-point source pollution to urban sprawl issues to climate change to biotechnology. These are very complicated issues. We need, I think, more and better coverage and I'd like to see more and better coverage.

Darren Samuelsohn: Would you see it, let's say if there's been any over coverage on environmental issues in the last five or 10 years?

Jim Detjen: It's not something I would criticize the media for.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. And now, in terms of President Bush's record on the environment, you had written, I think it was maybe early on before 9/11, that President Bush helped to put environmental issues on page one of the news, since 9/11, not so much in terms of the coverage. Assess for us the media's coverage of President Bush's environmental record. Do you think it's been fair?

Jim Detjen: What I've seen, I think it has been fair.

Darren Samuelsohn: And would you say that there's been a wide range of stories out there on President Bush's record that have been maybe too critical or has it pretty much been, has he been given a fair shot?

Jim Detjen: From my impression, and again, it's not something that I follow real closely and I'm not in Washington, so I'm not directly following it, I think it's fair coverage. I think journalists have been critical of his environmental record and I think they need to be digging into this. Digging into who are the policymakers? Who are the people in key positions in environmental agencies? Where's the money coming from? What is going on with legislation? What is going on with changes in how environmental policies are implemented? So I think that those are all very important issues to cover and, if anything, I think I'd like to see more of that.

Darren Samuelsohn: You're in Washington to talk about climate change and the media's coverage of it. What's your message here in Washington?

Jim Detjen: Well, I'm going to be primarily talking about part of the training of journalists. And I think journalists need to have a really strong science-based background. These are complicated scientific issues. I also believe that to do these jobs well you need to have space to tell the stories; you need to have time to tell the stories. It's very difficult to tell in a 500 word news piece or 30 second piece. You really have to have in-depth coverage. I think it should be science based as much as you can. And I think you really need to have specialists. I mean one of the things that I've pushed all my career is the importance of having environmental specialists in the news media because these are very complicated areas. At Michigan State that's what we're trying to do. At other universities, like Columbia, University of Colorado, they're basically training journalists to be, with specialized background knowledge and the environment. And I think these are such complicated issues we need to have that really strong science based coverage.

Darren Samuelsohn: In terms of specialties, are you focusing on trying to just produce reporters who are focused on global warming or is it all environmental issues? Do you have people who are studying to be water reporters?

Jim Detjen: Oh no, we have people in all different areas. We have journalists who come from around the world, from China, from Africa. So we've had students from Africa that are focusing on the water issues. In Chinese, Chinese students that are looking at all sorts of other issues, toxic chemical issues and water issues and air pollution issues. So really, each student who comes into our program, with different backgrounds and interests, we try to tailor it for them.

Darren Samuelsohn: How do you teach students in terms of initially, like global warming, where there are many points of view? What do you teach them in terms of the skeptic's point of view? Do they belong in their coverage?

Jim Detjen: I think I try to teach the students that it's important to figure out where the consensus of knowledge is on an issue. And so, like in the area of climate change and global warming, the overwhelming, the majority of science, scientists, are in very similar camps. I mean I think it's important to tell your readers and viewers that that's the case. I think you can tell if there's a knowledgeable minority. You can express that point of view. I think sometimes there are people that are throwing up smoke screens and I think journalists need to be authoritative. They need to be knowledgeable enough and authoritative enough so that they can say, "This is what science is telling us."

Darren Samuelsohn: Vice President Gore, in his movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," he actually criticizes the press for quoting skeptics too much in terms of how much majority or consensus opinion there is compared with the coverage. Is this really a no-win situation for reporters, where they're going to be criticized from the left and from the right?

Jim Detjen: I mean it's very difficult. I guess I like to say that if you're a journalist, criticism comes with the territory. And if you're going to be a journalist, you know, you're going to be criticized and there will be some very strong attacks you will face. I think, as a journalist, the best thing to do is try to become as knowledgeable as you can, try to look at the best science as you can, try to report it as fairly as you can and do the best you can. And try not to be intimidated, because I think there are powerful special interests that are, in fact, trying to intimidate journalists from covering one story or the other or shaping the way you cover a story. And I mean this goes back for, in all beats. I mean I worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer for many years and we had our Middle East correspondents. You name it, on any given day there were people from the Palestinians protesting or the Israelis protesting in front of the building. And we used to think, well gee, he's probably doing a good job because he's getting a lot of people angry and upset.

Darren Samuelsohn: As long as you can get both sides angry.

Jim Detjen: Well, I think you try to be fair, OK? And you realize that there's going to be special interests that are mobilized, who will try to shape your coverage. My hope is that you have strong enough editors and strong enough publishers who will let the journalists do their jobs and do it well if they have good reporters. And not be intimidated by people who are trying to shape the coverage.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK, Mr. Detjen, we'll leave it at that. But thank you so much for coming on the program.

Jim Detjen: Thank you.

Darren Samuelsohn: Until next time, this is Darren Samuelsohn for another edition of OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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