Is environmental reporting improving?

Are the media doing a good job of covering the environment?

Answering this question is not as easy as it might seem.  Following Earth Day in 1970 the media ratcheted up their environmental coverage. But many legacy media today, nearly a half-century later, no longer have environmental reporters, or if they do, such journalists often have the environment as only one of the issues they cover. And increasingly, environmental stories are being covered by free-lance journalists.

Public concern about the environment is one aspect of “good” coverage.  In other words, are the environmental issues the media cover and those that the public thinks are important, one and the same?  If, for example, the media spend more time covering issues of water pollution than they do land pollution, and if members of the public consider land pollution more timely and important than they do water-pollution issues, there is a disconnect.  When this occurs the public will consider the media’s coverage inaccurate and thus unbelievable?

Words, too, become hot buttons.  While Democrats tend to favor the term “global warming,” Republicans usually refer to “climate change,” even though the two terms are essentially one and the same.  Thus, depending on what term the media use to describe this phenomenon, a portion of the audience will inherently disagree and consider the news inaccurate.

In addition to the public’s concern over pollution, the reported quality of the environment as measured by soil, water and air pollution, is an issue. For example, one might expect the media to focus more on areas of environmental deterioration than on areas where there was little change or where there indeed was improvement.  Were the media – local, statewide, regional, national and/or international – to not have such a watchdog focus, their coverage likely would be considered off-base if not downright irresponsible.

Finally, the United States’ federal government has obligations and expenditures for pollution abatement and control. Ideally, these should square with the media’s environmental reporting, and when they do not, such reporting is, understandably, questionable.

But even when there is a symmetry between the public’s concerns, quality of the environment and expenditures for pollution, there are the added issues of what media are being discussed – traditional, social, online, a combination – and for what time period.

While answering the “good” reporting question is difficult, the “accurate” reporting question, though, can be at least in part addressed by applying the same three criteria.

  1. How do the media’s environmental issues coverage square with the issues the public considers important?
  2. Do the criteria the media apply in their environmental reporting mirror that of the actual state of the environment?
  3. Are the media “following the money” in their reporting of environmental issues?

In the final analysis, are the media accurately covering environmental issues? The best answers thus would seem to be “yes,” “no” and “it depends.” Amid such uncertainty, the good news is that there are today many more institutions, private organizations and individuals monitoring both the environment and environmental reporting than was the case April 22, 1970.  And even journalism reviews sometimes get involved in the monitoring.

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