Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Drilling Down Into The News Dilemma About The Environment

I find it odd that so many people believe that Southerners and Blacks in particular aren’t concerned about the environment.  This seems to be insinuated in news coverage of the current debate over whether or not to permit “fracking” in North Carolina.

By holding out the false promise of jobs, proponents demonstrate that they seem to believe that African Americans will automatically dismiss deep concern for clean air and drinking water.

I wouldn’t be so sure.  African Americans, particularly in the south, have been sensitized for more than 140 years to those who offer such a false choice.

Judging by the results of a recent national public opinion poll showing that 79% of Americans yearn for more and better news coverage of the environment, you can assume the concern is shared across all regions and ethnicities.

A closer look at the detailed results of this poll conducted for the Project For Improved Environmental Coverage by Opinion Research Corporation shows that Southerners at 83% and Blacks at 88% are even more likely to hold the view that news coverage of the environment should be improved.

All of this may be wishful thinking.

Journalism has shed more than 50,000 jobs in the US in recent years.  Newspaper newsroom staffing peaked more than two decades ago and has fallen to levels last seen in the 1970s during Watergate, back when concern for the environment had just entered its twenty-year era of “pollution control”.

News coverage of the environment dropped last year to 1% of all news stories, about what celebrities receive.  It was just a decade ago according to a 2008 study, Environment Reporters and U.S. Journalists: A Comparative Analysis, that 37% of daily newspapers and 10% of television stations had environmental reporters.

Over the last two decades the number of papers across the nation with even a science section fell 87% to fewer than 20 according to the San Jose Mercury News.  A 2010 George Mason poll of local television news directors reveals the disconnect with the public’s desire for more coverage of the environment:

  • 10% have a full-time science or environment reporter
  • Only half cover climate change one or more times a month
  • 6 out of 10 even cover air and water quality 1 or 2 times a month or less
  • More than 89% believe coverage must reflect balanced viewpoints (even if some are inaccurate or deliberately misleading)
  • Yet more than 7 out of 10 believe citizens should do more to address global warming
  • More than half believe they need little or no additional information in order to form an opinion
  • 73% were male, nearly 70% over the age of 40 and rounded 25% were conservative, 19% liberal and 57% moderate

I’m fortunate to live in a media viewing area with very competitive local television news, as “local” as you can call coverage spanning 22 counties.  Incredibly, WRAL, a station based in nearby Raleigh is owned and now managed by the fourth generation of its founding family.

Showing the Goodmon family’s commitment to local news and information as well as social justice and the public interest, the station’s management recently cancelled lucrative prime-time programming to air the documentary 6,149 days, the true story of Greg Taylor about the first person to be freed from prison after the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission became involved in his case.

Considering the fact that there are now 520 local television stations that air no local news at all makes WRAL’s stance and coverage where I live in general very unusual.  There are many other stations in this country that broadcast less than 30 minutes of news a day resulting in the fact that a full third of the country is without local television news.

Making it even more difficult for viewers to see through unreliable information in the guise of being “balanced coverage” is the fact that some stations are moving to “pay-to-play” models with no vetting of content for accuracy or agenda.

Only a third of the country receives local cable news or all-news local radio programming, as infuriating and obnoxious as it can be when it is so slanted as the 50,000 watt am station is that beams from Raleigh into Durham where I live.

Technology is unbundling traditional news models which will make it even more difficult for media to justify coverage of the environment especially even in the fewer of than 1% of cities such as Durham where I live which has both a local newspaper and competition-coverage from one based in a city nearby, neither independently owned.

In 1920 nearly 43% of all cities had dual press coverage but today the competition doesn’t result in better coverage, just dilution of resources.  Paid circulation of daily newspapers is less today than when I was born nearly 64 years ago, four years after publication of a book entitled The Disappearing Daily.

But when I moved to Durham in 1989, newspapers nationwide employed more newsroom journalists than at anytime since I was ten years old; and now we’ve seen annual editorial budgets slashed by nearly $2 billion just since 2006.

News today may be 24/7 but it is staffed by far fewer journalists so the reality is less diversity of stories, repetitive programming, little in-depth or investigative reporting, ubiquitous feeding frenzies and “hamsterized” newsrooms.

So the public may want and even deserve more news coverage of the environment, but it is going to have to get it from non-traditional sources.

In the meantime we live in an era where politicians at the state level are increasingly less transparent and working hard to eliminate not only local control of environmental decisions but to exempt critical information about the environment from public records laws.

The idea of “breaking news” or “news bulletins” or “news flashes” was codified by the Associated Press more than 106 years ago according to Slate journalist David Wigel.

Today and in the future, we may be more likely to sense breaking news about the environment more from the air we breathe, the rapidly changing climate and the water we drink.

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