Passions and Detachment in Journalism

Read the full post by Andrew Revkin from 2010 at Dot Earth.

Last week, in writing about James Hansen’s essay on why he became a climate campaigner after decades working as a NASA climate scientist, I promised to post a lecture I gave in 2005 at Willamette University explaining how I reconciled personal passions with the professional detachment that comes with life as a journalist.

Some of you will find several familiar passages, touching on themes that have resonated in me for awhile. (And keep in mind this piece was written while I was still a full-time Times reporter.) The talk starts with my journey from training in biology to a career in journalism, including a fortuitous research fellowship that took me around the world between 1978 and 1980.


Grist now accepting applications for Justice Fellow

Are you a budding journalist looking to develop your voice, tell stories about compelling people and communities, and work at a news shop that’s making a difference? Are you equally obsessed with justice for all and whatever Kendrick Lamar drops next? Do you admire the work of people like Brentin Mock and Ta-Nehisi Coates? If so, then we have an opportunity for you.
Grist, the web’s home for green news, is looking for a justice fellow. With the mentorship and support of Grist’s edit staff, you will report on the issues, communities, and people that don’t get enough play in the environmental movement. You will make connections between news, the environment, justice, policy, and pop culture. You will explore the ways in which the environmental movement can become more inclusive — and how communities of color are pioneering new ways to fight for cleaner air and water and safer neighborhoods. You will write multiple posts a week and work on one big project during the fellowship. You will be willing to experiment with social media, video, and other multimedia (with the help of Grist staffers). And you’ll get paid.
The justice fellow will fall in line with our larger fellowship program, a six-month career development program for early-career journalists. The justice fellow, however, will have the option to work remotely. By working remotely the justice fellow will be encouraged to report on stories in her or his home community. If you do work remotely, Grist will host you here in Seattle once or twice during the six-month fellowship (so we can hang with you IRL). Or, if you want to work out of our Seattle office, we’ll set up a desk for you. Ideally you can start in August, but we’re flexible. The fellowship pays $2,250 per month.
Journalists of color, from underrepresented communities, or with connections to the environmental justice community are strongly encouraged to apply.
Apply at No phone calls, please and thank you.

How will a media outlet benefit from partnering with a science organization?

Read the full post from the Columbia Journalism Review.

Partnerships are nothing new for WGBH, the Boston public broadcaster responsible for airing monster PBS content like Frontline and science hit NOVA. After forming a partnership with the fledgling New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the two worked together so closely that the Center is now based at the station’s offices.

So while its latest pairing with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences seems par for the course, it’s actually a bit more groundbreaking. The Academy has been in existence for 235 years, but WGBH is the only media organization it’s aligned itself with. 

It’s clear what the Academy gets from having a close relationship with a large radio station that can make a major city aware of the work its researchers are doing. It’s less clear what WGBH gets from the deal.

Is Wyoming Ban on Reporting Environmental Harm Unconstitutional?

Via the Society for Environmental Journalists’ WatchDog e-mail. For a free e-mail subscription send name and full contact information to

A newly enacted Wyoming law seems to be aimed at criminalizing the collection and reporting of stream pollution or other environmental harm. It creates a unique new category of crime called “data trespass.”

Just what the law, signed in March by Gov. Matt Mead (R), means or does is being debated hotly — which suggests it may be vaguely written. Proponents say it is meant to protect property rights and prevent trespass. Opponents say it is meant to suppress factual evidence of pollution violations and prohibit the Constitutional right to free speech.

The uproar started with publication May 11, 2015, in Slate of an article by Justin Pidot, titled “Forbidden Data: Wyoming Just Criminalized Citizen Science.” Pidot is a law professor at the University of Denver who represents the environmental activist group Western Watersheds Project pro bono — a fact acknowledged in his article.

Pidot drew an extreme hypothetical — a tourist taking a photo of clouds over Yellowstone and submitting the photo to a National Weather Service photo contest — and facing a year in jail for the crime.

But it is far from clear that the law does that. The law says a person is guilty of data trespass if he/she “Enters onto or crosses private open land for the purpose of collecting resource data.” The definitions of open land and private land have been criticized as expansive and murky — but state law can rarely govern actions on federal lands. The problem may be compounded by grazing permits on federal lands, which in some quarters of the West are construed as ownership. The bill language offers little help on what is private and what public.

Environmental groups are concerned about E. coli bacteria in streams — typically caused by cattle pooping in or near them. Many of the polluted streams are on federal land; the Wyoming law makes it a crime to cross private land to get to them.

That the law is trying to prohibit data — and not just trespass, which is already illegal — seems apparent from the fact that it decrees that data gathered via “trespass” can not be used in government proceedings and must be expunged. But state laws can not normally decree what the federal government can do about using data or most other things. Still, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency delegates enforcement under the Clean Water Act to states.

Activists are concerned Wyoming has invented another form of “ag-gag” law — which aims to prevent undercover citizen reporting of animal abuse. Wyoming lawmakers deny it.


Do Firefighters Have a Right To Know About Hazmats They Face? Do You?

Via the Society for Environmental Journalists’ WatchDog e-mail. For a free e-mail subscription send name and full contact information to

When the alarm went off in 2013, ten volunteer firefighters rushed toward the burning fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that exploded and killed them. Certain federal laws are meant to give first responders information about the risks they face. But those laws often fail to protect emergency personnel — protecting companies instead.

The watchdog group Center for Effective Government offers data tools that partly offset government failures to protect people from dangerous materials that poison or injure people, burn, or explode. They are also tools for journalists trying to inform their communities.

The West, Texas, explosion killed five other people, injured 200, and leveled 37 city blocks. Perhaps if the public had really understood the risk, the city would not have allowed three schools and a nursing home to be located within the blast zone.

A new report from the Center for Effective Government concludes: “Access to state data on hazardous chemicals is difficult for the public to obtain in many states” — despite federal law. The Center has created an interactive map showing the prevalence of nine of the most hazardous chemicals in six Midwestern states — an ideal jumping-off point for deeper journalistic probes.

Some of the biggest and most dangerous facilities were required to report hazards under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986. Congress imposed further requirements, including “Risk Management Plans,” in section 112(r) of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. These requirements have been refined and implemented under numerous U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules since then.

But federal reporting requirements do not cover all the risks, and the information that is reported often fails to get through to communities and first responders. There was no federal requirement to report the ammonium nitrate that blew up West, Texas. The Center for Effective Government found that only 15 percent of the facilities with the nine hazmats the center studied were reported to the federal government.

At the urging of chemical companies, Congress partly restricted public access to Risk Management Plans (RMPs). The Right-To-Know Network, an arm of the Center for Effective Government, has compiled key portions of the RMPs and published the information in a searchable online database — another tool for reporters looking for local chemical hazards.

Journalists may want to look for hazmat facility databases in their own states. Some states require reporting from facilities that fall below the federal reporting thresholds — and some of those make the data available.

One other standard tool for journalists seeking hazmat threats to their communities is the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which covers a wider range of chemicals and facilities. It is maintained by EPA, online and searchable.

Despite FOIA, EPA Press Policy Remains a Puzzle Palace

Read the full story from the SEJ WatchDog.

In response to the WatchDog‘s request for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s press policy, EPA seems to be saying that it doesn’t have one. Or that paradoxically EPA staff can talk to reporters but are forbidden to talk to reporters. Or that EPA does not respond to requests for information.

The WatchDog finally got a partial response to its June 10, 2014, Freedom of Information Act request for EPA policies on news media access to EPA employees on April 29, 2015. But nothing was revealed. EPA offered two documents, one of which was 32 years old and both of which were already publicly available. The upshot seems to be that EPA has no agency-wide policy governing whether and when all employees can talk to news media, or that it has one but does not intend to disclose it.

After Years of Decline, Environmental Visibility in the News On the Rise*

*But still pretty darn low

As Earth Day approaches, it seems some news organizations have heard the call for coverage of environmental stories more than once a year. After four years of decreasing coverage, stories mentioning environmental issues are up 17% from 2013 to 2014 according to a new study by the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage. See the full report at

It is encouraging to see that the two media platforms with the broadest reach, network TV news and national newspapers, saw the greatest increase over the five year period. Network TV news saw an increase nearing 50%. Though they’ve seen some of the most gains, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Environmental stories make up less than 1%[1] of headlines and receive far less visibility than many trivial issues. While celebrities and entertainment are a key part of American culture, it is hard to argue that Beyoncé warrants 92 times more mentions than deforestation on network TV news programs, given the important role forests play as our planet’s lungs and that many millions of people and species depend on them.

Other Key Findings

  • In 2014, international newspapers included in the study had a level of environmental topic visibility that was 81% higher than U.S. newspapers analyzed.
  • Six of the ten broad environmental topics tracked were less visible than just one celebrity, Beyoncé Knowles.
  • The broad topic of Ocean Health, which ranked as just slightly less important than Climate Change by environmental experts, was mentioned in less than 1/16th the number of stories that mentioned climate change.
  • CBS news mentioned the environmental issues tracked nearly 150% more in 2014 than it did in 2010.

“There is a real opportunity for the industry here. The environment intersects with a number of other issue areas people care a great deal about, like health, the economy and national security to name a few,” says Todd Pollak, Co-Director of the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage. “And we know Americans want more. An Opinion Research Corporation survey found 79% of Americans want improved environmental coverage in the news.” The younger generation, coveted by advertisers, is even more concerned about the environment[2].

The news media is a primary source of public information about the environment and while many newsrooms are eliminating environmental reporters and editors, there are some bright spots. A range of innovative and legacy news organizations from the Washington Post and the Guardian to the Huffington Post and Vox are ahead of the pack in prioritizing environmental reporting. And there are a range of topic-focused institutions like Environmental Health News, Inside Climate News and the Center for Public Integrity, many of which are partnering with legacy news organizations to expand their reach. New models continue to be explored and academic programs and nonprofit programs continue to develop new resources to assist environmental reporters. With more resources to support strong environmental coverage than ever before, and numerous examples of leadership in environmental coverage, the opportunities are clear for innovation in the industry and increased visibility of this critically important topic.

Watch industry leaders discuss the need and opportunity for improved environmental coverage.

[1] Project for Improved Environmental Coverage Ranking Report:

About the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage: The Project for Improved Environmental Coverage (PIEC) is a nonprofit initiative dedicated to improving environmental news coverage in the U.S. For more visit:

Contact: Todd Pollak:, 734-418-2919  //  Kelly Spitzner:, 952-223-3364