Before the 1960s, the media reported sporadically on the environment—often then referred to as the 'ecology' issue.
But Rachel Carson's 1962 book, Silent Spring, which raised deep concerns about the nation's increasing reliance on synthetic pesticides, sparked the United States' modern environmental movement and, in turn, increased media scrutiny of its issues.
Before Silent Spring, some major pollution events, notably the "killer fog" of Donora, Pennsylvania, and the black afternoon smog of major industrial towns such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis, had largely been the limits of media coverage.
"Throughout most of the Sixties, unless a river was on fire or a major city was in the midst of a weeklong smog alert, pollution was commonly accepted by both the press and the general population as a fact of life," wrote David B. Sachsman in the SEJournal, the quarterly publication of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ).
"Until the late Sixties, conservationists were thought of as eccentric woodsmen and environmentalists were considered unrealistic prophets of doom," continued Sachsman, a communications and public affairs professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
With this new environmental interest, pioneers on the environmental beat began to distinguish themselves in the 1960s and 1970s. They included the New York Times' Gladwin Hill and the Houston Post' s Harold Scarlett. More reporters quickly followed.
"The year 1969 was pivotal for this growing media and public interest in the state of our environment," Sachsman concluded. That year, the New York Times, soon followed by other major newspapers, created an environment beat. Time and Saturday Review developed regular environment sections, Look devoted an entire issue to the "ecology crisis." National Geographic offered a nine-thousand-word article on humankind's environmental problems. As the 1970s dawned, Walter Cronkite presented the television feature "Can the World be Saved?" and Paul Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb had also become a best-seller.
About this time, television was coming into its own as a powerful new medium. Its coverage lent fuel to the growing environmental movement. Images of oil-soaked birds on the Santa Barbara beach, the result of the Channel-Union Oil spill in 1969; stories on the "death" of Lake Erie; giant fish kills in the Great Lakes; and the burning Cuyahoga River in Ohio cemented in the nation's mind that an important new political, business, and social issue had awakened.
In turn, an estimated 20 million Americans gathered on April 22, 1970, for the first Earth Day. As a single event related to the environment, it would not be matched for two decades.
Such political action quickly prompted federal legislation, including the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972. This legislative attention gave legitimacy to the issue, spawning more media coverage.
During the mid-1970s, the hot environment story was the threat of chemical pollution from the nation's industrial plants and the pollution such operations had left behind. The coverage of Love Canal, New York, in the late 1970s and, in 1983, the evacuation of tiny Times Beach, Missouri, put into headlines and daily conversation such insidious chemical names as "dioxin."
In 1989, the year of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, television images again riveted the nation, showing oil-drenched birds struggling to survive on pollution-fouled beaches. Global warming, concern over endangered species, and air and water quality combined to increase coverage in all media. That year, 774 minutes of environmental coverage on the three major broadcast networks' nightly news set a new record, according to the Tyndall Report, an analysis of network news coverage.
In 1991, former New York Times environment reporter Phil Shabecoff, founded the nation's first environmental news service, known then as Greenwire. "The environment isn't a one-shot news story—it's something that needs to covered in-depth, day after day," Shabecoff later told the Columbia Journalism Review.
During the late 1980s, a group of daily reporters covering environmental issues began the SEJ, an organization formed by journalists to help other journalists do a better job on the difficult environment beat. Among the founders were some of the nation's distinguished environment reporters, including Jim Detjen of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Rae Tyson of USA Today, Noel Grove of National Geographic, Shabecoff, and Teya Ryan of Turner Broadcasting. Eighteen reporters attended the group's first organizational meeting.
"We doubt that we will ever become a slick operation," Detjen wrote in 1990. Today, the SEJ boasts more than 1,200 members—journalists, academics, and students, an annual budget of nearly $800,000, and a host of programs for journalists and students, including an annual conference, a quarterly journal, and website updated daily with the latest environmental reports.
In 1990, the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day marked the single largest global demonstration on the environment, winning coverage from Mt. Everest to Kansas. But a backlash against the issue and those who cover it soon developed.
"It is becoming trendy to ask whether environmental laws, not polluters, are the real public enemy," wrote Kevin Carmody, a founding SEJ board member, in the Columbia Journalism Review in 1995. "In newsrooms throughout the country, the hot story is the 'high cost of environmental regulation,' not the people or resources harmed when that regulation fails."
Indeed, journalists caught in the 1990 frenzy to celebrate Earth Day may have forgotten some basic journalistic principles—such as, question everything—opening the door for criticism. John Stossel, an ABC consumer and environment reporter, attracted sixteen million viewers in 1994 with a special report entitled "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" The Los Angeles Times devoted seven full pages to a series by media critic David Shaw, called "Living Scared: Why Do the Media Make Life Seem So Risky?"
By 1993, minutes on the television networks devoted to environmental coverage had dwindled by 60 percent. Even so, environmental stories would reap ten Pulitzer Prizes in the 1990s, compared to just nine in the three previous decades.
When a new Republican president was elected to the White House in 2000—George W. Bush—environment coverage quickly picked up again. From January to May 2001, New York Times reporter Douglas Jehl wrote sixty stories on the environment, many of them displayed on page one.
"I didn't expect this," Jehl told the Columbia Journalism Review. "No matter how you measure it, in terms of volume of copy or prominence of play, there is a lot of environmental coverage today."
The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times added environment reporters, anticipating major conflicts thanks to the new Bush Administration. The Tyndall Report found evening news coverage of the issue back up, to nearly six hundred minutes.
"This renewed interest came at a time when the beat was in need of some new twists," said Bud Ward, then executive director of the Environmental Health Center in Washington, D.C. "There was a feeling on the part of some editors that we're talking about the same problems as twenty years earlier," Ward said. "Environmental problems today are more subtle than smog over Pittsburgh."
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a war in Iraq, and the nation's sputtering economy (which might be used to rally support for decreased environmental protections) will present a new challenge to the coverage and interest in environmental issues. The environmental beat also faces an internal pressure. More newsroom staffs are being pared as the economy contracts and media competition increases.
But the last forty years have shown that each time interest in the topic wanes, enterprising reporters rekindle it. Their future attention or lack of it may play a pivotal role in how much larger the issue becomes in national politics.
"To report news about global warming in 10 inches of copy presents daunting challenges to even the most knowledgeable and skilled environmental reporter and editing team," Ward wrote in a recent issue of Nieman Reports that explored coverage of environmental issues.
Ward continued: "But the ways in which reporters and editors, correspondents and producers confront these challenges—the ones inside and outside the newsroom—will have a large effect in determining how Americans and their government anticipate and respond to continuing environmental pressures."
SEE ALSO P OPULAR C ULTURE .
Hill, Gladwin. (1973) Madman in a Lifeboat: Issues of the Environmental Crisis. New York: John Day Co.
Keating, Michael. (1993). Covering the Environment: A Handbook on Environmental Journalism. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.
Shabecoff, Philip. (2000). Earth Rising: American Environmentalism in the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
Society of Environmental Journalists Web site. Available from http://www.sej.org .
"The mission of the Society of Environmental Journalists is to advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy, and visibility of environmental reporting."
"The enthusiasms of Earth Day 1970 have been institutionalized in legislation, regulation, litigation, political dynamics and new personal values, and woven into the fabric of national life."
—Gladwin Hill, New York Times , December 30, 1979
PULITZER PRIZES AWARDED FOR ENVIRONMENTAL REPORTING
• 1967—PUBLIC SERVICE
Milwaukee (WI) Journal: For its successful campaign to stiffen the law against water pollution in Wisconsin, a notable advance in the national effort for the conservation of natural resources.
• 1971—PUBLIC SERVICE
Winston-Salem (NC) Journal and Sentinel: For coverage of environmental problems, as exemplified by a successful campaign to block strip mining operation that would have caused irreparable damage to the hill country of northwest North Carolina.
• 1979—NATIONAL REPORTING
James Risser of the Des Moines (IA) Register: For a series on farming damage to the environment.
• 1992—PUBLIC SERVICE
Sacramento (CA) Bee: For "The Sierra in Peril," reporting by Tom Knudson that examined environmental threats and damage to the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California.
• 1996—PUBLIC SERVICE
News & Observer, Raleigh, NC: For the work of Melanie Sill, Pat Stith and Joby Warrick on the environmental and health risks of waste-disposal systems used in North Carolina's growing hog industry.
• 1996—EDITORIAL WRITING
Robert B. Semple, Jr. of the New York Times: For his editorials on environmental issues.
• 1998—INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING
Gary Cohn and Will Englund of the Baltimore Sun: For their compelling series on the international ship-breaking industry, that revealed the dangers posed to workers and the environment when discarded ships are dismantled.