In new book, Fairfield University professor says BP oil spill highlights need for more well-trained environment reporters



Image: James SimonAlthough the BP oil spill disaster is one of the biggest news stories of our time, there are not enough full-time experienced environment reporters to cover it and report on its far-reaching impact, according to a Fairfield University professor who co-authored a new book on U.S. environment reporters.

Dr. James Simon, director of Fairfield's journalism program and co-author of "Environment Reporters in the 21st Century" (Transaction Press, 2010) - the first nationwide study of U.S. environment reporters - said the BP oil spill story is so big and has lasted so long that many news organizations, especially in the Gulf region, have been forced to use the entire newsroom to cover the continuing impact on natural resources, business, government, science, health, energy, and human interest issues.

The book, co-authored with Drs. David B. Sachsman and JoAnn Valenti, reveals most newspapers and television stations do not have even one full-time staff member who covers the environment on a regular basis. Only 534 out of 1,462 daily newspapers - or 36.5 percent - had at least one full-time reporter who covered the environment on a regular basis and even fewer television stations, 86 out of 859 (10.0) percent, had such a reporter.

The authors contacted every U.S. daily newspaper and every television station with a news department and asked to speak with reporters who said they "cover the environment on a regular basis." They identified 603 such newspaper reporters and 83 television reporters; 95 percent of them, or 652 reporters, agreed to take part in the study.

  • Full-time environment specialists were rare among these journalists. Only 26 percent said they spent two-thirds or more of their time on environment stories.
  • Only 29 percent of them had the word "environment" in their job title, and the average journalist in the study spent less than half their time - 43 percent - on environment stories.
  • Environment reporters were far more likely than journalists in general to have majored or minored in science as a college undergraduate and to have completed a master's degree.
  • Despite their greater interest in science, more than a third of the environment reporters agreed that most environment journalists were not well enough educated to cover news about such issues; about three-quarters of these reporters said they themselves needed additional training.
  • While the news media often stereotypes environment reporters as liberal, Save-the-Earth tree-huggers, the study found environment reporters were more likely than U.S. journalists in general to describe themselves as political independents. Some 51.8 percent said they were independent. Another 32.6 percent of environment reporters said they were Democrats, 9.3 percent were Republican, and 6.3 percent had some other political affiliation.

Simon, who covered the environment for The Associated Press and served as Assistant Secretary of the Environment for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, said the book found environment reporters and their sources often differ on how or when to get the news out. "There is a constant struggle among the thousands of environmental activists, corporate public relations people, government officials, and scientists to frame the message in a way that is advantageous to their point of view. These competing interests need to understand how environment journalists think and function."

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on July 6, 2010

Vol. 43, No. 4