LJWorld.com weblogs Lauren Keith
The Birth and Death of the Environmental Beat
The task seemed incredibly straightforward: Buy a thermometer and take temperature readings twice daily for a month. Compare the temperatures to other weather stations in Lawrence and data from previous years.
But I messed it up the first day.
I lived in a tangle of student apartments, so I didn’t know where to put the thermometer. I didn’t know when to read it. Should I have two readings 12 hours apart? Was it actually feasible to read it daily at 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.? What if I had other plans at those times? What happened if my thermometer was stolen or mowed over (which it was … twice)?
Even as a journalism and environmental studies major, I didn’t understand the data I was collecting. How accurate was my temperature record if I missed a reading? In a seemingly simple experiment, I saw the pitfalls of synthesizing even small amounts of data. Who decides what information is told and what isn’t?
Most people don’t see the similarities between scientists and journalists (especially all the people who ask me what I’m going to do with my life), yet their missions are incredibly similar: take reams of complex information and make it understandable.
But understandable to whom? The revival of green in the last few years has given birth to the environmental beat at newspapers and magazines. Stories about the environment frequently make headlines. Joe Sixpack can learn about recycling and compact fluorescent light bulbs and methane tax.
Unfortunately, that’s where the environmental beat has seemed to end. We can talk about driving less and the greenest underwear to buy, but environmental journalists have an obligation more than most other journalists to move beyond the basics.
And that’s where the environmental beat has limited us. Journalists can’t know when the basics have been covered enough. When has everyone learned about organic food or carbon dioxide? When do we move on to CAFOs and coal-fired power plants?
Journalists, in trying to write for their audience, leave out a lot of information out of necessity. But when do we graduate to the next level?
I don’t know the answer. I can’t even take the temperature correctly.
— Lauren Keith