by Lester Graham
July 18, 2011
Jeff Alexander, the former environment reporter for the Muskegon Chronicle, likes to tell a story about the time he was at a coffee shop in a town on the Lake Michigan coast. There were plastic bottles of water available, but he opted not to buy bottled water.
“I’ll have a glass of Lake Michigan water,” he told the barista. She looked at him, confused. “We don’t have any Lake Michigan water,” she said.
“Of course you do,” Alexander told her, “it comes out of the tap.” She didn’t believe him. She didn’t realize the source of her town’s water was that big lake by the beach.
“That level of ignorance is frightening,” Alexander says. He feels that given Michigan’s unique relationship with the Great Lakes — for health, recreation and commerce — Michigan residents should be better informed, or at least as well informed, about environmental issues as any of the residents of our neighboring states.
“Sadly, I think we are headed in the other direction,” Alexander said. He believes that one of the main reasons for these misconceptions is the rapidly decreasing number of environmental reporters at newspapers and other mainstream media.
Should we care that the environmental journalism scene is changing dramatically in our state, with far less coverage by the traditional news media of major environmental issues? Not surprisingly, some of Michigan’s leading environment journalists believe that the upheaval in coverage of the environment couldn’t come at a more critical point in our history.
Governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Legislature, who in their first six months in office enacted sweeping and controversial changes to the state’s budget and tax policies, are beginning to take a comprehensive look at overhauling how businesses in this state are regulated. Business interests see Michigan’s regulatory system as being fouled up in way too much red tape, slowing the pace of entrepreneurship and job creation. They see an overhaul of the regulatory system as a needed effort to create better economic success. But changing how businesses are regulated could have immediate and long-lasting implications for the environment, public health and worker safety.
How and whether the general public will understand all of those implications is not clear. The changing news media landscape has reduced the number of mainstream reporters on the environment beat. At the same time, advocacy groups of every stripe have unprecedented influence on the public, using approaches which appear to be journalism, but in some cases —whether intentional or not — don’t have the rigorous editorial standards of mainstream journalism.
In his State of the State address in January, Gov. Snyder said his administration will “review existing and proposed regulations to create a better environment for economic success…,” adding that Michigan still has a duty to protect citizens and businesses. Already, legislation has been introduced that would roll back Michigan regulations to the minimum required by the federal government.
That switch to relying more heavily on federal protection standards would mean that the trained professionals who write the rules that actually regulate businesses and others would be stripped of the power to do anything the legislature doesn’t specifically write into law. That’s a major change in how the “Great Lakes State” has seen its role in protecting the environment, particularly since those lakes hold one-fifth of the world’s accessible fresh water, an important responsibility held chiefly by the State of Michigan.
“At one time Michigan bragged about leading the nation as being the first or the strictest with many environmental regulations. Now we’re embarrassed by it,” David Poulson explained in an email. Since 2003 Poulson has been on the journalism faculty at Michigan State University, currently as associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. Prior to that he reported on environmental issues for Booth Newspapers for 12 years, with a decade of experience as a reporter prior to that.
He adds that there could well be good reason to change regulations in Michigan, and it’s a worthwhile public debate. “But I doubt we’ll see that decision put into deep context by the media,” he wrote. In other words, it’s hard to have a thorough public debate when a virtual brownout in traditional news coverage and analysis of the issues prevents the public from participating to the fullest.
The upheaval is the result of economics rather than conspiracy. Many of the journalists who’ve covered the environment beat and built strong “institutional knowledge” of the issues have left or lost their jobs because newspapers have contracted and the recession has caused massive layoffs throughout the news media.
Poulson cites Booth newspapers, which used to consist of daily papers in Ann Arbor, Jackson, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, Flint, Bay City and Saginaw. He was a full-time environmental journalist with Booth. When he was hired there were full- or part-time environmental reporters at most if not all of Booth’s eight daily papers. There was also a reporter in Washington, D.C. whose job included covering the environment, and the Detroit bureau would publish an occasional business-related environmental story, adding to environmental coverage. In addition, four full-time reporters covered the state capital. Most of those positions have since gone away. It’s typical of the kind of deterioration of the news media in Michigan (and across the nation).
Hugh McDiarmid, Jr. is the former environmental reporter for the Detroit Free Press. The Freep still has an environmental reporter, Tina Lam. But McDiarmid, who has been the communications director for the Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council advocacy organization since 2006, says many other top-notch environmental reporters are no longer working for newspapers in Michigan. Jeff Kart of the Bay City Times, Alexander of the Muskegon Chronicle, Emilia Askari of the Free Press — all leading environmental journalists —are no longer writing for newspapers.
In print, still covering the environment are, in addition Lam at the Free Press, John Flesher at the Associated Press and Jim Lynch at The Detroit News. But often, some of the big stories in Michigan are being covered from outside the state by reporters such as Tom Henry at the Toledo Blade and Michael Hawthorne at the Chicago Tribune.
“It drives me nuts when my first GoogleNews alert on some breaking environmental news — like a key court ruling or a DEQ decision — comes from the Chicago Tribune,” McDiarmid said.
McDiarmid believes you cannot blame just the bad economy or the “greedy media behemoths” for the huge reduction in environmental coverage. He explains that newspapers and television stations cover topics that people respond to. “If stories about federal regulations on oil and gas pipelines got as much feedback as Jennifer Lopez’s ass, we’d be hearing and reading more about it,” he wrote in an email.
That’s not to say there have not been some recent good-faith efforts by mainstream media. The Grand Rapids Press made a commitment to covering the Grand River last year. The Free Press made a significant effort in examining the threat of Asian carp invading the Great Lakes via a Chicago canal. Public radio’s Environment Report and Michigan Radio along with other media in the area extensively covered the Enbridge pipeline 800,000 gallon oil spill into the Kalamazoo River.
But less and less overall environmental coverage by mainstream media means people don’t always know how governmental policies will affect their land, water and air. As Alexander’s coffee shop story points out, many lose touch between their lives and the environment that sustains them or they never actually learn about that connection.
There might be some reason for optimism, though. McDiarmid at the Michigan Environmental Council finds there’s more “environmental” reporting by beat reporters in other areas of mainstream media. Business reporters are more willing to explore the environmental aspects of sprawling development, automobile industry trends toward fuel efficiency and electric powered vehicles, or more alternative energy choices. He adds outdoor writers such as Eric Sharp at the Free Press and Howard Meyerson at the Grand Rapids Press/Mlive are not just “hook and bullet” columnists, as their predecessors might have been, and “they understand the role sportsmen and sportswomen must play in issues like protecting blue-ribbon trout streams from degradation, saving wildlife habitat from unchecked development or the role climate change will have in transforming their sports.”
Poulson agrees. He sees more environmental coverage in the business sections of newspapers and by political reporters. “That helps engage different readers. Effective environmental journalism needs to engage people [who are] not engaged in environmental issues,” he said.
These former reporters also see nonprofits picking up some of the slack. Poulson cites Michigan Radio’s The Environment Report (disclosure: this reporter formerly worked for The Environment Report and still reports for Michigan Radio), Rebecca Williams’ production of a twice-weekly report on Michigan environmental issues. Michigan Radio once produced a daily national report, but the economic downturn made that endeavor impossible to continue. Rather than abandon the effort completely, the public radio outlet refocused the segment to concentrate on Michigan issues. Poulson also notes public radio station WBEZ in Chicago is also producing coverage of the environment through its Front and Center series.
Poulson is also contributing to fill the gap. The Knight Center for Environmental Journalism launched Great Lakes Echo in recent years. The online news service uses material from graduate assistants, paid interns, some grad and undergraduate coursework and, recently, freelancers across the Great Lakes basin to report on environmental issues.
“Poulson’s crew of students do some excellent work on environmental issues and the ECHO website is fantastic,” Alexander said. “But the fact that some of the best environmental news coverage in Michigan is being produced by college students speaks volumes about the state of traditional media in this state,” he added.
With the gap in traditional news coverage, other groups have stepped in with information. Advocacy groups now publish their own coverage of the environment online.
Alexander works as a media consultant/contractor for the National Wildlife Federation, which includes the blog “Wildlife Promise.” He also formed his own company and writes for several nonprofit conservation groups and some newspapers. He thinks it’s good that advocacy groups are covering environmental issues because more people and policymakers will be aware of them. “But,” he adds, “I think it is inherently dangerous for our democracy when people rely on advocacy groups as sources of news.”
Another former newspaper reporter has a slightly different take. As he was preparing to leave the Bay City Times, Jeff Kart took matters into his own hands. He was at the Times for 14 years, but as the paper started to contract, he started planning for his future. He knew he didn’t want to leave the environment beat. In an email, Kart wrote, “I think they’re [environmental issues] simply the most important issues out there, from a news and personal perspective.”
Kart established his own company, Enviroprose, and started rounding up clients. As a consultant he is now managing editor of Earthzine, an online site that covers environmental issues and emerging environmentally friendly and earth-observing technologies. He also works with the International Upper Great Lakes Study. When asked why he left print for online services, he responded, “The Internet is all about communication, sharing, learning and developing readers and followers who trust your content and want to read more.”
He stresses, however, that he’s not an environmentalist, he’s an environmental writer. “I covered crime in Iowa, I wasn’t a criminal. And just because I cover the environment doesn’t mean I’m an environmentalist,” Kart explained. He also dismisses the concept of “advocacy journalism.”
“Let me share a secret,” Kart said. “There’s no such thing as unbiased journalism. Every journalist reports from a perspective.” He says business reporters think from a business angle, politics reporters look at everything from a political perspective. “All journalism is advocacy journalism, in a sense,” Kart insists.
McDiarmid indicates he’s still an old-fashioned journalist at heart. “Advocacy journalism still seems an oxymoron to me, but maybe I’m a dinosaur,” he said. He does concede advocacy journalists have contributed positively to public policy discussions and the general understanding of complex issues. He cites non-traditional media such as Michigan Messenger, Michigan Land Use Institute, the Anglers of the AuSable and his own organization’s newsletter as bringing attention to a new kind of natural gas extraction in Michigan called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or horizontal “fracking.”
“The trick is to separate the deluge of Angry Bloggers, Political Hacks, and Truth Benders from the folks who are doing the really good, solid reporting to back up their advocacy,” McDiarmid warns. He says that’s tough to do when you can find seemingly authoritative backup for any crackpot theory with just a few mouse clicks.
Most of the blogosphere “borrows” reporting from the shrinking number of journalists actually covering events and issues. Then many times those bloggers select the facts they like from a story, add a heavy dose of spin and, voila! They’re an expert.
McDiarmid believes the key to effective advocacy journalism must be complete transparency, letting the reader, listener, viewer know where you stand and then reveal all the facts available and where you got those facts.
Kart at Enviroprose agrees transparency is absolutely necessary. “A reporter’s job is, and should be, to get at the truth,” he explained. He says it pays to be fair to the people you interview, fair to readers so that they fully understand issues. That’s the only way, “people will value your word.” He writes for Midwest Energy News and OnEarth, both funded by environmental-type organizations. “They’ve never meddled with my work,” he explained, even when he highlighted views they didn’t support. He feels journalistic integrity and a degree of independence can make all the difference in whether advocacy journalism can serve and inform the people well.
These former reporters say that these days even the legacy media have a hard time accomplishing that. McDiarmid says it’s laughable and sad to see the erosion of editorial standards from institutions with once proud journalistic traditions. As the splintered media fight for whatever audience niche they can retain, standards of journalism change. “I can’t believe some of the garbage I hear pass for analysis of environmental issues on WJR talk shows or from the Detroit News’ editorial writers’ blogs lately,” McDiarmid seethes.
All of these changes in the news media landscape will make coverage of how the Michigan legislature approaches Gov. Snyder’s call for regulatory reform “interesting.” And regulatory changes are almost certainly coming.
During last year’s campaign, Snyder said, “Our regulatory system is backwards in this state.”
Business lobbyists can hardly wait for the changes. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce backed Snyder’s campaign in a big way, as did many business groups. It’s now using its substantial influence to ensure regulatory reform happens. It wants government regulation to get out of the way of business as much as possible. After the business tax restructuring, changes in the regulatory system top the list of what it wants to see from the governor and the legislature.
At the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the former head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Russ Harding, has put together a plan to reduce some of what he calls regulatory burden on business. In it, he suggests federal rules are already pretty tough. Any state rule that goes beyond federal regulations should not be left to the state’s agency regulators to decide.
Late last year, shortly after Snyder had been elected, Harding argued that the regulators were making it difficult to do business in Michigan. During an interview with me in the café area of the George W. Romney House Office Building, Harding explained: “What you end up with is some state employee in a cubicle writing a regulation in their particular narrow interest without the broader view, without a concern about what the cost of that might be, what the unintended consequences might be. And I think that we need to have accountability, and the way we have accountability is to vote for people.”
In other words, anything beyond federal regulations should go to the state legislature for a vote. That, of course, dismisses the expertise of the state engineers, biologists, accountants and other professionals who work to safeguard the public and the environment.
And, as mentioned above, legislation has been introduced to do exactly as Harding has outlined.
Where will Michigan residents be able to turn for solid, credible coverage of issues such as that and the impacts of those changes? David Poulson at MSU thinks news media are in so much chaos it’ll be hard to predict. He hopes if people do their homework, they’ll be able to find good sources of information. “The reader engagement and democratization of journalism that news media allow is an enormous and exciting development,” he says.
Jeff Kart is also optimistic. He thinks consumers of news will be able to find the information they need, but it won’t be as easy as picking up the paper. “People these days are seeking out their sources for news and information,” Kart observes. “People will and can be as informed as they want to be these days,” he offers.
Alexander thinks we’re in trouble. He feels that despite the contraction of the newspaper industry, the papers still generate most of the original news content and are a main source of news for broadcast media, bloggers and others. “I see nothing good coming out of the decline of newspapers.”
And news dinosaur Hugh McDiarmid is also worried. “I have low expectations that the precious few state Capitol reporters left will have the time, inclination and support from their bosses to dig into how Gov. Snyder’s agenda will affect our water resources and festering problems,” McDiarmid said. However, he is hopeful that the best of advocacy journalism will pick up the slack left by the “erosion of mainstream media manpower.”
Having covered the environment beat for 14 years and now having covered issues decided in Lansing over the past year, this reporter thinks people will have to work damned hard to keep up with the issues. They won’t find as much or as deep environmental coverage as in the past without following some of those sources of advocacy journalism. The hope is that people have the good sense to contrast the views of sources they’d like to believe with those of sources they often disagree and come to conclusions that are more informed.