Green causes still on media horizon

Although environmental issues aren't as prominent in the press as they once were, David Ward finds that many media outlets are evolving their green coverage

Although environmental issues aren't as prominent in the press as they once were, David Ward finds that many media outlets are evolving their green coverage

In recent years, it seems as though media interest in the environment has taken a backseat to other pressing issues impacting Americans, such as terrorism, oil, and the economy.

"When gas is $2.50 a gallon, it's tough for consumers to worry about a sinkhole somewhere," notes Honey Rand, president of the Tampa, FL-based Environmental PR Group.

But PR pros representing green causes say there is still ample coverage of the environment and add that reporters are now looking beyond the simplistic conflicts, such as to stories that would pit job concerns against environmental ones.

"For a number of years now, the Sierra Club and the environmental movement in general have been consciously moving away from the 'Chicken Little, sky is falling' frame and instead talk a lot more about solutions to environmental problems," says David Willett, deputy press secretary for the Sierra Club.

"The stories making the front page and the front section are the stories about strange bedfellows - nontraditional allies, such as security hawks and environmentalists working together because we both want to end our dependence on foreign oil."

The scope of coverage

In the national media, Willett says, the environmental coverage tends to focus on public policy and big-picture solutions, such as the debate over the effectiveness of "cap and trade" programs to reduce industrial pollution.

But Bob Oltmanns, president of Pittsburgh-based firm Skutski & Oltmanns, says that outside of a handful of markets, such as New York, Washington, and LA, coverage of the environment tends to be very localized.

"A lot of reporters tell us they have a real interest in things going on in other parts of the US, but say their editors are asking, 'Why would readers care about what's going on in Nevada?'"

Despite the budget cuts that have whittled down many editorial staffs, most newsweekly magazines, as well as dailies in major markets, still maintain a dedicated environmental reporter.

"Environmental reporters in general are very educated about their issues, and it seems there's a lot of interest in reporters wanting to cover the environment," says Willett. "It's even being offered as a specialty in journalism schools."

In smaller markets, environmental stories tend to be covered as a subdivision of other beats, such as agriculture, says Ryan Hanser of Des Moines, IA-based Hanser & Associates.

But he notes that, regardless of whether stories are covered by an environmental specialist or within another beat, reporters are looking for the same thing in a pitch. "Generally, they want to speak to someone who has a first-person perspective and whose life has been impacted by these issues," says Hanser.

David Landis, president of San Francisco-based Landis Communications, sees reason for long-term optimism because of the myriad environmental angles being included in other stories.

"For our clients with a green bent, such as Whole Foods Market, we're finding we can talk to reporters from the food pages, features, or business section for stories dealing with the labeling of seafood and letting consumers know whether its been farm raised or line caught," he says. "Even travel reporters, especially those focused on adventure travel, are inching more into environmental issues."

Facing scrutiny

Despite the coverage possibilities, Rand says many companies are leery of touting their environmentally friendly policies to the press out of concern that journalists tend to gravitate more toward conflict than happy endings. "When a business has done something really good for the environment, getting the reporters to focus on that is very, very challenging," she says. "But if you've got a disaster or a company that's done something bad, they're all over it. So part of our job is to ensure [firms'] behavior is consistent with their message, so we warn them in advance that when you call attention to yourself, you're going to get scrutinized."

Though most environmental reporters tend to be at print outlets, Landis says environmental stories can also deliver great visuals that make for good TV.

"When you see a thundering Yosemite Falls cascading over a granite cliff, it makes for a great image," Landis says. "And what we're finding is that even local TV reporters are very well versed on environmental issues because they can use the internet to get a lot of background information in a hurry."

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