Over the last two weeks, the New York Times public editor has highlighted the need for, decline of and future of local investigative journalism.
Her posts were prompted by the recently released movie “Spotlight” about the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation of sexual molestations by priests of children in Boston, and the Catholic Church’s cover-up.
In her posts, public editor Margaret Sullivan says, the movie “raises troubling questions about the state of local investigative reporting today and in the future.” Is that type of in-depth investigation occurring at regional papers today? What does it mean if we lose those watchdogs in the future? And more.
They’re important questions and could be asked not just about local investigative journalism but also about local investigative environmental reporting.
So is that type of in-depth investigative reporting occurring at regional and local news organizations?
The short answer is yes, absolutely, according to Beth Parke, executive director for the Society of Environmental Journalists.
Parke pointed to new organizations such as InvestigateWest in Seattle that reports on issues in the Pacific Northwest, and individual reporters at traditional papers such as James Bruggers at The Courier-Journal—a reporter who has won numerous awards such as one for a series on hazardous air pollution in Louisville and its health effects, sources and enforcement failures—as examples of the strong investigative regional and local reporting that occurs now.
The question of how often that type of reporting occurs is more difficult to answer. There are fewer reporters now and team watchdog reporting similar to “Spotlight” overall is down as well, Mark Horvit, executive director for Investigative Reporters & Editors, told Bloomberg BNA.
The American Society of News Editors and Florida International University’s recent annual journalism census found there were 3,800 or 10.4 percent fewer journalists working in 2014 compared to 2013, from 36,700 in 2013 to 32,900 in 2014 journalists total.
“There’s no way that doesn’t come into environmental journalism,” Horvit said.
Putting precise numbers to these facts is difficult though. Even trying to parse out environment coverage more broadly in local and regional papers over the last several years is resource-intensive given the large number of relevant news organizations, Todd Pollak, co-director of the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage, told Bloomberg BNA.
In his group’s recent trends report, it found overall visibility across 10 regional newspapers in the U.S. decreased 3 percent over five years, from 10,481 articles on the environment in 2010 to 10,163 articles in 2014.
“It’s certainly possible or maybe even likely that there were similar trends in other regional newspapers, but our sample size was too small to say that,” Pollak told Bloomberg BNA.
Horvit pointed to this year’s “record number” of applications for his group’s awards as one way to quantify the good work that is being done on the broader investigative front. Parke pointed to her society’s own award competition as one that identifies strong environmental reporting at the local to national scale.
“The work that does get done is so high quality,” Parke told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s as if the reporters get it, that this work isn’t a dime a dozen, so when they get the chance to do it, they really get done.”
Horvit emphasized that there is a “tendency to romanticize” what journalism was like around the time the “Spotlight” team did it’s reporting and earlier. Even in the early 2000s, reporting like “Spotlight” was “extraordinary,” he said.
“There was a need for more investigative reporting before and there’s a need for more now,” Horvit said.
And what does it mean if we lose those local environmental watchdogs in the future?
Environmental issues—while obviously significant globally—are also extremely local problems. Climate change is an example of this on both levels, with international impacts from greenhouse gases, but unique other impacts based on location--such as sea level rise in Miami or food insecurity in tropical regions. Lesser reported on areas such as environmental justice can also be especially local issues.
For example, consider how land-use decisions are being made, where polluting sites are being built, where those sites are in compliance, or even how allocated money is being used for resiliency efforts. One of the key areas in which environmental justice advocates are working at a state-level is on implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, as local energy landscapes are redeveloped.
And even though these are areas the national press covers—the Center for Public Integrity, for example, did a great series on how well discrimination law is being enforced across permits, for example—the local press could be in a better position to attend daily meetings where questions may come up, knock on someone’s door—like in “Spotlight”—and expose the bad actors within their own community.
Parke said newsrooms won’t necessarily know when they’re missing corruption or certain other stories because “how can you know you’re missing something you never had?” But she emphasized that environmental reporters play a critical role in protecting their communities, such as getting to the bottom of the public health impacts of a hazardous spill or why it occurred. Journalists have a unique credibility, and act as public servants in their work.
“Journalists who cover health and safety through a lens of the environment are in a sense first responders,” Parke said. “Having people who it’s their job to respond to danger, frankly, and prevent harm, that’s the investment that if it goes missing, it has an impact on people’s health.”
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