The Trump administration has created challenges not only for the environment, but for those who cover it. Recently, I was invited – along with Bay Journal managing editor Tim Wheeler, and Joel McCord, news director of public radio station WYPR in Baltimore — to talk to a group of foundations about those challenges.
This administration has proposed unprecedented actions: defunding the Bay Program; pulling back from national and international climate commitments; and attempting to roll back protections for streams and wetlands; to name a few.
The challenges of covering those issues — and reaching the public — has deeper roots. At newspapers around the nation, the number of reporters focused on such topics is down. The Bay region has fewer than half the environment reporters it did a decade ago, by our estimate, and many of them have multiple duties. Increasingly, we see more articles generated from press releases rather than reporters following up on tips, leaks, scientific studies or information gleaned from interviewing a variety of sources. That’s important, because press releases typically provide a filtered version of the news — agencies aren’t generally going to issue a release on things they’re doing badly. Even meetings where important decisions are made, which once drew several reporters, now frequently have none.
So, there are fewer people to tell these stories, such as the local impacts of what’s going on in DC. While the proposed elimination of the Bay Program did receive coverage — generated in part from press releases from environmental groups — the significant cuts proposed for other federal agencies working on the Bay (See “Trump’s budget cuts wide and deep swath through Bay-related programs,” July-August 2017) went largely unreported.
Other controversies surrounding this administration have also crowded out environmental news. The Columbia Journalism Review, a leading trade publication, recently asked its readers what stories were not getting enough coverage. Environmental issues were among the most cited. This administration hasn’t made it any easier, tightening restrictions on reporters’ access to agencies beyond what its predecessors have done.
Nonprofit journalism efforts such as ours and McCord’s are helping to fill the void. McCord formed Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative, which combines the resources of five public radio stations in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, and shares Bay-related news and features. Articles distributed through our Bay Journal News Service reach new audiences by appearing in newspapers and websites, including some that don’t closely follow the environment.
These efforts are highly dependent on philanthropy. We tend to be heavily invested in putting people on the “beat” and lack staff for fund-raising or administration — something a Pew Research Center report found common in nonprofit journalism enterprises.
But this is about more than journalism or the environment. Our form of government depends on informed citizens to make decisions. If the media can’t inform or engage the public, it’s a fraying of the fabric of our democracy.