The Great Green Debate

There's a great debate among those who cover the interaction between human beings and the earth, a fight for the very soul of the discipline: Should these journalists' professional organization be called the “Society of Environmental Journalists” or the “Society for Environmental Journalism”?

OK, that's being facetious, but the question isn't as trivial as it might seem. As the Columbia Journalism Review's Curtis Brainard noted last week, there's an ongoing attempt in newsrooms to figure out just where reporting on the environment belongs. It is a discrete field of journalism practiced by committed specialists (Environmental Journalists), or a beat like any other news topic (Enviromental Journalism)?

Writing from the annual conference of the Society for Environmental Journalists – the group's current moniker – Brainard was struck by the interest that the proposed name change drew. What should have been a routine meeting suddenly seemed much more significant. Brainard describes the heart of the problem well:

"As environmental news spreads to new venues - including Oscar-winning documentaries - editors and reporters have become very attentive to the line between writing about the environment and writing on behalf of the environment."

Brainard very smartly points out that films like An Inconvenient Truth and Leonardo DiCaprio's The 11th Hour add to the confusion about eco-reporting by employing tropes of journalism – the "expert" interview, documentary-style voiceovers, etc. – while at the same time advocating a point of view and a proposed plan of action. Ideally, green journalism, like other forms of journalism, earns its credibility by presenting the news with as little bias as possible, letting the facts speak for themselves rather than arguing a particular opinion.

Journalists of all stripes are already scrambling to deal with the rise of citizen journalism, blogs, overtly biased news media, new technologies, and shrinking staffs. Add in the problems of defining a newly expanded role in the newsroom, and journalists covering the green beat have got a lot of headaches to deal with. Though it won't be entirely up to them in the end, the members of SEJ will have a large role to play in determining just what their letters stand for.

(Disclosure: I once worked at CJR, although not with Brainard.)