Facing up to inconvenient truths

30 Jan 2019

LMU historian Simone Müller talks about the emergence and significance of environmental journalism – and the conference on “Writing for Change” at the Center for Advanced Studies.

Why hold a Workshop on Environmental Journalism at the present time? Simone Müller: Sometime, they’ll give climate change and no one attends. This variation on the pacifist slogan from the 1980s accurately describes the present state of the world. The USA has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and Germany, once a poster child for green policies, will fail to meet its own emission-reduction targets. Scientists have been on the barricades for years, demanding radical societal change to avert an approaching catastrophe. Such a situation naturally turns the spotlight on the media. After all, they have repeatedly publicized environmental problems. To cite just one example, the Basel Convention on the Export of Hazardous Wastes, whose history I am now studying, would not have come to pass if the media had not uncovered and reported on a whole series of scandals and continued to highlight the issues involved. Without this investigative reporting, Greenpeace could not have exerted the political pressure needed to get the negotiations underway.

And now the media are again expected to turn the tide? That would be a very tall order. The media are far more heterogeneous today than they were 20 or 30 years ago and operate in very different ways. Then there’s the question of whether journalists have a duty to educate the public. Should they really try to teach society how to behave in an environmentally benign fashion? Should they not just state the facts, and allow their readers to draw their own conclusions? The second option conforms to the classical conception of the role of journalism. However, there have been calls for ‘constructive journalism’ in recent years, both in the US and in Germany. Even some journalists, not just politicians, have argued that the focus on disasters rather than on positive developments is counterproductive. But is such an approach really sustainable? Would it not mean the end of journalism as we know it? Then there is the question of what other multipliers and social mechanisms can be mobilized that might promote the growth of an informed awareness of the importance of the environment for us all? These are some of issues that will be addressed during the workshop.

Is the call for constructive stories particularly loud in the case of environmental topics? The demand for positive reporting – which ultimately implies lobbying for the environment – has dogged environmental journalism since its earliest days, in the 1970s. Indeed, many of the first generation had been activists in the environmental movement. Basically, it all began with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book, which outlined the ecological consequences of pesticide use, was published in 1962. – But typically enough, excerpts from the book had previously appeared in the New Yorker. This points to the close ties between environmental awareness, environmental reportage, and the environmentalist movement. I am a historian of North America, so allow me to mention some aspects of these developments in the US, which is also the country with the longest tradition of environmental journalism. In the 1970s, the US had a strong environmental movement, whose members were interested in issues such as conservation and industrial toxins, though they also noted the first signs of climate change. At the same time, American newspapers began to employ journalists to report on such topics. So an increasing awareness of environmental issues went hand-in-hand with the institutionalization of environmental journalism – up until the early 1980s.

What had changed? This break is related to the rollback that set in during the Reagan era. During his two terms as President, environmental protections were primarily seen as a burden on the economy. – And in those years, newspaper editors decided that environmental issues were no longer in vogue. This turnabout would only be challenged in the aftermath of environmental disasters such as the accident at the chemical plant in Bhopal and the later meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl.

Can environmental journalism point to inspiring success stories? Has reporting on the environment ever contributed to a politically influential change in awareness? The media alone cannot cause a lasting shift in awareness. But they can have an impact on policy, for instance by advocating rigorous national and international regulations to protect the environment. The debate on the deleterious impact of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the 1980s is a case in point. Reports on the ozone hole certainly made a significant contribution to the change in attitudes that ultimately led to an international treaty banning their further use. Another example is the Basel Convention of 1989, which I already mentioned. Here too, journalists played a crucial role in exposing the harmful practices in the global waste economy. At that time, politicians – including members of the US Congress – knew they could rely on the accuracy of newspaper articles and cited them as trustworthy sources.

Unthinkable today, given the flood of fake news from the White House! Are environmental topics especially likely to trigger obfuscating responses from politicians, which journalists must then correct? Definitely. Take climate change. In the US, journalists still have to set out and weigh up all the evidence which shows that anthropogenic climate change is a reality. They must refute all the arguments advanced by the skeptics, no matter how unscientific they may be. Climate-change deniers, on the other hand, find a ready audience for their dubious theses on social media and blogs. In Germany, we are long past this stage. Here, a person who still questions the existence of climate change is likely to be regarded as odd. There is broad agreement that climate change is real.

Is the persistence of doubt on the issue in the USA part of the Trump phenomenon? Has the 45th President made the idea that climate change is a hoax respectable? Not only that, he has institutionalized this view politically, by appointing climate-change skeptics to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

What impact has the digital transformation of the media had in this context? Does the decline of the classical gatekeeper media signal the end of environmental journalism? It will survive in different forms. But the crisis of large print media we are now witnessing is also an opportunity. For it has never been easier for non-professional journalists to have an impact. This presents environmental scientists with a chance to share their expertise and insights with the public on Twitter, on blogs, via diverse social media channels. And classical environmental journalism can still make a difference. It will be more difficult to find the money for on-the-spot research on, let’s say, the results of rising sea level on Kiribati. The more important question is what such changes mean to the average reader? Evi Zemanek, Junior Professor of Contemporary German Literature and Intermediality in Freiburg and Co-Organizer of the Workshop, has already asked whether consumers will notice a decline in the coverage of environmental topics, and whether this decline can be compensated for in other ways? But there will certainly be a further diversification of formats.

Given the growing dominance of rapid-fire journalism, what chance do journalists have to adequately describe slowly developing, long-term processes such as those that are driving climate change? This problem has plagued environmental journalism from the start. The advent of digital news outlets has simply exacerbated it. But journalists have always dealt with issues that are not of direct and immediate concern to their readership, but affect people on the far side of the world, on a coral island in the Pacific for instance. Here, the environmental reporter tries to make long-term processes understandable, processes whose effects may become manifest only in a matter of decades. That is true of CFCs and the ozone hole, and it also holds for global climate change. This is the crucial challenge for environmental journalism, to explain the links between apparently unconnected phenomena – to show, for example, why working conditions on banana plantations in Guatemala are relevant to German consumers.

Microparticulates from diesel engines have been in the news, carbon dioxide turns up quite often, and the latest headlines feature plastic waste in the oceans – is environmental journalism particularly prone to follow trends? Perhaps. But that impression may in part be attributable to the fact that environmental journalists often focus on what are called ‘flagship topics’ in the US. One might treat the problem of marine pollution by writing about the enormous concentrations of tiny particles that are found in certain oceanic gyres. There are also ‘flagship species’: The fate of the polar bear typifies the impact of climate change, the decline in the honeybee population reflects the widespread loss of species diversity. In this way, journalists hope to describe the essence of highly complex issues by encapsulating them in stories that appeal to readers’ emotions. The hallmark and the essential task of good environmental journalism is to use stories like these to throw light on the complexity that underlies them.

Dr. Simone Müller is on the scientific staff of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at LMU and Head of an Emmy Noether Research Group on “Hazardous Travel: Ghost Acres and the Global Waste Economy”.The international workshop "Writing for Change. Environmental Journalism Then and Now“ at LMU's Center for Advanced Studies (CAS) is organized by Dr. Simone Müller and Prof. Dr. Evi Zemanek (Freiburg).

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