Andy Revkin has an article up on a public radio site that gives us some insight into what he thinks the problems of his work are and ends up, to me, emphasizing the related but not identical problems that I think are the core issue. This is striking:
Now, however, the nature of environmental news is often profoundly different, making what was always a challenging subject far harder to convey appropriately to readers. By appropriately, I do not just mean accurately. Any stack of carefully checked facts can be accurate but still convey a warped sense of how important or scary or urgent a situation may be. Therein lies an added layer of responsibility—and difficulty—for the reporter.
That goes directly to what I think the most cogent criticism of even the most responsible media on global change issues (as often voiced by Jeff Huggins in Dot Earth comments). These stories persistently appear on page 14, behind Pres. Sarkozy’s love life or Michigan’s manufacturing or California real estate and so on. On thing we are missing in the media is a serious concentration on the serious issues.
You might argue that the endless saber-rattling in the middle east is a direct consequence of this sleight-of-mind.
Revkin offers us a case in point, remarkably mentioning “page 14”:
News is almost always something that happened today. A war starts. An earthquake strikes. In contrast, most of the big environmental themes of this century concern phenomena that are complicated, diffuse, and poorly understood. The runoff from parking lots, gas stations, and driveways puts the equivalent of 1.5 Exxon Valdez loads’ worth of petroleum products into coastal ecosystems each year, the National Research Council recently found. But try getting a photo of that, or finding a way to make a page-one editor understand its implications.
Here’s how I handled that story, which the science editor pitched for page one, but was trimmed back and ran on A 14 on May 24, 2002 :
“Most oil pollution in North American coastal waters comes not from leaking tankers or oil rigs, but rather from countless oil-streaked streets, sputtering lawn mowers and other dispersed sources on land, and so will be hard to prevent, a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences says in a new report.
“ The thousands of tiny releases, carried by streams and storm drains to the sea, are estimated to equal an Exxon Valdez spill — 10.9 million gallons of petroleum — every eight months, the report says.”
Emphasis added. And then there is this:
The hardest thing sometimes, is to turn off one’s news instinct and insist that a story is not “frontable,” or that it deserves 300 words and not 800. Try it some time. It violates every reportorial instinct, but it’s do-able—kind of like training yourself to reach for an apple when you crave a cookie.
It’s time the Times realized that there is no requirement that it have the same number of “pages” every “day”, nor that stories length should be related to their importance. The “paper” is no longer made of paper!
Which is why stuff like this:
Somehow, through the ensuing years I adapted to the rhythm, but also to the reality of its limitations. Particularly on an issue like the environment, I understood why that crutch of “on the one hand” was so popular. There’s just no time to do better.
And there’s no space. Science is one of the few realms where reporters essentially have to presume no familiarity at all in the reader’s mind with the basics. Just about anyone in America knows the rules of politics, business, or baseball. But a spate of studies of scientific literacy shows just how little most people know about atoms or viruses or the atmosphere.
All that extra explication has to somehow fit into the same amount of space devoted to a story on a primary vote, a stock split, or a shutout. And it doesn’t. The shrinking of an environment or other science story competing on a page with national or foreign developments is as predictable as the melting of mountain glaciers in this century.
doesn’t fly. Andrew simply is not acknowledging that the nature of his job has changed. News lasts forever, and should be written as such. I make little distinction between yesterday’s story and last month’s. If it comes to my attention and I find it interesting, I read it in exactly the same way with the same attention. If it’s more than two years old I may be making some mental adjustments.
Finally there’s his anecdote about the reporter who got everything wrong. He tries to pass some blame onto the scientist.
I was at a meeting in Irvine, California, on building better bridges between science and the public, and one researcher stood up to recount her personal “horror story” about how a reporter totally misrepresented her statements and got everything wrong. I asked her if she had called the reporter or newspaper to begin a dialogue not only on fixing those errors, but preventing future ones.
She had not. She had never even considered it.
Until the atmosphere has changed to the point where that scientist can make that call, and the reporter respond to it, everyone has a lot of work to do.
Despite all the grief I give him, I’d love to meet Andrew some day. But I hope never to meet the reporter in question here. I would never consider getting in touch with someone to whom I had given hours of my time who showed no sign of understanding a word I said. I might contemplate, in a charitable frame of mind, whether I should refrain from trying to get such a reporter fired, or at least assigned to another beat.
Andrew seems to understand the quandary we are in, though he doesn’t seem able to convey his understanding to the front page where it belongs, and is tied to an old model of what a newspaper is. Other than that, on the whole he does a good job. If he misquoted me I would call him on it and would expect a first rate clarification.
With the other reporter on the story, I wouldn’t call to clarify at all. That reporter would get the clarification wrong too! That such a reporter is assigned to science stories is yet another sign that the editors, like reporters, lawyers, politicians, tink thanks, etc., the whole east coast power enterprise, don’t have a clear idea of what planet we live on.
Settling for 300 words on page 14 is not going to help.