All The Science News That Fits? The New York Times Disbands Its Environment Desk

, sr. Washington rep., Center for Science & Democracy | January 17, 2013, 11:18 am EDT
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Our new Center for Science and Democracy promotes evidence-based decision-making by our elected officials, guided by an informed public. But democratic discourse depends on journalism, too; to govern themselves, citizens need access to independent information. Climate change, the pros and cons of hydraulic fracturing, the problem of rising sea levels, present us with daunting challenges that will affect our lives and those of future generations.

Unfortunately, sources of independent fact-based in-depth journalism, particularly about science and the environment, are shrinking as fast as polar ice. Any profession that loses nearly one-third of its jobs in ten years is an endangered one. John Rennie, then-editor-in-chief of Scientific American, wasn’t kidding when in 2009 he predicted a “mass extinction event” for the media, caused by a variety of factors, including the recession and the rise of the Internet.

So at a time serious science journalism is on the wane, it is particularly disturbing when The New York Times, the nation’s pre-eminent newspaper, decides to disband its environment desk, and may also discontinue its Green Blog.

The Environment Desk Fulfilled Its Promise

The environment desk was able to write about issues through a unique lens.

The Times insists that it will not lay off the environment desk’s seven reporters and two editors, although it will eliminate the positions of an environment editor and deputy editor. Rather, these experienced reporters and editors will be dispatched to various parts of the newsroom to presumably add the environmental dimension to a host of stories.

Times editors explained that the move reflected the growing complexity of environmental stories, which “are partly business, economic, national or local…”  The point was to get the environment reporters more involved in interdisciplinary reporting.

That certainly is good spin, but I’m not sure it survives much scrutiny.  When has covering the environment NOT been complex and multi-dimensional? You really can’t write about greenhouse gas emissions without reporting on its economic, public health and even national security dimensions. You can’t tell the story of endangered species without getting into a larger discussion of why species are imperiled and what economic forces drive changes in habitat. That was as true in 2009, when The Times created the environment desk, as it is today.

And the environment desk was doing good and important work. In 2012, in a year when overall news about climate change decreased, The Times increased its coverage, publishing more climate stories than any other major daily in the U.S. Six Times reporters alone wrote well over 300 climate stories last year.

Indeed, just a few weeks ago, Times assistant managing editor Glenn Kramon attributed the Times’ increased coverage of climate change to the existence of this specialized core of reporters working together with editors who were “very comfortable” with the issue.

So why the decision to disband it? Could the move possibly have something to do with the fact that The Times is trimming 30 positions from its newsroom, and needed to reconfigure the staff to accommodate the reduction?

The Times was doing a good job of covering climate change and its implications. Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo

Even if one takes The Times at its word that the decision to cut the environment desk had nothing to do with newsroom cuts, the change still raises a lot of questions. How will this concept work in reality?  Speaking as a former journalist and someone who’s written a book about the future of journalism, I can tell you that the best reporting needs two vital components – time and the commitment and vision of good editors. Even seasoned reporters need editors who will let them do their best work and not think of them as warm bodies to dispatch to cover breaking news.

Before its most recent round of cuts, The Times’ news staff was at the same level as 2003. Other papers downsized more drastically, so keeping the numbers relatively stable is a testament to The Times’ commitment to public service. But that still means that at a time when the world is growing ever more complex, and its environmental problems more daunting, The Times will have fewer people to provide fact-based information to citizens than it did a decade ago.

The Wrong Message?

And here’s another factor to consider. When then-executive editor Bill Keller created the environment desk in 2009, The Times sent a message to its reporters and editors and readers that this issue was important, that it deserved heightened attention.

What is the message The Times is sending now? You can spin it all you want, but when you disband an environment desk, you devalue coverage of the environment.

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  • We have all fallen prey to economics, politics and opinion in this country over the last 20+ years. When we look at the cream of the crop of top journalist practices over the last 50+ years none were based on ‘spin’ even though it could be controversial. Science has been swallowed by the black hole of Wall Street, politics and guns while our environmental concerns affect us all. So who beat the passion for good journalism out of us? No one. We’re simply caving to the almighty dollar we’ve been force-fed throughout the Republican years to feed a war no one wants. It’s time to stop looking at ‘the news’ for blame. We still require scientific progress in our news, even though it IS a slow process. Please continue promoting and recruiting outstanding journalistic practices that we all will will benefit from…whether we know it yet or not.