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Environment and the Press: From Adventure Writing to Advocacy

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This history of environmental journalism looks at how the practice now defines issues and sets the public agenda evolving from a tradition that includes the works of authors such as Pliny the Elder, John Muir, and Rachel Carson. It makes the case that the relationship between the media and its audience is an ongoing conversation between society and the media on what matters and what should matter.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810124035
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2008
  • Series: Medill Visions of the American Press Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Neuzil is a professor in the department of communication and journalism at the University of St. Thomas and the coauthor of Mass Media and Environmental Conflict, A Spiritual Field Guide, Views on the Mississippi, and Writing Across the Media. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Russell E. Train is the chairman emeritus of World Wildlife Fund, the former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the author of Politics, Pollution, and Pandas. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Read an Excerpt



By Mark Neuzil
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2008

Mark Neuzil
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2403-5


The week between Christmas and New Year's Day is a slow one for journalists. The savvy editor knows to have several feature-length "year-in-reviews" in the hopper to fill the lull. On the other hand, the savvy public relations person knows that a story may get more attention around the holidays, perhaps receiving uncritical coverage from rookie reporters and editors who got stuck working while the veterans are on holiday.

That was the scenario two days after Christmas 2002, when a fringe scientific group connected to the Raelian religion called Clonaid claimed it had engineered the birth of the world's first cloned baby, nicknamed "Eve." Despite Clonaid's unwillingness or inability to produce any evidence of the child-not so much as a photograph-news media from all over the world carried the story, including live broadcasts from the press conference by CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. "If you didn't know what a Raelian was on Thursday-and let's face it, you didn't," wrote one observer, "you knew practically everything about them by Monday."

A CNN medical reporter reported that Clonaid had "the capacity to clone." A former science editor for ABC News stood near the Clonaid spokeswoman at the podium, and although he did not speak, his presence seemed to add gravitas to the announcement. (He later said he regretted it.) Clonaid's connection to the Raelian movement, which claims that life on Earth began when extraterrestrials cloned themselves twenty-five thousand years ago, was not always mentioned in the reports.

The story had all the trappings for the environmental journalist-science, medicine, religion, and even a little agriculture and natural philosophy. Perhaps the only thing missing was an outdoor adventure, although the Raelians' practices of public nudity and sexual freedom might qualify.

As we used to say in the newsroom, it had all the makings of a good story, except it wasn't true. Eventually word leaked to reporters that members of the Raelian movement were mocking the news media for their coverage of the announcement. "For an investment of $3,000 in U.S. funds, it got us media coverage worth more than $15 million," said the head of the Raelian church. "I am still laughing." Criticism of the news media's performance was as intense as it was deserved. "As soon as I heard about the Raelians' cloning claim, I knew it was nonsense," said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. "The media have shown themselves incapable of covering the key social and intellectual phenomena of the 21st century, namely the revolution in genetics and biology." The former head of the National Institutes of Health said, "The smell of deception, fraud, and Barnum & Bailey circusism is everywhere in the air."

Environmental journalists and their colleagues who cover medicine, science, public health, and religion chattered about the story on electronic discussion lists and Web sites. Mea culpas were issued, bad jokes abounded, and the usual promises of doing better next time were proclaimed. Many of the reporters who specialize in covering the environment were unhappy with their colleagues who failed to check the story out or did not have the training to know what to ask.

News media coverage of issues related to the environment-even when they turn out to be hoaxes-is not new, but those reporters who were chagrined at the uncritical cloning stories are part of a more recent phenomenon. That phenomenon is called environmental journalism. How environmental journalism became a regular journalistic practice, how it functioned, and how it may affect journalism in the future are the main subjects of this book.

This work draws on several categories of mass communication scholarship. Among the subjects scholars have addressed is the relationship between the news media and environmental issues in specific historical times and places. For example, in Making a Real Killing, Len Ackland examined the circumstances surrounding the controversial Rocky Flats Nuclear Arsenal in Colorado. And David Backes looked at the role of the media and other institutions in the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Another category of scholarship is the examination of the mass media and particular issues, including nuclear power, biotechnology, and endangered species. Environmental risk, for example, is an important subject for investigation and has been examined in numerous books. A third category of scholarship is social and cultural criticism of the way the news media report on environmental issues. Rhetoricians and other experts in communication studies have examined discourse, symbolism, language use, and popular culture. And finally, there are the handbooks and guides for working reporters, broadcast news directors, and editors.


This book takes the position that throughout history, various power groups have interacted on many levels to induce social change. These groups control the direction of change in a society, more or less. Conflicts arise as these actors struggle for control, and change often occurs when the members of the power structure agree on which direction to take.

Social problems need to be recognized, defined, and legitimized by society in order to evolve. One of the ways a particular problem gains the attention of society's power groups is by its being brought into the public arena by the mass media. In the environmental arena, groups struggling for control include environmentalists, various governments, business interests, nonprofit organizations, scientists and universities, organized religion, farmers, outdoor lovers, and many others.

Although in the United States the news media's traditional, self-defined role is as an independent entity (commonly known as the Fourth Estate), it is more accurate to say that newspapers, magazines, and other journalistic forms exist as one of a series of interdependent circles along with their sources, readers, advertisers, community elites, government officials, and others. The news media function, in part, by defining some environmental issues as social problems and ignoring others. Historical eras, with all their differences, can come up with alternative answers to the question of what is news. For example, when the last pair of great auks in the world was killed off the coast of Iceland in June 1844, the deaths of the birds brought very little media coverage. When the spotted owl, listed as an endangered species, got in the way of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest about 150 years later, it became an issue in a U.S. presidential campaign.

While groups in society operate to influence media coverage to their benefit, the news media can and do function independently as a powerful social agent. Social change, including public opinion, government regulation, industry and labor effects, and ecological transformation can be brought about or hurried along by media attention. Books, magazines, newspapers, television, and the Internet help define issues; communities of environmental awareness are created and influenced by media coverage. "Environment journalism has ... played a role of mobilizing civic action," wrote Guy Berger. "Thus many stories are framed as a drama of choice: Save the planet or go under!"

A couple of generations ago, sociologist Neil Smelzer recognized that two conditions are necessary for the emergence and development of a social movement such as environmentalism. One is social conduciveness and the other is structural strain. What does social conduciveness mean in the development of environmentalism in the United States? The short answer is, it depends on the historical period. In the Progressive Era (1898-1920), the familiar trio of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration led to a kind of nostalgia for a more agrarian, or at least less citified, past and the creation of groups like the Boy Scouts, the Audubon Society, and others in what historian David Shi called a quest for the simple life. Fredrick Jackson Turner's 1893 claim of the taming of the frontier added to the mix. Structural strains happen when arguments break out over how social problems are recognized, such as the proper "use" of a tamed frontier: National park? Cattle ranch? Copper mine? Water resource?

There is a complex relationship between media coverage and the strength of any social movement. Among other things, social movements need the media in order to communicate, recruit new members, solidify bonds with current members, raise funds, and compete with other groups for scarce resources. The media do not always work for progress; sometimes their function is more about social control than social change. The media usually reflect the dominant values of the day. Complaints about their "bad press" from various "fringe" groups in society agitating for change probably have existed since shortly after Gutenberg's invention of movable metal type. Although one popular image of the news media is as a sentinel (for example, the "watchdog function" of the press), a more interesting concept related to social control is of the media as "guard dogs" who protect the interests of the power structure. The guard dog works for its owner as the media protect the dominant members of society; if a squabble breaks out, the media may side against the weakest group in the fight. Thus the messages of the more radical environmental groups, such as EarthFirst! or the Sea Shepherds, get marginalized in news coverage.

Journalistic routines or competitive pressures sometimes override any social control functions of the mass media. A common competitive situation in environmental reporting is in the coverage of a natural disaster. When CNN, MSNBC, and the other television networks rushed to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, their coverage was highly critical of the powers that be (including President George W. Bush, and the federal response to the disaster). The poor and powerless, stranded at the Superdome or on their roofs or floating dead in the muck, were reported on without fear or favor. At least one commentator said that the news media were "essential again" in providing accurate and crucial information. Journalists were sticking up for the little guy.

For the little guy, it seemed to be about time. Katrina had been preceded by a long stretch of journalistic misdeeds, sagging public confidence, and heavy criticism of the industry. After the intensely competitive and hard-hitting news stories in the wake of the Katrina disaster, one response from the federal government was to tighten controls on information available to the news media, including materials related to the handling of the crisis by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


This book is meant to be a general survey of the tributaries and main currents that flow through the history of American environmental reporting; it includes materials from specific case studies and time periods, but it is organized thematically.

Environmental journalism grew out of older, more established forms of writing about the environment, and these forms can be found in today's stories. Part 1 of this book, comprising chapters 2 through 5, is titled "Tributaries." The themes discussed in part 1 exist, in one form or another, in the modern currents of environmental journalism. Chapter 2 discusses the prophetic voice of environmental journalists and the enduring myth of the Great Flood. It interprets ancient texts, looks at Aldo Leopold's essay on the prophets, and notes how often the label of false prophet is applied to journalists and their sources. These strains are tied together and exemplified in the coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Chapter 3 looks at early writing about science and agriculture and the relationship of farm publications and journalism education. It studies the reappearance of themes that occur in ancient texts from writers on agriculture and science-like Pliny the Elder, Cato the Elder, and Columella-in modern stories, and it examines the development of journalism schools at land-grant colleges across the country as spurred by the need for agricultural journalists.

Chapter 4 traces the influence of outdoor adventure writing, beginning with Izaak Walton. His classic book, The Compleat Angler, was the standard by which such writers were judged for hundreds of years. The issues he raised, like exotic species and catch-and-release angling, still appear in news stories, columns, and books in the twenty-first century. The political involvement of outdoor adventure writers, including their important role in the passage of game laws in the United States, and the formation of pressure groups like the Izaak Walton League are significant parts of the story.

Chapter 5 outlines a general history of nature writing, including examples of the craft that environmental journalists have called influential in their work. Familiar figures like Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, John Muir, Leopold, and Sigurd Olson are examined.

Part 2 of this book, titled "Main Currents," addresses the primary forms of environmental journalism in recent times: persuasive writing, twentieth-century mainstream journalism practices, and broadcast media. Chapter 6, on persuasive communication, looks at the touchy subject of advocacy in environmental journalism. Historical examples of journalistic techniques used to advocate a cause, including Benjamin Franklin and the tanners in Philadelphia, the trade in bird feathers, and the debate over the creation of Dinosaur National Monument, are highlighted.

Chapter 7 looks at early mainstream environmental journalism in the United States, examining reoccurring themes in stories from the early twentieth century to the 1960s. Such journalism included the Alaskan land fraud story of the muckraking period, the "Nature Man" and the back-to-nature movement, and workplace accidents in mines and tunnels.

Chapter 8 picks up in the 1960s with the publication of Silent Spring and moves into the early 1970s with the environment established as a beat at mainstream newspapers around the United States. The influence and circumstances of Rachel Carson, the Cuyahoga River fire, and the development of the Society of Environmental Journalists are explored.

Broadcast environmental news, particularly the importance of media mogul Ted Turner and his extensive cable operations, are the focus of chapter 9. The National Public Radio show Living on Earth, the importance of the Discovery Channel, and professional training for television and radio reporters are discussed.

The final section, "On the Horizon," and the last chapter contemporize the issue. It looks at twenty-first-century practices of environmental journalism in the light of the field's historical development, discusses trends in the digital era, and speculates on the future of the craft, including the precarious position of the objectivity standard in North American journalism.


Journalists, particularly those covering environmental issues, serve a prophetic function in modern times that can be seen as analogous to prophets from ancient texts. The Hebrew word for prophet, navi, is closely related to an Arabic word that means to proclaim or to carry out a mandate. The root meaning of the Hebrew word signifies that a prophet, like a journalist, is the deliverer of a message. In his examination of the religious roots of the secular press, Doug Underwood coined the phrase "prophetic journalism"-by which he meant "a journalism of passion, polemic, and moral opinion that has come to exist alongside the modern ethic of objectivity and the commercial elements of profit taking that dictate so much of what journalism constitutes today." Underwood suggested a journalistic link from the Hebrew prophets to modern columnists, investigative reporters, and editorialists. Further, most journalists do not recognize the prophetic voice in their work, he wrote, but it exists in stories of social justice and reform, albeit in a diluted and secularized way.


Excerpted from THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE PRESS by Mark Neuzil Copyright © 2008 by Mark Neuzil. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Russell E. Train

Part One: Tributaries
Journalism's Prophetic Voice
Science, Agriculture and Journalism Education
Outdoor Adventure Writing
Nature Writing

Part Two: Main Currents
Persuasive Communication and Environmental Advocacy
Early Mainstream Journalism
Broadcast Media

Part Three: On the Horizon

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