Last week the New York Times, one of the largest, oldest and most-read newspapers, announced it is dismantling its environment desk over the next few weeks and will be sending the nine dedicated writers and editors to other departments. While the newspaper claims this will not affect coverage of issues of climate change and the environment, it no doubt raises concern.
Unfortunately, it’s part of a larger national trend where news of the environment and climate change has taken a back seat. It’s not great news, especially at a time when Americans are demanding more, not less information about the causes of climate change, what our leaders are doing about it, and how individuals will all be affected.
According to the Pew Research Center's Year in News index, only 1 percent of news stories in 2011 covered stories on the environment—down from 2 percent in 2010. Campaign and election coverage, in contrast, made up roughly 11 percent. A newspaper’s desks and story assignments matter and should reflect the priorities of the readership. Especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy we have an obligation to provide more news about climate change.
The journalism community is however taking notice of this decision. Beth Parke, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists said, “Dedicated teams bring strength and consistency to the task of covering environment-related issues. It's always a huge loss to see them dismantled ... It's not necessarily a weakening to change organizational structure, but it does seem to be a bad sign. I will be watching closely what happens next." This new sends a concerning message also to future readers and reporters about the role of climate change in our national conversation.
In general, environment reporters bring much-needed attention to climate change itself and the new symptoms of the phenomenon we’re seeing in the U.S. and across the globe.
While too early to tell if this experiment will really result in the same expert coverage, it’s possible that this decision provides an opportunity for regional and local newspapers to step up coverage of these important issues. Either way, now is not the time to scale back coverage of it because it’s not a problem that’s going away any time soon.