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Encyclopedia > Environmental journalism

Environmental journalism is the collection, verification, production, distribution and exhibition of information regarding current events, trends, issues and people that are associated with the non-human world with which humans necessarily interact. To be an environmental journalist, one must have an understanding of scientific language and practice, knowledge of historical environmental events, the ability to keep abreast of environmental policy decisions and the work of environmental organizations, a general understanding of current environmental concerns, and the ability to communicate all of that information to the public in such a way that it can be easily understood, despite its complexity.

Environmental journalism falls within the scope of environmental communication, and its roots can be traced to nature writing.


Overlap within environmental communication

According to Mark Meisner of the Environmental Communication Network, “environmental communication is all of the many forms of communication (interpersonal, group, public, organizational, mass, etc.) that are engaged with the social debate about environmental issues and problems.”

Also within the scope of environmental communication are the genres of nature writing, science writing, environmental literature, environmental interpretation and environmental advocacy. While there is a great deal of overlap among the various genres within environmental communication, they are each deserving of their own definition.

Nature writing

Nature writing is the genre with the longest history in environmental communication. In his book, This Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing, Thomas J. Lyon attempts to use a “taxonomy of nature writing” in order to define the genre. He suggests that his classifications, too, suffer a great deal of overlap and intergrading. “The literature of nature has three main dimensions to it: natural history information, personal responses to nature, and philosophical interpretation of nature” (Lyon 20). In the natural history essay, “the main burden of the writing is to convey pointed instruction in the facts of nature,” such as with the ramble-type nature writing of John Burroughs (Lyon 21). “In essays of experience, the author’s firsthand contact with nature is the frame for the writing,” as with Edward Abbey’s contemplation of a desert sunset (Lyon 23). In the philosophical interpretation of nature, the content is similar to that of the natural history and personal experience essays, “but the mode of presentation tends to be more abstract and scholarly” (Lyon 25). The Norton Book of Nature Writing adds a few new dimensions to the genre of nature writing, including animal narratives, garden essays, farming essays, ecofeminist works, writing on environmental justice, and works advocating environmental preservation, sustainability and biological diversity. Environmental journalism pulls from the tradition and scope of nature writing.

Science writing

Science writing is writing that focuses specifically on topics of scientific study, generally translating jargon that is difficult for those outside a particular scientific field to understand into language that is easily digestible. This genre can be narrative or informative. Not all science writing falls within the bounds of environmental communication, only science writing that takes on topics relevant to the environment. Environmental journalism also pulls from the tradition and scope of science writing.

Environmental interpretation

Environmental interpretation is a particular format for the communication of relevant information. It “involves translating the technical language of a natural science or related field into terms and ideas that people who aren’t scientists can readily understand. And it involves doing it in a way that’s entertaining and interesting to these people” (Ham 3). Environmental interpretation is pleasurable (to engage an audience in the topic and inspire them to learn more about it), relevant (meaningful and personal to the audience so that they have an intrinsic reason to learn more about the topic), organized (easy to follow and structured so that main points are likely to be remembered) and thematic (the information is related to a specific, repetitious message) (Ham 8–28). While environmental journalism is not derived from environmental interpretation, it can employ interpretive techniques to explain difficult concepts to its audience.

Environmental literature

Environmental literature is writing that comments intelligently on environmental themes, particularly as applied to the relationships between man, society and the environment. Most nature writing and some science writing falls within the scope of environmental literature. Often, environmental literature is understood to espouse care and concern for the environment, thus advocating a more thoughtful and ecologically sensitive relationship of man to nature. Environmental journalism is partially derived from environmental literature.

Environmental advocacy

Environmental advocacy is presenting information on nature and environmental issues that is decidedly opinionated and encourages its audience to adopt more environmentally sensitive attitudes, often more biocentric worldviews. Environmental advocacy can be present in any of the aforementioned genres of environmental communication. It is currently debated whether environmental journalism should employ techniques of environmental advocacy.

History of environmental journalism

While the practice of nature writing has a rich history that dates back at least as far as the exploration narratives of Christopher Columbus, and follows tradition up through prominent nature writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the late 19th century, John Burroughs and John Muir in the early 20th century, and Aldo Leopold in the 1940s, the field of environmental journalism did not begin to take shape until the 1960s and 1970s. Christopher Columbus (conjectural image) For information about the film director, see the article on Chris Columbus. ... Ralph Waldo Emerson Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was a famous American essayist and one of Americas most influential thinkers and writers. ... Henry David Thoreau Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862; born David Henry Thoreau) was an American author, naturalist, pacifist, tax resister and philosopher who is famous for Walden (available at wikisource) on living simply with nature and Civil Disobedience (available at wikisource) on resistance to civil government. ... John Burroughs (April 3, 1837-March 29, 1921) was an American naturalist and writer. ... John Muir (April 21, 1838 – December 24, 1914) was an environmentalist, naturalist, traveler, writer, inventor, and scientist. ... Aldo Leopold (January 11, 1887 - April 21, 1948) was a United States ecologist, forester, and environmentalist. ...

The growth of environmental journalism as a profession roughly parallels that of the environmental movement, which became a mainstream cultural movement with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and was further legitimized by the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Grassroots environmental organizations made a booming appearance on the political scene in the 1960s and 1970s, raising public awareness of what many considered to be the “environmental crisis,” and working to influence environmental policy decisions. The mass media has followed and generated public interest on environmental issues ever since. Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964) was a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-born zoologist and biologist whose landmark book, Silent Spring, is often credited with having launched the global environmental movement. ... The Wilderness Act of 1964 (Public Law 88-577) created the legal definiton of wilderness in the United States, and protected some 9 million acres (37,000 km²) of federal land. ...

The field of environmental journalism was further legitimized by the creation of the Society of Environmental Journalists in 1990, whose mission “is to advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy, and visibility of environmental reporting.” Today, academic programs are offered at a number of institutions to train budding journalists in the rigors, complexity and sheer breadth of environmental journalism.

Debate over advocacy in environmental journalism

There exists somewhat of a rift in the community of environmental journalists. Some, including those in the Society of Environmental Journalists, believe in objectively reporting environmental news, while others, like Michael Frome, a prominent figure in the field, believe that budding journalists should only enter the environmental side of the field if saving the planet is a personal passion, and that environmental journalists should not shy away from environmental advocacy, though not at the expese of clearly relating facts and opinions on all sides of an issue. This debate is not likely to be settled soon, but with changes in the field of journalism filtering up from new media being used by the general public to produce news, it seems likely that the field of environmental journalism will lend itself more and more toward reporting points of view akin to environmental advocacy.


The field of environmental journalism covers a wide variety of topics. According to The Reporter’s Environmental Handbook, environmental journalists perceive water concerns as the most important environmental issue, followed by atmospheric air polution concerns, endocrine disruptors, and waste management issues. The journalists surveyed were more likely to prioritize specific, local environmental issues than global environmental concerns.

Environmental journalism can include, but is not limited to, some of the following topics:

From The Reporter’s Environmental Handbook:

  • Air Pollution (Indoor)
  • Air Pollution (Outdoor)
  • Animal Waste Management
  • Biodiversity
  • Brownfields (“former industrial and commercial sites” (104))
  • Cancer and Other Disease Cluster Claims
  • Chemical Emergencies
  • Chemical Weapons (Disarmament)
  • Children’s Health (Asthma)
  • Children’s Health (Lead)
  • Cross-Border Environmental Issues (U.S.-Mexico)
  • Dioxin
  • Disposal of Dredged Materials
  • Endocrine Disruptors (“also called a hormonally active agent, [it] is a chemical that interferes with the functioning of the endocrine system” (172))
  • Environmental Justice and Hazardous Waste
  • Food Irradiation
  • Genetically Modified Crops
  • Global Climate Change
  • Groundwater Pollution
  • Naturally Occurring and Technology-Based Disasters
  • Occupational Health
  • Ozone Depletion
  • Pesticides
  • Pollution Prevention/Source Reduction
  • Population Growth
  • Sprawl and Environmental Health
  • Surface Water Quality
  • Water Supply

From EnviroLink: This power plant in New Mexico releases sulfur dioxide and particulate matter into the air. ... Biodiversity or biological diversity is the diversity of and in living nature. ... In town planning, brownfield land is an area of land previously used or built upon, as opposed to industry or mining and therefore may be contaminated by hazardous waste or pollution. ... When normal cells are damaged or old they undergo apoptosis; cancer cells, however, avoid apoptosis. ... General Name, Symbol, Number lead, Pb, 82 Chemical series poor metals Group, Period, Block 14, 6, p Appearance bluish white Atomic mass 207. ... Dioxins form a family of toxic chlorinated organic compounds that bioaccumulate in humans and wildlife due to their fat solubility. ... Environmental justice is a term in the social sciences used to describe injustices in the way natural resources are used. ... Hazardous waste is waste that poses substantial or potential threats to public health or the environment and generally exhibits one or more of these characteristics: ignitability corrosivity reactivity (explosive) toxicity Generally, toxicity is quantified through the use of the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure or TCLP test, as required by EPA... It has been suggested that Genetic engineering be merged into this article or section. ... Occupational Therapists work with the disabled, the elderly, newborns, school-aged children, and with anyone who has a permanent or temporary impairment in their physical or mental functioning. ... Ozone (O3) is an allotrope of oxygen, the molecule consisting of three oxygen atoms instead of the more stable diatomic O2. ... the plane is spreading pesticide. ... Sprawl; please see: urban sprawl (also called suburban sprawl) For the metropolitan region stretching from Boston to Atlanta in William Gibsons fiction, see The Sprawl. ... Environmental health is defined by the World Health Organization as: Those aspects of human health and disease that are determined by factors in the environment. ...

Variations in CO2, temperature and dust from the Vostok ice core over the last 400 000 years The term climate change is used to refer to changes in the Earths global climate or regional climates. ... In ecology, an ecosystem is a community of organisms (plant, animal and other living organisms - also referred as biocenose) together with their environment (or biotope), functioning as a unit. ... Environmental economics is a subfield of economics concerned with environmental issues (other usages of the term are not uncommon). ... Environmental ethics is the ethical relationship between human beings and the environment in which they live. ... This article is about forests as a massing of trees. ... Natural history is an umbrella term for what are now usually viewed as a number of distinct scientific disciplines. ... For the scientific journal named Science, see Science (journal). ... The social sciences are a group of academic disciplines that study the human aspects of the world. ... The humanities are a group of academic subjects united by a commitment to studying aspects of the human condition and a qualitative approach that generally prevents a single paradigm from coming to define any discipline. ... Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs according to the Brundtland Report, a 1987 report from the United Nations. ... Vegetarianism is a dietary practice characterized by the exclusion of chicken, fish, meat and body parts of any animal and products derived from animal carcasses (such as lard, tallow, gelatin, and cochineal), from ones diet. ... Waste management is the collection, transport, processing or disposal of waste materials, usually ones produced by human activity, in an effort to reduce their effect on human health or local amenity. ... To most people not professionally involved in water quality issues, water is either drinkable (technically potable) or contains potentially harmful or toxic substances. ... [[image:White-taLink titleiled deer. ...


  • Finch, Howard and John Elder. Eds. The Norton Book of Nature Writing. College Ed. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. ISBN 0393978168
  • Frome, Michael. Green Ink. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1998. ISBN 0874805821
  • Ham, Sam. Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets. Golden: North American Press, 1992. ISBN 1555919022
  • Lyon, Thomas J. This Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2001. ISBN 1571312560
  • Meisner, Mark. "What is Environmental Communication?" The Environmental Communication Network. 2005. State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Accessed 11 Oct. 2005. <http://www.esf.edu/ecn>
  • West, Bernadette M., M. Jane Lewis, Michael R. Greenburg, David B. Sachsman, and Renée M. Rogers. The Reporter’s Environmental Handbook. 3rd ed. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 2003. ISBN 0813532876

Other books

  • Anderson, Alison. Media, Culture and the Environment. Taylor and Francis, Inc., 1997. ISBN 185728383X
  • Beck, Larry and Ted Cable. Interpretation for the 21st Century: Fifteen Guiding Principles

for Interpreting Nature and Culture. 2nd ed. Champaign: Sagamore Publishing, 2002. ISBN 1571675221

  • Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995. ISBN 0674258622
  • Blum, Deborah, Robin Marantz Henig, and Mary Knudson. A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0195174992
  • Chapman, Graham, Keval Kumar, Caroline Fraser, and Ivor Gaber. Environmentalism and the Mass Media. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 0415155053
  • Dobson, Andrew. The Green Reader: Essays Toward a Sustainable Society. Mercury House, 1991. ISBN 1562790102
  • Goldstein, Eric A. and Mark Izeman. The New York Environment Book. Island Press, 1990. ISBN 1559630183
  • Hanson, Anders, ed. The Mass Media and Environmental Issues. London and New York: Leicester University Press, 1993. ISBN 0718514440
  • Kamrin, Michael A., Dolores J. Katz, and Martha L. Walter. Reporting on Risk: A Journalist's Handbook. 3rd ed. Michigan Sea Grant College Program, 1999. ISBN 1885756119
  • Lamay, Craig L.L. and Everette E. Dennis, eds. Media and the Environment. Island Press, 1991. ISBN 1559631309
  • Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. ISBN 0300091222
  • Neuzil, Mark and William Kovairk. Mass Media and Environmental Conflict: America’s Green Crusades. Thousand Oaks, London and New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 1996. ISBN 076190333X

Other internet resources

  • Palen, John. “Objectivity as Independence: Creating the Society of Environmental Journalists, 1989-1997.” Proceedings of the National Convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, August 1998. Society of Environmental Journalists. 28 Sept. 2005 <http://www.sej.org/about/index2.htm>.
  • Environmental Communication Resource Center at Northern Arizona University

  Results from FactBites:
A Needs Assessment of Environmental Journalism in South Eastern Europe (1099 words)
Identifying the common and specific problems of environmental journalism in the countries of the region is a natural precondition for the establishment and efficient operation of the REPC.
There are serious difficulties in accessing environmental information stemming from the legislation of the countries in the region, as well as in the relations between journalists and official institutions, and between journalists and NGOs.
Journalism qualifications and knowledge in specific environmental areas and how to present them to the general public are insufficient.
  More results at FactBites »



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