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Some of the Best Environmental Coverage Around—Funded by Qatar Oil Money
For good environmental reporting these days, sometimes you have to look in the most unlikely of places.

So much great environmental reporting these days, so many great TV documentaries. I don’t mean the nature porn on the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, shows like Hogs Gone Wild and My Extreme Animal Phobia. I mean the real thing.

There was a terrific doc a few months ago, a 45-minute piece called “The Internet Indians,” about the Ashaninka tribe in Amazonia using new technology to detect and prevent illegal logging.

A few weeks ago, I caught a neat story about kids who had been forced into a floating classroom by sea-level rise in Bangladesh. A slew of other stories followed: the recovery of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan; the greening of Los Angeles and urban farming in Detroit; the protection of coral reefs in Haiti, forest corridors in Malaysia, the Canadian boreal.

But here’s the catch. They were all on Al Jazeera’s English-language service. On three different shows, in fact: Al Jazeera World, Al Jazeera Newshour, and the latest addition to the cable channel’s offerings, earthrise, which "explores solutions to today's environmental challenges, taking an upbeat look at ecological, scientific, technological and design projects the world over." (Assuming your cable channel carries it, you can catch earthrise at the following times, all GMT: Monday 08:30, Friday 19:30, Saturday 14:30, and Sunday 04:30.)

Our best hope for coverage of science, of the environment— and of climate change—may lie with a network from a Gulf oil state.

Other than Al Jazeera, however, I’m sad to report that things look pretty bleak for science, environmental, and international news. At a New Year’s party, I ran into an old acquaintance, Bob Nickelsberg. Bob is one of the great photojournalists of his generation, and we reminisced about our days in Central America in the 1980s, when we ran around dodging bullets in the company of swarms of reporters from the big American media and their regional bureaus. After that, Bob spent 12 years with the Time magazine bureau in New Delhi, which guaranteed a steady flow of interesting assignments. Since then, he’s devoted more time to environmental issues, producing wonderful portfolios on mining in Brazil, endangered orangutans in Malaysia, and energy development in Texas and Wyoming. But as with so many gifted reporters and photographers these days, it’s more and more difficult for him to find news organizations willing to hand out assignments.

Three years ago, the American Journalism Review published a study, funded by the Open Society Foundation, of the declining number of foreign news bureaus maintained by leading U.S. media. Between 1998 and 2010, it found, 18 newspapers and two chains eliminated all their foreign bureaus. These included distinguished names like the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. TV networks followed the same path, shutting down their permanent foreign presence, parachuting their anchors in for a day or two for the blockbuster stories and buying B-roll from non-American sources like the BBC and ITN.

Al Jazeera, meanwhile, has opened 42 bureaus around the world, from Bogotá to Buenos Aires, from Jakarta to Islamabad, and plans to add more. Al Jazeera English, in addition to sharing these resources, has 21 bureaus of its own. Its anchors, reporters, and producers are veterans with résumés that are an alphabet soup of elite media: ABC, BBC, CBC, CBS, CNBC, CNN, CNBC, ITN, NBC, NPR. Shows like earthrise reach tens of millions of homes around the world, but hardly any in the United States, where very few cable networks will agree to carry Al Jazeera.

A lot of this reflects concern about editorial bias, of course, on issues like Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And those charges are not always off the mark. That’s hardly surprising: until 2011, Al Jazeera was funded by the government of Qatar, a Gulf oil state, and the private money that supports it today is still Qatari. But a reputation for quality is steadily overcoming a reputation for propaganda. Just last year, Al Jazeera English took some of the broadcasting world’s most prestigious accolades, including George Polk, Dupont, and Peabody awards in this country, and the Royal Television Society’s award as News Channel of the Year (beating out the BBC). And none other than Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “you may not may not agree with [Al Jazeera], but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and ... arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative."

Since I saw Bob Nickelsberg at that New Year’s party, there’s been a veritable deluge of news, none of it good, about the state of media coverage of science and the environment.

On January 2, the Columbia Journalism Review surveyed the number of U.S. newspapers with weekly science sections. In 1989, there were 95. By 2005, the number had declined to 34. And in 2012? Just 19.

On the same day, the non-profit Daily Climate published its latest annual analysis of media coverage of climate change. Even though 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States (by a full degree), an annus horribilis of melting ice caps, crippling drought, and Superstorm Sandy, coverage continued a three-year slide. In 2012, according to Climate Central, 7,194 reporters filed 18,995 stories on climate change. In 2009, the numbers were 11,000 and 32,400 respectively. (Although, to be fair, this doesn’t necessarily prove editorial wisdom: a large amount of that coverage was devoted to a manufactured non-story—the supposedly scandalous e-mail correspondence of researchers at the University of East Anglia that came to be known as Climategate.)

However, there was a bright spot in the otherwise dismal news from Daily Climate. Coverage in the New York Times actually showed a slight uptick. According to the paper’s assistant managing editor Glenn Kramon, this was the culmination of a four-year effort that had brought together seven top reporters and two editors on a separate desk devoted to the environment, in addition to others covering the subject from other desks. "I think everyone here agrees that if it's not the most important story, it's one of the most important stories," Kramon assured us.

Um, not so fast. Just nine days later, on January 11, the Times announced that it was getting rid of its environment desk, reassigning the reporters to other sections of the paper and eliminating the positions of environment editor and deputy environment editor. The comments on this came from people who are, shall we say, above Kramon’s pay grade. His boss, managing editor Dean Baquet, insisted that “this is purely a structural matter.” Eileen Murphy, vice president of corporate communications, described it as “purely a change in the architecture of the editing.” It all sounded a bit like those statements that politicians issue when they resign “because they want to spend more time with their families.”

Dan Fagin, director of New York University’s science, health, and environmental reporting program (and, full disclosure, a member of OnEarth’s editorial board) explains how things actually work in a newsroom: “[W]ithout a designated staff your editor would have to rely completely on borrowing reporters from other desks, and editors on those desks would get no credit from management for any environmental stories their borrowed reporters produce. Meanwhile, the reporters themselves would feel the pressure from their desk editors—the editors who do their evaluations—to stay on their own desks. It sets up an adversarial system that has already failed in many newsrooms. The best solution is what the Times has sadly dismantled: a small dedicated staff with diverse skills AND the ability to tap other expert writers when appropriate.”

So what’s the result of all this, other than griping by environmental writers like me? I’d call it perpetuating the cycle of ignorance. Here we are, in a globalized world beset by economic crisis, with China ascendant and the Middle East in chaos, not to mention the hottest year on record. But foreign, environmental, and science news are lousy profit centers. People aren’t interested in these things, we’re told, so why spend money covering them? Then, being less well-informed, people naturally grow less interested. And this ignorance of the outside world has become a huge part of our partisan divide. Owning a passport is a useful barometer of engagement with the larger world. To illustrate the point, take a look at this map; with the single exception of New Mexico, the lowest levels of passport ownership are concentrated in 15 red states in the South and the Midwest.

We spend altogether too much time denouncing Fox News for this sorry state of affairs and assuming that the “elite media” are fighting the good fight against the forces of darkness. But the fact is that, whatever the supposedly liberal private sympathies of reporters and editors, ignorance is created by a vacuum of information as much as by screaming talk-show propaganda.

So here’s the kicker. Our best hope for coverage of science, of the environment—and of climate change—may lie with a network from a Gulf oil state. And it may be set to reach an increasing number of American homes, as a result of something else that happened in this strange month of January: Al Jazeera’s $500 million purchase of Current TV, which gives it readymade national cable access through the likes of Comcast, Dish Network, Verizon, and AT&T. Current TV was founded, you may remember, by Al “Inconvenient Truth” Gore. The word irony hardly seems enough.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exploration of Yellowstone. MORE STORIES ➔