The Write Stuff

The Society of Environmental Journalists Plays an Important–and Controversial–Role

The first time Deborah Schoch saw industrial-grade DDT it was a chunk the size of a walnut. Schoch was working for the Los Angeles Times, covering the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to survey for contamination of a lower-middle-class neighborhood near two Superfund sites.

Environmental writer Barry Lopez (center) was a speaker at the annual SEJ conference in 1999.Chris Rigel

Schoch had wanted to be a political reporter. But these bits of industrial poison eventually forced the first neighborhood-wide relocation (of 60 families) in California’s history and changed her career trajectory. The environment became her beat.

Few newsrooms in the country have more than one environmental reporter on staff—if that. Schoch was lucky to work with several, including one veteran who steered her to join what many environmental journalists consider an indispensable resource for their work, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ).

The group was founded in 1989 by a handful of newspaper writers who had won the prestigious Edward J. Meeman environmental journalism award. The central goal of this new professional network of working reporters and editors: improving the quality, accuracy and visibility of environmental journalism.

The founders did all the work themselves, out of their homes and their offices. Ten years later, SEJ has a fully staffed office in Philadelphia and an operating budget of $668,000. Its membership is above 1,100, about 62 percent of whom are full-time reporters with print, broadcast or on-line media. The remaining members are academics or associates—the latter a category for people whose journalism is paid for primarily by non-journalism organizations. Lobbyists and public relations people are denied membership. SEJ generates some income through dues and programs, but the bulk of its funding comes from foundations, including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Turner Foundation, W. Alton Jones Foundation, Scripps Howard Foundation and the C.S. Mott Foundation.

SEJ’s signature offering is a national conference each year, supported by several regional events. The conferences are full of practical advice, intended to arm environmental reporters with information, sources and colleagues to do better work in the face of misunderstanding from bosses and intense scrutiny from those they cover. Panels at national conferences have covered topics ranging from smog and endangered species, nuclear weapons production and sprawl, global trade and global warming. Regional events have focused on refineries and fisheries, land use and science writing. It’s still a grassroots group, with most content put together by members volunteering their time.

SEJ also publishes a quarterly newsletter, the SEJournal, and puts out a weekly Tipsheet of story ideas and sources. It oversees a members-only listserv where journalists on deadline can ask colleagues for sources or argue at their leisure over perennial internal debates like objectivity, quality journalism or news of the day. In all, SEJ programs serve 1,800 journalists each year.

Brant Houston, a 17-year veteran newspaper reporter who now heads the Missouri-based Investigative Reporters and Editors, says journalism organizations should be judged by the quality of their membership services, resources, publications and networking. And by those criteria, he gives SEJ the highest marks. “I think it’s among the best of the journalism organizations,” he says.

Michael Fischer oversees environmental grants at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which gives SEJ $100,000 each year. “The amount of coverage of environmental issues is on the wane,” he says. “There are fewer column inches and fewer minutes on the nightly news related to environmental issues. And John Q. Citizen, in order to be responsibly engaged in civic decision-making, needs that kind of information or the environment will lose.”

Most members agree that it’s the less tangible things SEJ provides that are the most significant. “You can’t underestimate the value of networking, especially when so many journalists are operating in such a hostile environment inside and outside their newsrooms,” says James Bruggers, the environmental reporter for the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal and SEJ’s board president.

Why the hostile atmosphere? “I think that there’s a suspicion that if you’re covering environmental issues you’re a tree hugger,” says Natalie Pawelski, environmental correspondent at Cable News Network (CNN), and a member of the SEJ board. “It’s associated with hippie, leftist political activists in people’s minds.”

Fighting that perception is important because being lumped in with environmental activists—or agents of industry, for that matter—allows editors and audiences to dismiss critical environmental news as slanted. SEJ zealously defends its credibility as a journalism organization rather than an activist one by scrupulously screening its funders and maintaining stringent membership criteria based on who pays for a reporter’s work. It’s a striving for purity not usually seen in journalism organizations—and one that, some argue, is taken too far, as when the group excised the word “green” from a section heading, or argued that the group’s journal did not need to be printed on recycled paper.

Others say the real challenges to environmental reporters run deeper than their image. “There’s just simply more at stake in environmental journalism,” explains author Richard Manning, one of the first of a handful of newspaper reporters martyred for telling hard stories. In 1988 his reporting identified accelerated, unsustainable logging by Champion International and Plum Creek Timber companies in Montana; within a year he was fired. Since joining SEJ he’s seen enough similar scenarios to believe there is an “organized, orchestrated attack” against practitioners and the beat.

Ward, one of SEJ’s founders, says the confluence of events 10 years ago that created SEJ was unique—and perhaps not replicable. “I think it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to found SEJ today,” he says. “Developments in the media mitigate against it, and I’m talking about everything from consolidation [of media companies] and dumbing down information to outright antipathy from editors to environmental issues in some cases.”

Although SEJ was originally conceived as a small, mutual-aid group for the handful of full-time environmental reporters, the organization has quickly grown into what one former board member called “the most important environmental organization in the country.” Its quest to improve the quality, accuracy and visibility of environmental journalism is far from over, but the organization at age 10 appears to be on solid ground to continue that fight.