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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. One key controversy in environmental journalism is a continuing disagreement over how to distinguish it from its allied genres and disciplines.
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.
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 Carsonâ€™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 â€śenvironmental crisis,â€ť and working to influence environmental policy decisions. The mass media has followed and generated public interest on environmental issues ever since.
The field of environmental journalism was further legitimized by the creation of the Society of Environmental Journalists  in 1990, whose mission â€śis to advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy, and visibility of environmental reporting.â€ť Today, academic programs are offered at a number of institutions to train budding journalists in the rigors, complexity and sheer breadth of environmental journalism.
There exists a minor 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 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 expense 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.
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 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 â€śtaxonomy of nature writingâ€ť in order to define the genre. He suggests that his classifications, too, suffer a great deal of overlap and intergrading. â€śThe literature of nature has three main dimensions to it: natural history information, personal responses to nature, and philosophical interpretation of natureâ€ť (Lyon 20). In the natural history essay, â€śthe main burden of the writing is to convey pointed instruction in the facts of nature,â€ť such as with the ramble-type nature writing of John Burroughs (Lyon 21). â€śIn essays of experience, the authorâ€™s firsthand contact with nature is the frame for the writing,â€ť as with Edward Abbeyâ€™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, â€śbut the mode of presentation tends to be more abstract and scholarlyâ€ť (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 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 is a particular format for the communication of relevant information. It â€śinvolves translating the technical language of a natural science or related field into terms and ideas that people who arenâ€™t scientists can readily understand. And it involves doing it in a way thatâ€™s entertaining and interesting to these peopleâ€ť (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 8â€“28). While environmental journalism is not derived from environmental interpretation, it can employ interpretive techniques to explain difficult concepts to its audience.
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 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.
The field of environmental journalism covers a wide variety of topics. According to The Reporterâ€™s Environmental Handbook, environmental journalists perceive water concerns as the most important environmental issue, followed by atmospheric air pollution 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 Reporterâ€™s Environmental Handbook:
Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index
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