Ryerson Review of Journalism graphic

The day The Financial Post’s June 1989 issue of Moneywise hit the newsstands, the magazine’s editor, Catherine Collins, went out for her daily run. Setting out from Toronto’s downtown YMCA, Collins jogged past the news boxes strung out along her route. Anxiously, she glanced in to see how the magazine was selling. But what she saw discouraged her-The Financial Post’s navy blue news boxes were still piled high with unsold copies. To Collins it looked as if the gamble she and her staff took in dedicating a whole issue of the personal finance magazine to the environment had failed.

Returning to her office on the sixth floor of Maclean Hunter’s Bay Street building, Collins went directly to se~ the magazine’s publisher to commiserate over the “flop.” Instead, she got a very pleasant surprise-Moneywise’s environment issue was selling so fast the newsboxes had already been refilled that day, some had even been restocked twice. Collins’ first impressions of the magazine’s success couldn’t have been more wrong.

The sky-blue cover of the “Investing in the Environment” issue conveyed the message of the pages within-a painted loon superimposed on a gold “loonie” dollar targeted readers who were not only interested in using their money wisely but in doing so the environmentally friendly way. Cover lines such as “Eco-Logical Products” and “Eco-Friendly Stocks” highlighted the magazine’s content.

Collins and her staff had taken a bold step to broaden environmental coverage in Canada and the move paid off in an expanded readership. “I know from the letters that came in we were bringing in people who had never picked up a financial publication in their lives,” Collins says.

The overwhelming response to the June 1989 issue of Moneywise is just one of many indications of the phenomenal increase in public interest and concern for the environment. Opinion polls consistently show the environment is the number-one issue in the minds of Canadians and in 1988, an Angus Reid poll found that 83 per cent of those surveyed ranked the environment as “very important.”

Canada, like the rest of the world, has entered an age of environmental enlightenment. Environmentalists, once thought of as the Indian-cotton and-granola set, now put on pinstripes and go downtown to do business, while big business and government scramble aboard the environmental bandwagon. Former federal Environment Minister Tom McMillan was right, it seems, when in 1988 he said, “No one wants to be on the wrong side of the public’s strong desire for environmental protection.”
Certainly, business in its recent infatuation with environmentally friendly products and services has not let public opinion polls go unnoticed. But, as the January 30, 1989, issue of Marketing magazine reported, “The recent marriage [of conservatives and conservationists] may have less to do with an awakening corporate consciousness than it does a growing realization that environmentally friendly products mean profits.

The Canadian media too, like the businesses they are, continue to monitor the marketplace-watching public opinion polls and giving their consumers (readers) what they want. One such response to reader demand was Southam’s 24-page environment supplement, two million copies of which went into 14 of the publisher’s 15 papers on October 7, 1989.

“The fact that such a profit-oriented outfit would go ahead with such a costly undertaking shows growing corporate awareness of the environment,” wrote Maclean’s columnist Charles Gordon in an October 16, 1989 piece for the magazine. “It is being assumed,” he said, “that corporations do not do things entirely out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Former Globe and Mail environment reporter Michael Keating thinks opinion poll results are “justification enough to make the environment the most important story in the media.”

Obviously media managers think so too-over the past five years, press coverage of environmental issues has increased substantially.

Chris Vander Doelen, the Windsor Star’s environment reporter for four years, says in the last two years there is “so much environmental news that I can’t keep up.” The paper now carries at least three environment stories each day to keep the paper’s 80,000 to 100,000 readers informed.

In a recent study, “Network Coverage of the Environment: Objectivity or Advocacy?”, Vancouver’s Fraser Institute found that in 1988-89 the number of environment stories on CBC’s “The National” and “The Journal” tripled over the previous year to 292.

A rough survey of the Canadian News Index, which catalogues all material published in seven major Canadian dailies, reveals that in 1985 there were close to 400 stories on the environment and related topics; by 1989 this number had risen to 1,525. Even accounting for overlap among the topics covered (acid rain, ecology, environment, greenhouse effect, pollution, polychlorinated biphenyls) and for other, smaller topic areas not enumerated, the increase is substantial.

But, while coverage of environmental issues has increased, quantity does not always mean quality. One common criticism is that the media are sensational and alarmist-only disasters and doomsday reports get full attention.

Globe and Mail business columnist Terence Corcoran, who often writes on economic/environment issues, believes there is “a lot of distortion and emotional exaggeration” in environmental coverage. Others share this view, particularly concerning the dangers of PCBs.

The fire at a PCB warehouse in St Basile-Ie-Grand, Quebec, in August 1988 set off a major public scare over the storage of toxic chemicals. Headlines such as “Killer PCBs stay threat forever” (Calgary Herald, August 25, 1988); “Properties of PCBs like Jekyll and Hyde” (Montreal Gazette, August 25, 1988); “Psychological damage feared at St-Basile” (Montreal Gazette, September 10, 1988); and “The PCB danger: no time to waste” (Vancouver Sun, September 2, 1988) were common. For residents of St-Basile-le-Grand the threat of toxic contamination seemed very real. But media coverage of the fire and subsequent controversy over removal of the PCB waste was accused of causing hysteria.

In a recent Maclean’s column, “An industry’s mania for nightmares,” George Bain quotes Dalhousie University associate vice-president for science research, Robert Fournier. Fournier, says Bain, has publicly accused journalists of doing “a lousy job” with the PCB story and Fournier has cited coverage by CBC’s “The Journal” as being “less aimed at informing people… than at scaring them half to death.”

Andre Picard covered the St-Basile fire for The Gloke and Mail. He says he has had countless letters criticizing his PCB articles. One letter he keeps posted on his bulletin board refers to Picard’s “PCB fixation.” Many of the letters come from scientists such as University of Toronto civil engineering professor Philip Jones.

Last November, Jones chaired a seminar organized by the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Toronto to examine evidence on the dangers of PCBs. Participants concluded that reaction to the Quebec PCB incident was totally out of proportion to the real danger and they denounced as “hysterical” the reaction of the media and the public to PCBs.

But Pat Adams, executive director of the Toronto-based environment group, Probe International, does not see PCB coverage as alarmist: “To say that the press blew the issue out of proportion is dishonest and does not reflect concern for the people [at risk].”

George Bain says much public fear comes from environmental groups which “have learned very well how to play the media game. And I think they’re playing the media like a piano on this issue.”

Similar criticisms of media coverage of nuclear energy are discussed in David Lees’ 35,000-word article, “Living in the Nuclear Shadow,” in the November 1989 issue of Toronto Life.

Lees cites the findings of Robert DuPont, an American physicist who reviewed media coverage of commercial nuclear power generation throughout the seventies. DuPont concluded, Lees says, “that the common motif was fear, that journalists covering nuclear issues were phobic.”

Lees goes on to say that the media has a vested interest in keeping fear alive. “We rarely question the credentials or motives of the boy who cries wolf. We are too often content merely to pass on the message. And by doing so, we have created a market for bad news, from readers and editors.”

It seems it is the bad-news stories that sell best, at least with editors. Michael Keating, the Globe’s environment reporter for nine years, felt this pressure at the paper. “I tried to do more wrap-up stories, putting things in perspective,” he says, “but it didn’t sell well with the city desk a lot of the time…[they] wanted the crisis, the body in the street,” Chris Vander Doelen, too, is aware of what kind of stories sell best-stories he calls “creature features”-about furry and not-so-furry animals: deer hunts to cull herds and zebra mussels invading the Great Lakes, for example. He says he doesn’t always like writing these stories and giving the bad news. “Every week the editor wants a we’re-all-going-to-die story,” Vqnder Doelen says.

But are editors totally at fault for relying on scare stories? “There is a tendency to [use] scare stories about PCBs because industry and government have done an appalling job of communicating the correct information to reporters,” says Colin Isaacs, past executive director of Pollution Probe. “Instead of dedicating energy to solve the problem, [industry and government] spend a lot of time criticizing the media.”

Getting the correct information out is a shared responsibility, says Isaacs, but coverage of the environment has been no more alarmist than coverage of the free trade agreement or the GST with the “same degree of hyperbole used.”

With regard to environmental issues, business and industry’—failure to communicate their points of view to the media is likely due to mistrust. Keating found that after he left The Globe and Mail, business contacts would approach him at conferences and be much more open to discussing business/environment issues than they had been when he was a reporter. “The business community tends to be reluctant to deal with the media,” says Keating.

Adam Zimmerman, chairman of Noranda Forest Inc., infamous for labeling environmentalists “environmental terrorists,” told the Canadian Club of Toronto last fall: “I’m suspicious of the media. It’s just the bad things that happen, and the people who are willing to say irresponsible things that are news. Good news doesn’t make good press. ”

Andre Picard does not feel goaded by editors to write alarming or bad-news stories. He says you can always sell a good story to an editor, though most environment stories usually do, by their nature, bear dire tidings. There is also the danger that constant scare stories will, over time, make readers apathetic to more real dangers. Picard calls this argument “ludicrous.” “It’s not a question of degrees,” he says, “it’s a clean environment versus a contaminated one.”

“We shouldn’t get hung up on the ‘bogey men’ that we have created in the public mind to the point where we can’t give them up if they prove not to be substantiated,” advises George Bain. “We should not simply be in the business of alarming people.”
And people do need to hear more than just the environmental bad news. Catherine Collins believes the success of Moneywise’s environment issue demonstrates that what is lacking in coverage is advice.

“All the information we were reading and hearing was disaster information [the Exxon spill, the greenhouse effect, rainforest destruction], all the gloomy forecasts, but nobody was saying what to do,” says Collins.

In her June 1989 editorial, Collins dedicated the issue to the “practical things, possible things, even profitable things” we still can do for the environment. The magazine kept its word with articles on environmental charities (“Where on Earth Does Your Money Go?”) and how to invest in the ecosector (“Take a Stock. on the Wild Side”). Other stories included one on companies putting environmental protection into production; profiles of five professionals who “have gone out on a limb for nature,” and a most practical piece, “The Green House Effect,” which outlined what it takes to become an eco-conscious consumer at home. The lack of critical and informed analysis of complex issues is another frequent criticism of environmental reporting. Inadequate expertise could be the reason. Ron Smith, co-founder of the EDEN Foundation, an organization that works to link business and environment interests, sees “spotty” expertise as part of the problem. Colin Isaacs agrees, “There is a real shortage of experienced environment reporters.”

So, while the media have done a very good job of alerting people and raising public consciousness about the state of the environment, they’ve done only a mediocre job of putting things in perspective.

In his Toronto Life article, David Lees offers one explanation: “[Journalists] are often overwhelmed by the technological complexities of our material.”

Complexity leads reporters to sources (such as environment groups and industry representatives) that have a vested interest in spending time with the journalists, he says. “[This] necessarily drives us to extremist points of view. We end up stringing our stories from polarities and intoning wisely at the end”

John Godfrey, editor of The Financial Post, believes covering the environment beat is particularly challenging because “it’s not just a science question, it’s a human and political question.”

Science and environment writers have to be “specialized generalists” says Geoff Foulds, editor of the Canadian Science Writers Association newsletter, Science Link. “They must be able to understand the context of issues and recognize anomalies.” Foulds says The Globe and Mail’s science writer Stephen Strauss is particularly good at writing understandably for his audience. Strauss studied only one science course in university but grew into science writing from general feature writing assignments.
Both Ron Woznow, vice-president, environment, for the giant resource based multinational Fletcher Challenge (Canada) Ltd., and Ron Smith single out Michael Keating for his well-informed, fair reporting and for his ability to put environment stories into a broader social, political and economic context. “Keating’s work is impeccable and well grounded,” says Smith.

Keating confesses that when he requested and was granted The Globe and Mail’s environment beat in 1979 it turned out to be “a very different animal than I expected-very technical, very scientific; you have to do an awful lot of analysis of numbers and talking to scientists and translating their work into plain English.” Keating was interested in science and had a natural affinity for outdoors but had no scientific background and was by his own admission terrible in mathematics. “It took me about two years to really feel comfortable with the issues, so I sympathize with any new environment reporter it’s hard work.”

Keating finally left The Globe in 1988 when the paper decided the beat should be taken over by someone with a fresher perspective, albeit less experience. He now works as a free lancer in Toronto and has written a book, To the Last Drop, about Canada and the world’s water crisis.

To Colin Isaacs, a friend of Keating’s, the reporter’s removal was illogical; papers, he says, would benefit from reporters with expertise in one or more fields. “There aren’t enough specialized environment reporters to cover all that needs to be covered,” says Isaacs. “Every daily should have someone on the environment beat and maybe schools of journalism should encourage environment courses.”

Still, “Science writing has mushroomed tremendously in the past 20 years,” says Foulds. The CSWA now has 325 members (half of whom are reporters, writers, broadcasters, researchers) though the association hasn’t done surveys to determine the science expertise of these writers.

Another group, Outdoor Writers of Canada, has 250 freelance members who write about everything from wetland conservation to canoeing to hunting deer to nature photography. Jack Davis, a newspaper reporter and editor for 35 years, is the Ontario-based group’s executive director. Davis says only a handful of Outdoor Writers of Canada’s members have science or environment-related degrees. The quality of environmental coverage in Canada is “piss poor,” he says, because “generally the large papers do not accept environment stories. They’re afraid of them.”

Foulds says science writing and reporting has been ghettoized because’ “editors see it as a fairly narrow pursuit and not as important as politics [or] social policy.”

In June of 1989, The Globe and Mail made a move that suggested to some that Canada’s national newspaper did not see environment issues as a priority: the paper cancelled the weekly science column of geneticist and renowned environmentalist David Suzuki. Rejecting accusations that the action reflected some “right-wing bias” or “business orientation,” the paper’s associate editor, Christopher Waddell, answered one reader’s letter which had admonished The Globe for its actions. “We remain…firm in our belief that the science page requires a column about science,” Waddell wrote in June 1989, “not just one that focuses solely on the environment to the exclusion of all other sciences and scientific debates and issues.”

Environment stories are starting to take up a lot of space, but the systematic type of coverage is still not there-it tends to be spot news responding to crises. Extensive coverage is “more erratic than regular,” says Keating, citing special environment sections by The Globe and Mail and Southam’s October 1989 environment supplement. “It’s still true and still scandalous,” he says, “that the media do far better at covering cars, sports, fashion and gardening in a systematic way, than they do the environment. These other areas have preparation, editors, space assigned and research done.”

To date, media managers have been reluctant to dedicate the resources necessary to make sure those covering environmental issues have the background to provide the kind of expert coverage afforded\economic issues. To Keating, the problem lies with “middle and senior management in the media; people who grew up in an era when the environment wasn’t a major issue.”
Media managers, he says, have been “Neanderthals” and “bloody slow in waking up to evolving issues.”

Keating cites one exception-Financial Post editor John Godfrey who is “leading the pack and sending the right signals.” Since Godfrey took over at The Financial Post two years ago and the paper became a daily, more and more space has been dedicated to environmental stories, even when extrapolating for the increased number of issues. In 1987, the business paper carried six environment and related stories. By 1988, this number had risen to 33 and in 1989, it tripled to almost 100 stories on the environment.

Now, to supplement the paper’s regular coverage, an “Environment and Business” section has been added with a bimonthly column on the environment by Colin Isaacs. Godfrey says this move still fits with The Financial Post’s mandate because, “Anybody who’s enlightened will want to be responsible personally and corporately. It is smart business to be responsible and be seen to be responsible.”

Godfrey sees two roles for the media: first as a watchdog, to take something that’s not fashionable and say “look out for this;” secondly, to take a look at a sensational event and, while you have people’s attention, broaden the event to have deeper debate and understanding of a subject. Perhaps this is one reason media’s managers have been unsystematic in covering the environment. Perhaps they, unlike Godfrey, have yet to sort out what their role should be.

“There needs to be an environmental ethic for the fifth estate,” says Ron Woznow. “Papers need to establish environment policy statements just like government and business have because the environment is a unique issue for which the media should not polarize people.”

With the environment, Catherine Collins maintains that the press should go beyond just reporting the news. “You keep the issue in front of people…and you keep it fresh.”

But are the media willing to take such an active role? “It’s a tricky question,” Collins says, “because I know the media is really there to report, to be a weathervane of what’s going on. But these are different times and we’re running out of time-and I do believe that.”

There may be a place for some advocacy journalism (witness newspaper literacy campaigns). But, as the Fraser Institute’s report points out, “While advocacy journalism allows chronic problems to be emphasized, journalists themselves must decide which problems are worthy of this emphasis.”

Whatever action the media take, their role is crucial. Perception of such a far-reaching issue as the state of the global environment cannot come just from looking in one’s own backyard-it must come from a broader source. That source is the media.

A recent Angus Reid poll supports this. Eighty-six per cent of respondents listed television, newspapers, radio and magazines as their primary source of information on environmental issues, compared with one or two per cent listing information from governments and environmental organizations.

Terence Corcoran says that in the end, the argument between the need for jobs and profits versus a cleaner environment will be settled by “the most successful manipulator of public opinion.”

With Moneywise’s next environment issue (April 1990), Collins says, “We’re going to put a little more onus on individuals, who have to be prepared to accept a strong element of sacrifice if they want, really want, to turn things around.” Inspired by the response to the June 1989 issue, Moneywise has already launched a new “EcoWise” column of information and advice on the link between the environment and the econolliy.

All of this assumes that people will continue to take an interest in reading about the environment, however bad the news. “Sure, people will like to hear more good news but they’re not going to get tired of hearing bad news,” says Keating. “People don’t get tired of hearing coverage of war because [they] want to know what’s coming at [them] tomorrow-it’s self-interest and fear.”

But as Ian Lightstone, a principal of the Toronto marketing research firm Thompson Lightstone and Company, commented in Marketing magazine, “We are still only at the lip-service stage as far as taking any concrete action is concerned.”

A recent Economist article asked the inevitable question about the heightened interest in green products: “How long will it last?” In the past, such concerns have tended to be the product of prosperity, disappearing once oil shocks or recessions make people poorer. But maybe this time concern for the environment will override worries about the bank balance.

A 1989 Globe and Mail-CBC News poll found that “a majority of Canadians believe that air and water pollution must be eliminated, even if it means sollie people will lose their jobs.” And 80 per cent of those Canadians polled by Angus Reid in 1988 said they would be willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products.

Others are doubtful. “We tend to be sort of faddish on this,” Bain says. “It’s one of those things to be terribly, terribly for until it starts to hit home at your own convenience.” And if the public’s interest does wane, will the media’s then fade accordingly?

Keating compares the increase in environmental coverage to the increase in the earth’s temperature due to the greenhouse effect-graphed as a jagged line continually rising. From now on, he predicts, the temperature and coverage will be increasing in ever greater amounts. “A generation of people has grown up with these issues a generation of people who are very concerned, and rightfully so, about their future and want to write about it and communicate it.”

Collins thinks it’s most important to “not lose sight of the whole issue, that we have an irreplaceable, beautiful world-and that’s what’s at stake.”

EDEN’s Smith rests this stake on the shoulders of the media. “I am a firm believer,” he says “that those who control the media control minds. The media is going to be the determining factor in the fate of the species.”

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About the author

Maria Smith was a Managing Editor for the Spring 1990 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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