If October 25, 1994 was a black day for the Russian environment, it was darker still for Canadian environmental journalism. Although a major oil pipeline had ruptured 24 hours earlier in the Russian Arctic, with unofficial estimates suggesting the spill was at least twice the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, our national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, buried the story on page 15.
It is a sign of the endangered status of environmental issues in the Globe when its senior management chooses neither to recognize a catastrophe in the making nor anticipate its far-reaching consequences. “When it first happened,” recollects editorial board member Marcus Gee, “no one was sure how serious the oil spill was, especially in a remote place like that.” Editor-in-chief William Thorsell points out the story did get “bigger” as the days went on, and that anyway, “there is something more dramatic about a spill in Alaska than a pipeline spill in Siberia.” It took editors at the paper more than a week to decide that the leak, then estimated at 37 million litres (approximately the size of the Exxon spill), warranted front-page coverage. Five to six years ago, an environmental crisis of this kind would have made huge headlines, with months of follow-up commentary about the damage to the natural landscape, the loss of livelihoods and wildlife, the obligations of corporations and governments to protect the environment. But all environmental issues made news then because of an unprecedented awakening of public concern. People were making links between the quality of their air, water, and earth, and the health of their children, the security of their jobs, and the future of the human species. Social scientists heralded this new consciousness not as a fad, but a revelation. The public had finally recognized the dangers it had brought upon itself and was demanding change.
Though newspapers eagerly reported on this environmental awakening, they didn’t understand-or believe-its depth and implications. They covered environmental issues only as long as there was public fervor. When things quieted down, they misinterpreted the quiet as apathy and environmental coverage began to decline, both in quantity and quality.
Project Censored Canada is a joint venture of the Canadian Association of Journalists and Simon Fraser University that annually solicits and lists the most under-reported stories in the mainstream media. In 1993, says co-founder Bill Doskoch, one-third of its 111 nominations were for environment-related stories. Ironically, Doskoch, a reporter at The Regina Leader-Post, can no longer report on these stories himself because his editors terminated his environment beat last fall, wanting him to report on health instead (as if environment and health were separate issues).
Also in 1993, prompted in large part by the Vancouver Sun’s drastic decline in environmental coverage, Simon Fraser University organized a conference called “Take Back the News” that critically examined mainstream media’s treatment of environmental issues. In spring 1994, The Financial Post in Toronto dumped its biweekly environment/business column, written for four and a half years by Colin Isaacs, former executive director of Pollution Probe and currently a respected environmental consultant. Isaacs, whose column usually encouraged and described industry’s environmental initiatives, was told that the Post’s readers “weren’t interested in the environment anymore.” (Yet the paper continues to hand out its highly popular environmental achievement awards to business each year.)
To its credit, The Toronto Star hasn’t dropped its weekly environment page, but one gets the feeling it’s more a token gesture-environmental issues don’t get much space elsewhere in the paper. As the Star’s environment reporter, Brian McAndrew, admits, “An environment story is not something the people who put the newspaper together have on their minds. They tend to work with what they’re comfortable in, like politics.” Even the paper’s own media critic, Antonia Zerbisias, was prompted last July to write “The Greening of the Media Never Seems to Last Very Long,” where she suggests that what the “world needs is an environment disaster, one we in the Western world can relate to….It’s just that media need to be jolted back into covering the environment.” The apathy of the media in covering the environment is compounded by something even more disturbing at the Globe: antipathy toward environmental concerns. In editorials and columns, it persistently downplays the mounting evidence of human folly, dismissing the warnings of scientists and environmental groups as hysterical, irrational, and alarmist. Depletion of our ozone layer? Warming of our planet? Chemical loading in our bodies? In the world according to the Globe, such problems are either grossly exaggerated or under control. And that message is misleading.
“They are encouraging readers in a fool’s paradise,” says scientist Digby McLaren, who is a fellow and past-president of the Royal Society of Canada, considered by many to be the most eminent body of scientists in the country. McLaren, a geologist and regular Globe reader, describes the newspaper’s environment policy as “very poor, destructive, and dangerous journalism” that detracts from its credibility, and be adds that many of his scientific peers agree. “The Globe has a long way to go to understand what is really going on environmentally.”
The Globe’s denial of environmental realities began around 1988 when it kicked Michael Keating off the environment beat. Over his nine years there, Keating helped to pioneer environmental journalism in Canada, his files and source list becoming so extensive, he could swing from forestry to population to acid rain to toxic chemicals at a moment’s notice. For his thoughtful, groundbreaking coverage, he received an average of two international and national environmental awards a year.
Officially, editors told Keating they wanted a fresh voice on the beat. Unofficially, it seems they thought he had crossed the line from objective coverage of environmental issues to advocacy journalism. Keating firmly disagrees with the suggestion that he crossed any line, or was dismissed for this reason. “It was just a case of not enough other voices putting out other viewpoints at that time. “But he does concede that there might have been other ulterior motives for his dismissal. “People have said [my removal] was a ploy to diminish the coverage of environment and therefore please some right-wing business interests.”
Until the late ’80s, Keating says the Globe’s editorial policy “tended to be much more supportive of dealing with environmental problems-not in a radical way, but in a way which said, ‘These are serious problems. We have to treat them seriously.’ The attitude changed, he speculates, for two reasons. First, the Globe was trying to compete with The Financial Post, which had just gone daily. “The paper was being attacked on its most profitable front, which was the business section … by another business paper that editors perceived to be further to the right,” he says. So the Globe’s editorial business policy followed suit. Around the same time, Keating continues, there was a change in editorial management. “A number of editors were replaced and the whole policy of the paper shifted more to the right:” he says.
But by this time, Keating was gone. Choosing to quit the paper rather than move to another beat, he became a successful writer and consultant, advising a number of government, business, and environmental organizations at the national and international level. In addition, he is founder and co-director of a short, yearly course at the University of Western Ontario called Environmental Issues for Journalists-the only one of its kind in Canada.
Since his departure, reporters have been moving in and out of the beat like hotel guests. By early 1994, three reporters at the Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau – James Rusk, Martin Mittelstaedt and Craig McInnes (now at the Victoria bureau) – had all done short stints on the environment beat. As the current environment stand-in, Dan Westell, says, “It’s a joke around here that the next thing for the environment reporter is to become the Queen’s Park reporter.”
None of these reporters was pushed off the beat. But it’s no longer a hip place to be. It’s not a place for more Keatings. In fact, Westell says he is basically just biding his time until something better comes along. “The environment job was an escape for me,” he openly confesses. “It was a chance to get out of Report on Business because I wasn’t getting along with the editor.” If it became possible, Westell says he would like to go back to business reporting. The foot soldiers at the Globe take their cue from the top-and they’ve quietly suggested to me more than once that the guy at the top is anti-environment. Editor-in-chief William Thorsell would say he is anti- “misguided environmentalism.” He describes his policy on the environment as “one of some skepticism We’re always looking for proof for claims that are out there.” And as long as there is no absolute proof, so the Globe argument goes, there is no need whatsoever to upset the current economic order of things.
Given this, it’s not surprising that shortly after his appointment in 1989, Thorsell fully supported the firing of science columnist and environmental guru David Suzuki, who argued passionately and repeatedly that society must shift from the overuse of natural resources to wise use. (Thorsell says they wanted more “diversity” in Suzuki’s column.) But his skepticism extends even to businesses that are taking initiatives to protect the environment. As he cautions me, “It can be part of some corporate relations game, with companies saying they are turning green.” Naturally, there are a lot of pretenders, but for many businesses, the greening approach is no “game.” A recent article in the Globe’s own Report on Business Magazine describes how the growing Canadian environmental industry is cashing in on a multi-billion dollar market and creating tens of thousands of jobs. Perhaps he didn’t read it.
One major reason Thorsell gives for getting off, and staying off, the “environmental bandwagon” is that readers aren’t as interested in environment issues anymore. And he argues that this has been clearly demonstrated in public opinion polls. But Michael Adams, president of Environics Research Group (one of the biggest pollsters in Canada), says the fact that the environment is no longer the number one preoccupation of Canadians “disguises” the real issue. “Concern for the environment has gone from apocalyptic anxiety to secular religion,” Adams maintains. “It’s not top of the mind, but it has become a part of our value system.”
In conjunction with Environics, consultant Doug Miller conducts and publishes The Environmental Monitor report, a national survey done four times a year. He says that in the seven years he’s been putting it together, there has been no real change in the level of interest in the environment-just an “enduring concern.” (Indeed, the Star’s Zerbisias had an “amazing response” to her piece deploring the lack of environmental coverage, with readers applauding her insight.) What has changed is society’s acceptance of job creation at any cost to the environment. “If you say to a person, ‘Well, you’re worried about the economy, so why don’t we just simply stop treating the environment so seriously and allow people to pollute and make money to provide jobs,’ they’ll say, ‘No, that’s not acceptable.'” says Miller. “People won’t accept trade-offs willingly and easily in terms of environmental losses or economic gain.”
But rather than move with the times, the Globe stubbornly stays in the camp of denial. “The policy on the editorial page is that quite often they think the environment stuff is foolish,” says Dan Westell. “Some of them perceive sometimes that it’s a cost without benefit … that sometimes the science alleging the problem is wrong.”
Sometimes it is wrong. But rarely, if ever, do the Globe’s editorials admit that the science is right and the problem is real. Is this side of the “truth” any less a form of propaganda than the so-called hysteria of environmentalists?
June 1, 1992: “Will Environmentalism Come Down to Earth?” described how the “first challenge in responding to environmentalism is the separation of myth from fact.” Fair enough, but later we see the Globe’s real stripes: “The more conviction and momentum the environmental movement sustains, the more skepticism is necessary to avoid wasteful mistakes.”
November 21, 1992: “The Robust Earth” announced that “a growing body of evidence suggests that we may have been underestimating the resilience of our natural environment.” As an example of nature rebounding from “apparently catastrophic environmental events,” it cited a U.N.-commissioned study that found oil spills and oil-well fires induced by the Gulf War caused “much less damage to aquatic life in the Gulf than originally feared.” And what was the editorial’s own modest proposal? That “we take a more careful took at supposed threats to the ‘fragile’ planet before we rush expensively to its aid.”
March 2, 1993: “Crowded Planet” played down the effects, and reality, of overpopulation: “After peaking in the period 1965-1970, world population has slowed. The planet as a whole has not reached its limits of endurance….has no energy shortage, no commodities shortage, no food shortage. The Earth is not about to collapse from overpopulation.”
Although long disturbed by the Globe’s environment perspective, it was the November 28, 1994 editorial that really agitated Digby McLaren. “Environmental Phobias” began by criticizing a local environmental assessment, but turned into a global rant. Though acknowledging that there are “grounds for [the] fear” that the “environment is being destroyed by careless human action,” it complained that “critical judgment on environmental issues is too easily suspended in the emotional reaction to stories about chemicals, nuclear waste and other horrid-sounding words. Facts and proportion seem to lose their efficacy when set against the term ‘environmental threat;’ the wicked witch of the latter 20th century for which we seem to have an almost psychological attraction.”
With breathtaking confidence, the Globe went on to inform readers that while the appearance of an ozone hole “may have posed significant threats to human health,” these “have been addressed by changes in chemical use.” Now that is news. (In August 1993, the Globe’s front page trumpeted that the ozone hole was on its way to recovery. Interestingly, it based the news on a study co-conducted by scientists working for the chemical giant E.I. DuPont de Nemours Co.)
Thorsell seems vague about the Globe’s rationale for damning or legitimizing environmental concerns. Though reiterating to me that “huge amounts of money are wasted on studying threats that aren’t threats,” he admits he’s unsure of just what the “real” environmental problems are. The main point, he explains to me, is that “the environment shouldn’t be a religion. It’s an issue.”
But what many informed people, like Digby McLaren, understand is that the environment is the issue on which all others rest. As McLaren warned in a letter responding to the above editorial, “your refusal to accept facts about the present state of the planet, which are available to everyone, is puzzling and dangerous. The environment is not something separate from our daily lives and external to our economic system. It embraces the whole of our physical, chemical and biological surroundings that constitute the complex life-support system of the planet, of which we are part….There are no substitutes for air, water, soils, forests or all living things.”
A couple of years ago, McLaren joined the Union of Concerned Scientists and, along with more than 1,600 of his peers from 70 countries, signed a public declaration of warning to humanity that human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Given that scientists tend to be an ultra-cautious breed, it was an extraordinary statement, one that some human beings are choosing to ignore. McLaren explains that there are two schools of thought about where we are in nature. One school says we are inside the environment and messing it up. The other says we’re above nature, where our modern technology and economics allow us to think that if we run out of one resource, there will always be another. This is the Globe’s philosophy, says McLaren, and it’s wrong. It wouldn’t be so bad if this ideology were balanced by other perspectives in the paper, but apart from occasional stories on endangered species or recycling efforts (or angry letters to the editor), it infiltrates almost every section. It has reached the point where even columnist Michael Valpy, one of the only voices expressing environmental concern at the Globe, has resigned himself to his paper’s philosophy. “I just assume the Globe editorial policy isn’t pro-environment.”
Editorial board member Marcus Gee was given nearly two full pages in the Focus section in April 1994 to rebut an Atlantic Monthly article maintaining that we are in the midst of global decay and on the brink of chaos. In “Apocalypse Deferred,” Gee made the astonishing claim that “by almost every measure, life on Earth is getting better.” (This February, see-no-evil Gee reviewed a book forecasting troubles in the future, and announced there is no need for pessimism because the prospects for humanity have never been “brighter.”) Gee says he wrote “Apocalypse Deferred” because he found the Atlantic’s thesis to be “wrong-headed.” He contends he does care about the environment, and is merely trying to take the necessary steps to protect it properly.
Trouble is, the Globe advocates taking no steps until the problem is a scientific “certainty.” Only six months before Gee’s rebuttal piece, it ran an adaptation from a book called Ethical Choices and Global Climate Warming, but apparently didn’t heed its most crucial point: “We must arm ourselves with the scientific ‘facts’ about the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and climate, but it may be even more important that we gain a better appreciation of the realities of scientific complexity and un-certainty,” wrote author Lydia Dotto. “In all likelihood, we will be forced to make significant economic, political and social decisions about climate change without a foundation of absolute scientific certainty to fall back on.”
Digby McLaren points out that scientists identify potential problems long before they can tell the real effects. “‘Scientific certainty’ is an expression that shouldn’t be used,” he says, adding that anybody, including scientists, who insists on certainty is irresponsible. “How sure do you need to be about something?” he asks angrily. “If there’s a one percent chance of something happening, we should be bloody prepared! Would a person get on a plane if there was a one percent chance it would crash?”
But the Globe underplays potential risks, an attitude at the top that “creeps into reporting,” as one source at the paper told me. Even its science writer, Stephen Strauss, from whom you might expect a greater sense of urgency, spouts the skeptical party line. McLaren recalls a poor (and lengthy) Strauss article three years ago called “Understanding Ozone.” In it, Strauss tried to clear the air of ozone-depleting fears, reassuring us that “the sky is not falling. Not yet, anyway.” The last line of the article was a quote from a NASA scientist, who gave this dead-end suggestion: “You don’t want to make big steps until you know everything-and you probably will never know everything.”
As one reader wrote in, Strauss sounded “like an apologist for our current, damaging lifestyles. We do not need Mr. Strauss’s reassurances, or his rationalizations. We need to be quicker to heed the warnings of environmental scientists as the evidence of our destruction of nature mounts.”
In trying to explain to me how the article was misunderstood, Strauss only reiterates the need to go slow. As he rightly argues in many of his columns, nature is complicated (a reality he believes environmentalists sometimes overlook). “In terms of environments,” he cautions me, “we should operate conservatively in general because you don’t understand what’s going to happen.”
But it’s precisely because of that uncertainty that scientists weigh the statistical possibilities, or probabilities, of harm. McLaren, who criticized Strauss’s article by letter, says the ozone problem is “extremely” serious. “All the predictions made over the last few years of what it will be like the next year have been inaccurate,” he says. “It’s worse than [scientists] said it was going to be. And there are all sorts of signs. Dozens of organizations are measuring it and showing it is being increasingly depleted. These are accurate measurements.” McLaren adds, “More facts are known about the severity of environment issues, in general, than [scientists] use. We have enough now to act.”
Fittingly, it was a paleontologist who last summer lambasted Globe business columnist Terence Corcoran for his dinosaur-like rants against environmental concerns. “Periodically, Mr. Corcoran strays from the discussion of the business of business into the interface between business and science,” wrote M.J. Risk, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. “He usually gets it wrong….There is a great difference between being uninformed and being willfully ignorant.”
Like everybody at the Globe, Corcoran says he is not “anti-environment.” He just believes that a more market-oriented, individualistic society that has greater reliance on property rights can do a better job of looking after the environment than government regulators. “I do think the cleaner the environment, the better,” he says. “It’s just how you get that cleaner environment that I disagree with.”
But the raging accusations that pour from his podium on page two of the business section makes one wonder how much Corcoran cares about helping the environment. Among his pet hates is Ontario’s blue box program (ditto Thorsell), which he hits on with tiresome frequency. In one column, Corcoran said the “monster” waste recycling program is a “great economic sham,” and added, “there is nothing-repeat, nothing-commendable about blue-box recycling, either in its origins or operations.” The next day, he outlined ways to get rid of it. He’s described Earth Day as “an annual festival during which much of the world celebrates bad science and worse economics.” He’s criticized environment groups for tying up decision-making, preventing economic development, and forcing the private sector and governments to incur billions of dollars in wasteful spending: “These groups routinely misrepresent facts and fabricate information; they abuse the media process and mislead their members and the public.”
This past December, he chastised the environment ministers of British Columbia and Ontario, as well as “chemophobes at Greenpeace and other environmental organizations,” for their costly decision to push the pulp and paper industry to remove chlorine from its manufacturing processes. In the “real world of science,” he said, a “growing body of new research” shows that chlorine is not the cause of environmental problems. Really? It was only this past fall on CBC’s Witness program that a symposium of international scientists expressed extreme concern over reproductive mutations they were tracing to chemicals that mimic the hormone estrogen. Chemicals such as organochlorines. Mark Winfield, director of research for the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, wonders why Corcoran didn’t cite the “new research” on which he based his column, speculating that it had to have come from the chlorine industry. “There is no question chlorine is dangerous,” Winfield says. “The esteemed International Joint Commission [which administers the Great Lakes water quality agreement] says there should be zero discharge of persistent toxic chemicals, and [its] most recent reports have focused on chlorine-based chemicals.”
Corcoran’s editor, Margaret Wente, says she won’t ask him to tone down his columns. “His job is to incite,” she insists. “His job is to challenge conventional wisdom.” But it is only the Globe that looks unwise when it lets Corcoran loose on matters he knows nothing about. After an unusually balmy weekend in February, he wrote, “If this is the greenhouse effect, then maybe we should make it a permanent feature of the environment.” Corcoran went on to assert that global warming was a “hypothesis of dubious scientific uncertainty.” But according to Henry Hengeveld, science advisor on climate change for Environment Canada, it is the Globe’s judgment that is dubious. (On the same day as Corcoran’s column, the paper ran an editorial titled “What Not to Do about Global Warming.” You can guess the rest.) Hengeveld says, “There’s a global consensus that global warming is occurring. We’re confident that there is a problem….The CO2 emissions level is 27 percent above the pre-industrial level. And it’s continuing to increase.” Without question, he says, precautionary measures must be taken.
Perhaps they could start by muzzling Corcoran. “Corcoran is way out in left field,” says Hengeveld. “I’m surprised that the Globe would publish anything like that.” Corcoran’s colleagues aren’t. James Rusk believes that, like all columnists, he is given “enormous latitude” and makes errors that reporters can’t get away with. People at the Globe like Corcoran sometimes believe in “right things” they cannot prove, adds Dan Westell, and on occasion, they allow “a belief to overtake the facts.” The question, in the end, is whether the Globe’s beliefs reflect those of its most important readers-the business audience. Michael Keating finds it ironic that this conservative business newspaper has not “approached the environment in a conservative way, which is to say, ‘Let’s conserve the environment adequately so it will guarantee jobs.” The Globe’s attitude, which perpetuates the myth that economic interests are threatened by environmental protection, is simply blinkered. As Keating points out, “Many businesses are now developing major environmental plans and saying, ‘We understand that if we continue to pollute and be seen as raping and pillaging the environment, we’re going to have trouble doing business. We’re going to lose market share. So we have to start changing our environment practices to be more sustainable, more environmentally friendly.
The lack of an informed debate in major papers with the enormous reach of those like the Globe is a major disservice to the business community, says Colin Isaacs, who helps to develop environment programs for the Canadian private sector. “It’s very detrimental to public understanding of the issues, and ultimately, to Canadian competitiveness because other countries are moving aggressively on the environment,” he says. “Japan has a 50-year plan for energy efficiency, the Europeans are moving in reduction in use of chemicals, on water conservation. All of those things save them money. Therefore, their products will become cheaper. They’ll become more competitive. If Canada is still wasting resources and not keeping up with world requirements for state-of-the-art environment performance, our industries won’t be competitive. So I think the fact those stories are no longer getting written [as they were when Keating was on staff] actually damages our economy and costs us jobs.”
It was stories like the ones Keating used to write in the Globe that first showed Jon Grant how business people could reconcile environmental and economic concerns. Former chairman of the Quaker Oats Company of Canada and current chair of the Ontario Round Table on the Environment and Economy, Grant is very concerned about the “overall publishing philosophy” the Globe has taken on the environment. “There has been a major turn to the right,” he says, “and environment concerns and issues are much less important.” In fact, Grant thinks the Globe is not keeping up with what is actually happening in business. He points out that most leading companies have developed “sophisticated” ways of dealing with the environment, using resources more efficiently. “They’ve made the link between environmental stewardship arid profitability.”
Why can’t our national newspaper? Is it fair or constructive to focus only on what it considers to be “wrong-headed” environmentalism? Wouldn’t it be more forward-thinking to encourage action of some kind instead of denying the gravity of the problems? “We tend to be guilty,” editorial board member Marcus Gee concedes. “Probably we should do more about environmental threats. I think we could do more.”
It would be the first step out of a fool’s paradise.
About the author
Neil Morton was a Chief Copy Editor for the Summer 1995 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.