Even terms like "LEED Certified" and acronyms like CFL (compact fluorescent light), which are common lingo to many progressives, can be stumbling blocks for the general public, according to local journalists who recently discussed their coverage of the environmental movement.
“If you’re not familiar with the language, if that’s not the language you’re used to using, you immediately feel detached from that conversation,” Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Lisa Bernard-Kuhn says. “We just try to drill it down and make it as basic as possible with introducing people to these very real and very important concepts.”
Bernard-Kuhn was one of five panelists (including myself) who took part in a media roundtable on coverage of the environmental movement and related issues. Other participants included city of Cincinnati Public Relations Director Meg Olberding; Stacy Owen, news director at WLWT-TV (Channel 5); and Sean Rhiney, editor of the online journal Soapbox Cincinnati.
Cincinnati City Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan, a former TV news reporter and co-chair of the Mayor’s Green Steering Committee, led and organized the discussion. About 20 people attended the Oct. 16 event, which was part of the Imago Earth Center’s annual Bioneers conference on green urbanism at Xavier University.
Based in Price Hill, Imago is a nonprofit ecological education center. It operates Seminary Square EcoVillage, a community revitalization project in the neighborhood.
Owen described Channel 5’s new “Project Earth” news segments as an attempt to bridge the linguistic and cultural gaps between those who are already interested in environmentalism and the people who may feel estranged from it. The station tries to cover issues of water quality and the broader environmental issues at least three times a week, she added.
“I think one of my main goals is to let people know what’s happening in our community, give them tools to how they can make small changes that can make significant differences and I have to be very conscious of my audience,” Owens said. “I have a very different audience than CityBeat. I have to think about, ‘How do I reach the people for whom green has been politicized? How do we get sort of post-political with this green message?'
“We even had a conversation ‘Is it Project Green or Project Earth?’ and we even felt that ‘green’ had been overly politicized and that might actually hurt our ability to get out that environmental message.
Also, Channel 5 uses the term “climate change” instead of “global warming” because of the latter’s hot-button status. Having meteorologists on staff is a major advantage for WLWT’s environmental coverage, Owen said, in that they can address the issues as scientists rather than just as reporters.
Channel 5's target audience for the segments is “everybody out there who might just think the recycling bin is a pain in the neck,” she said.
Soapbox avoids politics and instead tries to focus on the people and companies behind innovative green projects such as hybrid cars, green roofs and the “locavore” — or buy local — movement, Rhiney said.
On Bernard-Kuhn's green beat at The Enquirer, she is largely focused on real estate and development. She often writes about local building projects trying to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
“I think it’s going to be interesting covering what these benchmarks are delivering to the consumer and what the impact is longer-term on the environment,” Bernard-Kuhn said.
Green improvements to buildings often aren't so easy to factor in a home’s sale price, she added. The long-term cost/benefit ratio of geothermal heating and cooling systems and other eco-friendly improvements generally have yet to be calculated into appraisals in the Midwest.
“People are finding, if they’re going to sell their home five years from now, they don’t realize that payback necessarily,” Bernard-Kuhn said. “I think we’re still at that point where the general public is weighing how much they have to put into being more environmentally friendly.”
Olberding said Cincinnati's municipal government has an ongoing commitment to greening its operations. She cited a new firehouse on Reading Road that channels rainwater from the roof to a reservoir that's used for showers and irrigation. Additionally, the firehouse has a green roof, composed partially of vegetation, and was built to be conscious of its environmental impact on local surroundings.
When one attendee asked the panel if advertisers constrain what issues the media might cover, Owen replied that they didn't, explaining there wasn't a “sales department reject button” for any environmental story.
Of course, that might be because of the types of environmental topics that most media select to cover.
For example, at the roundtable most of the discussion involved the sparkly bits of the green movement, efforts that require little sacrifice or aren't too controversial like new technology, eco-friendly brands and the whole “reducing our carbon footprints through small life changes” aspect. That’s what people want to read about, so that’s what we usually cover.
Anything too dark, however, alienates the public, especially those who believe the environmental movement is a liberal conspiracy with little basis in scientific fact.
For my part, I said that the media are at best in a supporting role for the environmental movement. While it's a political issue, it really shouldn’t be; the Earth is our home, and if we abuse it and exploit it we’re inevitably going to run out of potable water, fertile soil and breathable air.
Too often when journalists are doing our jobs, reporting the facts about how badly we have screwed up our home, we’re reduced to being modern-day Cassandras, telling deaf ears that the sky is falling.
At our worst, we journalists are hypocrites, selling the public on the commodification of ecology and bandying the idea that we can buy ourselves out of our environmental mess with solar panels and hybrid fuel cars.
These are great tools for reduction, but in reality humanity probably can't go on living as if power was unlimited. We’re going to have to scale back — drastically — to save the planet and ourselves.
We won’t, so the dwindling fossil energy reserves will be at the center of more global wars. But that’s not really the story you wanted to hear, is it?