The news last week that the New York Times is dismantling its environment desk and reassigning the reporters throughout the newsroom provoked an outpouring of reaction, much of it suggesting that now isn't the time to take risks that could diminish the coverage of climate change.
In October, Hurricane Sandy brought home the reality of climate dangers to many Americans, and a recently released draft of the government's latest climate assessment predicts far worse to come. Temperatures could rise by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century, threatening "Americans' health and livelihoods and the ecosystems that sustain us," said the report, which was prepared by 240 scientists.
Climate change "is not just the biggest crisis ever, it's the biggest story ever," said Bill McKibben, founder of the climate advocacy organization 350.org and one of several journalists and climate experts contacted by InsideClimate News.
Michael Mann, a climatologist who directs the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said specialized, experienced environment editors and reporters are essential to navigate the escalating politics and complicated science of climate change. "Without properly trained science journalists to serve as honest brokers ... the public is increasingly ill-equipped to sift through the cacophony of anti-scientific propaganda that pervades the public discourse and to identify the emerging threats to our health and our environment," Mann said.
With two editors and seven reporters dedicated exclusively to environmental coverage, the Times has long been home to the single largest environment staff of any daily U.S. newspaper. Its coverage has become even more important in recent years, because many struggling papers have slashed their reporting staffs, often relying on the Times as inspiration for the stories they do cover.
If the Times' coverage falters, more pressure would be placed on other national media—including the Associated Press and National Public Radio—to fill the gap, as well as Bloomberg and Reuters, which report on climate primarily for financial audiences, and environmental magazines and specialized websites.
Once the Times' environmental desk is dismantled, the nation's top five newspapers by readership—the Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal—will have about a dozen reporters and a handful of editors among them whose primary responsibility is to cover the environment. The New York Times has yet to reassign its reporters so a precise tally is not possible.
The Los Angeles Times will be the only one among the five to have a designated environment desk. After losing a large portion of its environmental team during newsroom-wide layoffs in 2008, the Los Angeles Times desk now has one editor, four full-time reporters and one part-time reporter. The paper recently announced an opening for another full-time reporter.
"There were definitely times when interest from the top editors ebbed and flowed," said Drex Heikes, the editor in charge of the desk. "But they are very interested in this right now and are making it a major priority. We are in a good spot right now, and growing."
At the Washington Post and USA Today, environment coverage is handled by desks that also cover science and health. The Post has two journalists dedicated exclusively to environment coverage. None of the reporters on USA Today's science, health and environment desk focus exclusively on environmental issues, although three of them spend much of their time covering climate change. All the newspapers also use reporters from other beats to buoy their environmental coverage.
The Wall Street Journal doesn't assign environment coverage to a particular desk, which is the approach the New York Times seems to be taking. Today, environmental stories are "partly business, economic, national or local, among other subjects," Dean Baquet, the Times' managing editor for news operations, said last week. "They are more complex. We need to have people working on the different desks that can cover different parts of the story."
Max Boykoff, a science policy expert at the University of Colorado-Boulder, recently reviewed climate change coverage at the country's five largest newspapers over the past 12 years. The newspapers with significantly more coverage—the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post—all had reporters and editors dedicated exclusively to the environment.