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a relatively new area of journalism. Not until the late 1950s did the environment and related terms enter the mass media lexicon as a way of labeling this new way of looking at humankind-habitat relationships. Although journalists began to cover environmental issues early in the 1950s in the U.S., environmental reporting was not recognized as a distinctive beat for a long time. As William Witt noted in his pioneering study of environmental reporters more than two decades ago, "Emerging beats such as the environmental beat might be expected to be particularly difficult to describe because they represent areas of rapid change. In fact, until they reach some general level of acceptance, one is never quite certain that they are distinct enough to warrant being treated as a separate beat."
The recognition of environmental reporting as a beat in news media grew in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the wave of rapidly increasing environmental reporting. Environmental degradation first became a popular media issue in the late 1960s. However, even in 1973, Witt found that fewer than half of respondents in his survey were specifically considered to be environmental reporters, specialists or writers. By 1993, a study of environmental reporting found that only half of the newspapers and 26 percent of local television stations had someone specifically assigned to cover environmental issues. But relatively few of these reporters cover environmental issues exclusively. In many newsrooms, environmental stories go to general assignment reporters. Environmental journalists were part of the group of science writers. However, a group of environmental reporters in 1990 founded the Society of Environmental Journalists that specifically focused on their reporting interest.
Environmental reporters did not attract much attention in previous scholarly research. Witt's was one of only a few specifically focusing on environmental issues. Witt drew his profile of environmental journalists from a list of 95 environmental reporters identified in Editor & Publisher, of whom 62 responded from 53 newspapers. He found that the typical respondent was a 31- to 40-year-old male who had a bachelor's degree in journalism and had worked 7.3 years on general assignment before getting an environmental beat. Respondents' most frequently used news sources were conservation organizations, government and business. They primarily covered ongoing pollution problems as well as topics that the government considered to be environmental problems.
A study by the Scientists' Institute for Public Information in 1992 focused on environmental coverage by small newspapers. Questionnaires were sent to the 136 small dailies which responded to a nationwide survey SIPI conducted in 1989. Of the 120 papers responding to the survey, 66.7 percent reported that their coverage of environmental stories had increased since 1989. The survey also showed a 41 percent increase in newspapers with environmental beats. Consistent with this survey, a longitudinal study of agenda setting for the issue of environmental pollution from 1970 to 1990 found media coverage had increased.
Although environmental journalism has increased during the past 20 years, journalists covering the environment have been concerned about the quality of the reporting. An American Opinion Research Survey conducted in March 1993 found that 46 percent of newsroom supervisors (broadcast and print) and reporters said their organizations expanded environmental coverage over the past two years, but only 4 in 10 print editors and even fewer reporters rated as good the quality of reporting provided by other print organizations. Only 3 percent rated coverage as very good. Among broadcast journalists, only 29 percent of the news directors and 26 percent of the reporters rated coverage from other broadcast outlets as good. Reasons for this included lack of good training programs and difficulty in finding unbiased news sources.
Other issues concerning environmental reporting quality include how the background of environmental reporters might affect environmental reporting. Some of the problems identified concern news organizations' coverage decisions. A particular problem was the use of general assignment reporters to cover the environment who were moved from subject to subject at an editor's whim. These reporters had little background in most subjects, particularly technical ones. Sharon Friedman noted in her study that even experienced environmental journalists have some problems. Many environmental journalists, however, also lacked training in science and scientific risk assessment.
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