Recently, freelance environmental journalist, Rob Edwards, 58, sat down with us and discussed the role of environmental journalism, the issues the interest him and his views on social media and the future of the profession. This is what he had to say:
Q: Could you please explain a little about the field of environmental journalism and how it came to be a defined area of the profession?
Rob Edwards (RE): Environmentalism has been a distinct area of civic life and politics for many decades, and environmental journalism has flowed from that. It was essentially about the dawning realisation that the earth has limits, and humankind was threatening to breach them. I'm not sure how long there have been environmental correspondent specialists, but it's probably at least since the 1980s. Our numbers have varied over the years, ebbing and flowing with the ever-changing preoccupations of editors. Occasionally we have felt like an endangered species, and sometimes - like in the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit - we felt strong. Because environmental concerns will never go away, I don't think environmental journalists will either.
Q: Do you have a technical/scientific background, and how important do you think scientific expertise is for an environmental journalist, or is it the ability to ask penetrating questions and communicate to ordinary citizens?
RE: I don't have a science degree, but I have always taken an intelligent interest in understanding science. I think it is important for an environmental journalist to try and grasp the essential science that underlies key issues, like climate change and pollution. Very often the journalist's job is to translate what scientists are saying into terms that most people can understand. That means you need to read scientific papers and talk to scientists in order to fully appreciate the implications and limitations of what they are saying. Of course it's possible to get things wrong sometimes, but I think most environmental journalists do a good job of trying to explain complicated but important science to people. Of course, it's also crucial to ask the right questions.
Q: Has the general population's understanding of environmental issues been transformed by environmental journalism since it became a mainstream area of journalism?
RE:I wouldn't go so far as to say that the public's understanding of environmental issues has been transformed by environmental journalism, but I do think it has been improved. Most people now understand the danger of climate change, for example, and that is partly thanks to journalists. I think people generally are now more conscious and more aware of pollution, waste, energy policy, biodiversity and a host of other environmental issues that they were, say, 30 years ago - and that, too, is partly thanks to journalists. As with all things, I think public consciousness about environmental issues comes in waves, and is sometimes stronger and sometimes weaker. But it's definitely stronger now that it was in the 1980s.
Q: How much do social media play a role in your work?
RE:Social media play an increasingly important role in my work. When I first started all a journalist had to concern himself or herself with was filing an interesting and accurate story. Nowadays, you have to do that, but then you have to think about putting it on your website, and promoting it via Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere. Social media are a valuable tool for trying to get more people to read what you've written, and journalists have to engage. And as the print media decline, they may be part of our lifeline.
I am also a great user of freedom of information legislation to uncover stories. I have made over 260 freedom of information requests in the UK since 2005 on nuclear power, nuclear weapons, pollution, wildlife, waste and many other topics, about half of which have contributed to published stories. There is a log of all my requests here.
Q: What types of environmental issues attract most reader comments? Do you feel there are any areas of 'green fatigue?'
RE: There's nothing like a good, shocking story of pollution to attract comments, especially if the polluter is a famous company. That's why oil spills by BP or Shell, for example, get a lot of attention. Readers are also very interested in transport stories that impact on their daily lives, air pollution that could damage their health and the loss of wildlife, habitat or landscape, which they care about. I also hope they are interested in the safety of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and the risks of radioactive pollution, as they are topics I cover a lot. Of course people do suffer from 'green fatigue'. That happened to some extent after the Copenhagen climate summit, when all the build-up of hopes came to very little. But, as I say, these things ebb and flow.
Q: How do you handle climate change skeptics? Do you have a policy on this? Do you give equal time to the skeptics or do you have some other means to ensure balance in your articles?
RE: Climate skeptics are in a tiny minority, and they are almost certainly wrong, but that doesn't mean they should be ignored. It is the duty of journalists to always listen to and try and reflect opposing views. That sometimes means that skeptics get a prominence that they don't deserve, but that is the nature of free speech and a free media. Similarly, if they engage in the kind of questionable behaviour of which they sometimes accuse climate scientists, they should expect scrutiny. In the end, I think, most people will realise who is right and who is wrong.
Q: To what extent do you investigate the veracity of claims for new solutions that are claimed to help save the environment? How far do you think environmentalists should be skeptical of such claims?
RE:Journalists are by nature skeptical of any new claim. It is an essential part of their job to question any new proposal or idea, and hold it up to the light of scrutiny to see how it fares. That means closely questioning the originators of any proposal, and then going to other experts in the field for their opinions. In the end, the solutions that are most likely work are the ones that will attract backing.
Q: What do you feel is the greatest achievement of your career so far?
RE: Still being able to earn a living from writing about things I care about. The media as we have traditionally known them are disintegrating. The Leveson Inquiry is shredding the ethical basis of journalism, while its economic basis is disappearing because of the Internet. In these circumstances, still being paid feels like an achievement.
I am also pleased about the outcome of my three-year freedom of information battle with the Ministry of Defence, which resulted in an important change of policy. Instead of keeping reports from the MoD internal nuclear safety regulator secret, they now release them. More on this below: