Visiting Reporter Discusses the Current State of Environmental Journalism

by Jack Knudson

As a part of the Challenging Dialogues Lecture Series, Lisa Friedman, a climate reporter for the New York Times, recently spoke at Ohio University about the current state of environmental journalism. 

As concerns grow over climate change over time, there comes a shift in how it is covered in the media. Environmental journalism has come a long way, from the musings of 19th-century nature writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to the conscientious coverage in modern times. 

Lisa Friedman has worked for several publications, such as the Oakland Tribune, the Los Angeles Daily News and ClimateWire. Friedman began the talk with the origins of her career as a climate reporter. She was originally a political reporter but eventually found herself enveloped in a new beat, which is journalism slang for a specialized field.

 “Beats choose us sometimes and not the other way around,” Friedman said. “I came to climate reporting completely by accident, and discovered it was the best beat I’ve ever had.”

She has personal experience in the environmental journalism industry. Since starting in the field around 10 years ago, Friedman noted the positive growth in the industry.

“It was a really difficult time for environmental reporters,” she said. “It still is in many ways, but what we’re seeing, not just at the [New York] Times but in a lot of papers, is a real resurgence in environmental reporting and also in climate reporting specifically.” 

Friedman praised the work of her colleagues at the New York Times climate desk, which is a 15 person team of reporters, editors and multimedia experts. She described the desk as its own little publication within the company. What is special about the climate desk, says Friedman, is that it has a special way of weaving an environmental perspective into different coverage. 

“If a business reporter is getting a pitch from a company that is bragging about going carbon-neutral, they have a desk they can come to and say, ‘How big of a deal is this and is this business newsworthy?’”

Environmental journalism can be enhanced with special visuals that can often convey a story better than words. The bulk of Friedman’s talk focused on how the New York Times climate desk is adapting to a more ‘visual age.’ She guided the audience towards the large screen in the Baker Ballroom, which displayed multiple examples of interactive New York Times stories written by her colleagues. One story collected various data to show the rising temperatures of American cities. Friedman showed how to interact with the article by selecting a birth date and hometown. Another interactive article demonstrated how polluted the air is in cities. 

Friedman reached out to members of the audience to help with the last article from the LA Times. The article was essentially a game with the goal of dealing with rising sea levels.  

Friedman turned to President Duane Nellis for advice on whether to build a rock wall, add sand, or- the option that garnered the most laughter- hire a consultant to deal with the problem. President Nellis chose to add sand, which was an expensive option but helped with the problem temporarily and changed the course of the game. Friedman emphasized that this kind of creativity in environmental journalism is what will make an impact on audiences. 

After this fun segment, Friedman turned to the unfortunate realities of climate change in the Trump era. 

“I joke sometimes that I write obituaries for climate regulations,” Friedman said.

 She listed off several regulations that were enacted by past administrations. One example given was after the Senate failed to pass the American Clean Energy and Security Act-which was a proposed cap and trade system meant to limit the level of chemical emissions. After this failure, the Obama administration moved towards several regulations, including ones aimed at reducing power plant emission, oil and gas leasing on federal lands and methane on federal lands. Friedman expressed that these kinds of regulations, including the Obama administration’s most prominent climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, are now being rolled back. 

Friedman noted that there are 95 rollbacks ongoing, which this New York Times article also points to. 

“It’s really something else to see, how frequent and how fast the rollbacks are happening,” she said. 

Despite the bleak outlook in this sense, Friedman reminded the audience that there is hope.

“On the other hand, you have states that are doing a tremendous amount on climate change, you have cities that are doing a tremendous amount on climate change,” she said. “It’s not enough to overtake what is not being done by the federal government.”

Both Republicans and Democrats, according to Friedman, are beginning to grow closer in addressing climate change. Specifically, she pointed to young people of both parties uniting on this issue. 

In closing, Friedman maintained an encouraging look into the future of climate change discussion.

“I wanted to leave on that optimistic note because I do see a shift in Congress, a shift in Washington,” Friedman said. “And I find that as someone who’s covered this for a long time, I find that heartening.”

Watch the live stream of the talk here.

Check out Lisa Friedman’s New York Times page here.

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