SEJ: Trump Administration, Regulatory Rollbacks Focus Of 2020 Energy And Environment Coverage
Reporters covering energy and the environment are gearing up to spend 2020 digging into the impacts of the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks, and energy development will likely be caught in the crossfire. According to speakers at the Society of Environmental Journalist’s Journalists’ Guide to Energy and Environment, negative effects of regulatory rollback—especially impacts on public health—will be at the front of reporters’ minds, while the benefits of increased energy production are unlikely to garner conventional media attention.
“This is the time when what we’re starting to look at and think about [is that] we’ve had all these rollbacks… How do we explain to people why any of this matters and how it matters?” said Lisa Friedman, a climate change reporter for The New York Times.
In 2020, the SEJ and its members see their role as that of challenger to both industry and pro-development figures in the federal government. To do so, they are pushing for records requests to try to uncover improper relationships between industry and members of the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency.
“Documents make journalism. That is why FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests will continue to be a battleground in 2020,” said Jeff Burnside, a member of SEJ’s board of directors. Burnside added that both the EPA and the Interior Department had announced changes to their FOIA policies which SEJ is fighting in court.
“Expect lawsuits in 2020,” he said.
The SEJ has already filed a formal comment objecting to proposed changes which it says “gut” the Interior Department’s FOIA policy. The change would limit the amount of records the public can request and would allow Interior to deny requests it deemed “unreasonably burdensome.” Burnside’s comment implies that the group is ready to take the issue to court if its concerns are not addressed in the final changes.
The SEJ’s comment is part of a broader attitude of scrutiny of how federal agencies are handling public land use policy, with a bias against any industry—including farming and ranching—that might have environmental impact.
Using material like documents obtained through FOIA, journalists are planning to dig into the negative impacts of the Trump administration’s pro-development land use policies.
“This is the time when what we’re starting to look at and think about [the fact that] we’ve had all these rollbacks…” said Lisa Friedman, a climate change reporter for The New York Times. “How do we explain to people why any of this matters and how it matters?”
Though energy production is the most obvious beneficiary of these rollbacks, agricultural groups could also find themselves facing additional scrutiny from reporters.
When it comes to how to frame this story, many of the SEJ’s more vocal members have an agenda—showing the harms of regulatory rollback—and are prepared to use energy production as a lens to tell that story. Asked about the storylines they planned to cover in 2020, leading journalists from The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other outlets told attendees at a recent SEJ conference that their long-term focus will be on the human impacts of environmental policy.
This attitude bleeds into bias in terms of how certain reporters approach stories. Discussing the 2017 legislation that opened the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, Burnside urged reporters to ask if the interests of Americans and consumers were the same as those of oil companies and to push their readers to confront the impacts of climate change.
“Human health and environmental health is an under reported issue,” he said. “Its link between climate is even more difficult but your audience may not see it yet and until they and their neighbors and loved ones face real pain and can come face to face with the impacts of climate change, your reporting will be very important. In short, health problems will be more dramatic in 2020 and forevermore.”
Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of National Geographic Magazine, agreed.
“I think it is fair to say that at no time has coverage of the environment and its implications been more important than it is right now,” she said.