The Failure of Environmental Journalism / by Boyce Upholt

I was listening to the Longform Podcast a few weeks ago — a weekly ritual of mine — and Adrian Chen and interviewer Max Linsky were joking about the failure of climate-change journalism.

Chen, who writes wonderful stories about the strange examples of humanity that lurk beyond the ugly corners of the Internet, suggested with admirable cockiness that he might start covering climate change. He said that like the Internet when he first started writing about it, climate change is a subject often talked about but rarely covered compellingly. (Linsky, by way of example, cited a particular New York Times article that I had indeed opened and then barely skimmed.)

Why is it that I’ve devoured so many of Chen’s stories, and yet I find so much environmental journalism — which is, thematically speaking, much more in my wheelhouse —yawn-inducing?

Part of it is that Chen is a great writer; part of it is that the Internet is an endlessly fascinating thing, ripe for coverage that has an immediately rewarding meta aspect. Chen was implying something more, though: that there is a kind of coverage not being done in the field of environmental journalism. So what kind of coverage does the field need?

That question, lodged in the back of my head, burst out again last night. While flying to my parents’ house, I was reading this interview with the great Mississippi-based sportswriter Wright Thompson. Sports writing, too, is a genre I read despite being generally ambivalent about sports. But writers like Thompson don’t really write about sports: They use sports as an excuse to investigate life’s bigger questions.

Perhaps because sports is the excuse for the story rather than some newspaper-ish conceit that a writer must inform you — and perhaps because in sports we are unashamed of speaking of heroes and drama and conflict — Thompson thinks of his writing as, unambiguously, telling stories.

“[A]ll stories need characters who change,” he says in another interview. Which sheds light on his idea that every story he writes is either a quest or a profile (which, in still another interview — yes, I was on a kick — , Thompson described as being a story that identifies the central complication of a person’s life and explores how on a daily basis he goes about resolving that complication).

In magazine stories, the quest is often the writer’s own: He has a question he truly wants to answer. How did Italian soccer fans wind up so racist, for example? Such a story does not intend to make a moral or philosophical point — as environmental journalism often does — but, rather, to chart oneperson’s attempt to answer a real question.

“[T]he story works because the quest is real,” Thompson says. “And readers can tell the difference. When you read that story and it doesn’t work, it’s because that person writing it didn’t believe his own quest, so now you don’t either.”

That, I think, is what environmental journalism often lacks: real drama. Not every writer is guilty, but too often writers consider the environment to be either space for news or navel gazing. Either way, the story’s conclusion often feels foregone: wake up, everyone; we’re f-ing up this home of ours! Not every story has to be drama, but if we want people to really read, to be engaged, we might want to think about dramatic stories to tell.