October 7, 2012

Does downstate Illinois need better energy journalism?

David Roberts has an interesting article at Grist in response to a reader asking how energy journalism can be better. It got me thinking about my experiences giving interviews and pitching stories on energy topics in Illinois.

He writes that journalists and politicians are mostly sleepwalking into the great crisis of our time. With rare exception, we don't have energy-specific journalists.

There are finance and business journalists who cover energy as a commodity business, tracking global supply and demand flows, prices, futures trading, all that sort of stuff. There are business and tech journalists who focus on cleantech. There are environmental journalists, who tend to cover energy (when they do it) through the lens of enviros vs. polluters. And there are political journalists who cover energy as a campaign and/or policy issue, sometimes as a specialty, more often as part of a portfolio.

He goes on to write that journalists generally view energy stories from the angle of of their beat, and that isn't well suited to an issue like climate change that intersects so many national and international problems. How do journalists used to looking through one lens paint the bigger picture?

That is not necessarily something that comes easily to journalists, especially old-school reporters. Pushing climate change or energy poverty into a conversation where it hasn’t typically appeared and isn’t typically taken seriously can feel like advocacy or moralizing. It pushes against some quiet but insistent social and professional pressures. Right now, frankly, think tanks, NGOs, and bloggers are doing a better job of it.

Roberts' observations make a lot of sense when I think about my interactions with the regional press.

Like most papers, the State Journal-Register doesn't have a writer dedicated to energy. Several years ago I never would have expected to write that the best reporter on energy at the SJR is the business editor. Tim Landis covers developments in the regional coal industry without the critical view I would take. But, when there's a controversial story, he does a good job of getting different perspectives and explaining complex issues. I'm consistently impressed by his work.

On the political side, there has essentially been a blackout on climate change at the SJR. In last year's Springfield city election, they failed to ask candidates about clean energy or climate change even though the city council oversees our public utility. The decision to build a coal plant and purchase wind power was one of the hottest local government issues in the past decade but the SJR felt the top issue to cover at the utility was patronage hiring.

Their election coverage this year is no different. Every candidate is asked about the conservative wedge issues of guns and gays, but nothing on climate change. Despite the fact that state and national legislators will spend far more time on energy issues than gun control or gay marriage; despite the fact that climate change is the subject of intense citizen interest; and despite the fact that every paper in the region believes the impacts of climate change are a front page story when droughts hit farmers and rivers flood. In the 13th Congressional district race, political reporters across the district have helped Rodney Davis continue ducking the most pressing issue of our time. It's difficult for me to understand why.

Roberts didn't write about the biggest obstacle to good energy reporting specific to downstate Illinois: the political and cultural influence of the coal industry. The Belleville News-Democrat and Southern Illinoisan are the worst offenders I've seen at publishing articles that lack any hint of objectivity about coal and allow falsehoods to go unchallenged. A recent pro-coal editorial in the Southern Illinoisan was so astoundingly out of touch with reality that it could make even an industry lobbyist blush. The editors haven't updated their perspective on energy in at least 20 years.

Papers like those help create a bubble in southern Illinois coal country that holds to delusional claims long discarded by informed people in the rest of America. I expect politicians in the region to cowardly pander to coal industry interests, but the press should have a better relationship with reality.

I'll end on a positive note. Illinois Times is the best source for environment and energy reporting in the region. Time and again they've covered important stories in depth that were largely ignored by others. Patrick Yeagle writes most of their energy stories now, but there have been others like R.L. Nave and Amanda Robert. Illinois Times is essential reading if you care about energy and the environment.

Getting fair coverage on energy is an uphill battle in Illinois coal country. But, there are many good reporters in the region, and I've often been surprised to get excellent coverage in press outlets that I expected to be biased against my viewpoint. Attitudes may change more slowly in downstate Illinois, but they are changing because the nation realizes climate change is an economic and moral challenge that must be met.