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Environmental journalism slowly grows up.

Environmental journalism, which grew quickly in the 1980s, has survived a recession-era pruning and is set to thrive again in the 1990s.

But crucial to the future of environmental reporting is education - of editors, who have cut coverage despite high public interest, and of reporters, who must master a variety of subjects to handle the complex, contentious beat. These views emerged from a recent Freedom Forum Environmental Journalism Summit, attended by 31 journalists, educators, policy makers and scientists in Arlington, Va.

Since mid-1990, the worsening USA economy has drawn both public and media interest away from the environment, a recent Roper Reports survey shows. But at the same time:

* Eight in 10 Americans call themselves environmentalists, and the leading environmentalist in Congress, Albert Gore Jr., is now vice president.

* The Society of Environmental Journalists grew to an 850-member organization in three years, and several major environmental journalism programs are under way.

"There is a transition happening that is still sort of painful and difficult," said Teya Ryan, executive producer at Turner Broadcasting. "Environmental journalism is slowly coming out of adolescence."

The beat puts reporters at odds with scientists who mine arcane detail, public-interest groups that push political agendas and businesses that push economic ones. Yet good environmental reporting can be readable, relevant and wide-ranging, touching on science, health, energy, economics, politics and culture.

Sacramento Bee reporter Tom Knudson's Sierra Nevada series, which won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize, looked at the mountain range as one living thing - though it covers 15 million acres in 18 counties and is watched by 52 different environmental groups. "Stories take time," Knudson said, adding that he had to "get down on my knees" to get eight months for the project.

This semester, Knudson is teaching and taking classes as a Freedom Forum-sponsored journalist-in-residence at the new Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. The center's fellowships, workshops and course of study aim to create better environmental journalists, better communication between journalists and scientists, and better translation of complex issues for the public.

Among the beat's complexities:

* Definition: What is environmental reporting? Is it the immediate health threats of pollution, which readers say they care most about, or is it the extinction of Amazon life that may contain the future's medical miracles?

* Advocacy: Can reporters see 1,000 dead birds in a cyanide pond without being affected? Can they do a story on the cultural consequences of nuclear waste dumping without caring?

All was not consensus at the summit. Jim O'Shea, a Chicago Tribune editor, said participants had their "heads in the clouds" if they thought an editor would pull reporters off a Super Bowl to beef up environmental coverage.
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Title Annotation:The Freedom Forum supplement
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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