Politics of Poverty

An unmitigated disaster

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New York Times shutters its environment desk

A few weeks before Oxfam’s GROW Campaign launched in 2011, I went up to New York with our president Ray Offenheiser and head of our policy (and lead Poindexter) Gawain Kripke to meet with a handful of journalists. We wanted to give them a sneak peek at what we had planned.

One of our first stops was to sit down with Sandy Keenan, Environment Editor at the New York Times, and two key reporters on the Environment Desk: Elisabeth Rosenthal and Justin Gillis. We had a long conversation about the issues of GROW and the emerging trends that we were seeing around the world.

Cracked, dry earth outside Magartu Baleha’s home near East Shewa, Ethiopia. Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson / Oxfam America

They asked difficult questions, probed the soft spots of our research, and challenged us to back up our point of view with credible evidence. It was a good conversation, one clearly grounded in knowledge and experience with the immense and complex challenges that come with trying to feed a growing population without breaking the planet. This is not always the experience one has when talking to reporters. In fact it was utterly unique. No other outlet had this depth of knowledge actually backed up by the resources and mandate to reach a mainstream audience.

So it is with great disappointment that I read today that the “paper of record” is dismantling its environment desk, reassigning the reporters and editors to other beats. The change, they say, is not prompted by budgetary pressures but what Inside Climate News calls “the shifting interdisciplinary landscape of news reporting.”

Times managing editor for news operations told ICN that environmental stories are, “partly business, economic, national or local, among other subjects. They are more complex. We need to have people working on the different desks that can cover different parts of the story.”

That’s all well and good but it is hard to see this move as anything but an unmitigated disaster for people who care about how the challenges facing our environment impact our lives. The Times environmental coverage is heads and shoulders above what any other mainstream outlet in the US is offering. It is literally without comparison in its quality and quantity. Certainly there are good reporters outside the confines of the Times. Most other outlets have offered shrinking coverage of the political and policy decisions that impact our planet. The Times, led by its Environment Desk, has continued to push the conversation forward on a range of issues.

In theory, this tradition could continue without the benefit of a dedicated team. But color me skeptical. In my experience the issues reporters choose to pay attention to, and the lens through which they approach their coverage, is heavily shaped by the beat to which they are assigned. The title a reporter has on their business card can play a major role in determining what gets written and what does not.

It is certainly true that environmental issues are business issues. They’re national political issues. They’re local issues. But try getting a national political reporter to write a nuanced and thoroughly reported article about the threat climate change is posing to food systems. Try getting a business reporter to write about the ways in which American and European biofuels policies are influencing the ability of poor Guatemalans to get enough to eat. I wish you good luck.

The Times has been a leader in environmental coverage because it has shown a commitment to covering the issue via the Environment Desk. We can only hope that the desk’s closure does not turn out as bad as it seems for environmental coverage.

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