Leading Environment Reporters Discuss Wind Energy at Harvard Kennedy School Seminar

February 18, 2011
by Joseph Leahy, the Belfer Center

As concerns over climate change and reliance on fossil fuels grow, the promise of renewable energy has been promoted across the political, environmental, and business landscape. News media have jumped on this story, from the local to international level, covering an array of energy technologies for harnessing the power of the wind, the sun, the earth, and the atom.

But the coverage sometimes suffers from pendulum swings between breathless enthusiasm from advocates for a new technology and conflict-driven concerns at the local level. Informing the public with critical and strong reportage about energy is imperative, but with shrinking news rooms and resources for environment reporters, is the news media up to the task?

Senior environment reporters from the New York Times and the Boston Globe kicked off this discussion at the seminar, "Wind Energy: Which Way Does the Media Wind Blow," the first in the 2011 spring seminar series, "Clean Energy & the Media," sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center's Environment and Natural Resources Program and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. The series organizer is Cristine Russell, senior fellow with the Belfer Center's environment program.

"This is something you struggle with internally. How do you balance your journalist need to be neutral with your feeling that 'Uh oh. My kids are going to live in this world and I want it to be better for them,'" said Elisabeth Rosenthal, international environment writer for the New York Times.

Joining Rosenthal at the seminar in the Kennedy School's Malkin Penthouse was Pulitzer Prize finalist Beth Daley, who has covered environmental issues including climate change and renewable energy for the Boston Globe since 2001. Daley discussed her experiences reporting on the rancorous, decade-long debate surrounding attempts to build a Massachusetts wind farm, Cape Wind, in Nantucket Sound.

For the Globe, said Daley, Cape Wind has been "a great, great tale" — from conflict of interest claims surrounding the late Senator Ted Kennedy, to former Governor Mitt Romney's attempts to bring federal waters under state control, to supporters costumed as yachtsmen mocking their wealthy opponents. The human interest aspect of the story, covering the competing claims of proponents and opponents, said Daley, initially masked other important and complex issues including the project's ultimate economic costs as well as its threat to birds, and the noise and aesthetic impact on the environment. Also, the intensity of arguments from both sides presented additional challenges for her as a journalist.

"I hear a lot more from readers telling me ... 'look, this is our children we're talking about. You need to support wind and you need to tell people the way it's supposed to be.' Unfortunately, that's not my job," said Daley.

Informing the public of the environmental costs and economic realities in harnessing clean energy resources is fundamental to forming effective energy policy, said Rosenthal. But with dwindling newsroom budgets, the journalist's duty to improve public understanding of emerging technologies and sort through conflicting data is a tall order.

"The problem with these renewable energy and larger environment stories is there are all these different lenses and newspapers tend to be Balkanized. There's the business perspective; there's the science perspective; there's the foreign perspective and the metro perspective," she said.

"Is there a right and wrong answer? Not exactly. But I hope it causes people to think about where they want the world to go and how maybe we could do things differently," said Rosenthal. She emphasized that wind energy is far more accepted in Europe, seen as a necessity for countries trying to reduce the costs of importing energy, and that wind turbines are often not seen as an aesthetic blight, sitting comfortably amidst ancient towns in Italy and elsewhere.

Henry Lee, director of the Belfer Center's Environment and Natural Resources Program and a former Massachusetts state government energy director, joined Daley and Rosenthal on the panel. He said reporting on wind and other renewable energy sources inevitably stirs enormous passions. A key challenge for reporters, he said, is finding reliable expert sources who can articulate the complex tradeoffs and comparative issues.

Lee said that reporting needs to make clear that renewable energy is important not because it's cheap but because it's an important tool to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. "We need to change a 50-year policy goal of cheap energy," he said, and focus instead on finding ways to use less energy. He also said energy reporting needs to take into account that land use is always in play, especially in densely populated areas. So energy siting decisions get tied up in local land use passions — and need to be seen in that context, he said.

The "Clean Energy and the Media" series continues on Wednesday February 23, with "The Long Road to Electric Cars: Green Hope or Media Hype?" featuring Alan Boyle, science editor for msnbc.com, and Bryan Walsh, environment reporter for Time Magazine. The series concludes on Wednesday, March 23 with discussion of "The Seesaw Coverage of Nuclear Power: Promise or Peril?" with Ned Potter, ABC News science correspondent, and Matthew Wald, New York Times science reporter.

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Henry Lee
Henry Lee, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Director, Environment and Natural Resources Program.
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