While The Guardian has expanded its environmental reporting through corporate partnerships that might raise ethical issues, The New York Times has simply disbanded its environmental desk.
By Zafrir Rinat | Mar.13, 2013

It can be said that global media coverage of environmental topics entered into a decline just at the time that they were really coming into their own.
Even as such reporting is continually shrinking and even disappearing because of the general crisis in journalism, its level of professionalism is increasing as it delves into greater depth on environmental issues to include their socioeconomic aspects. Because of these circumstances, green journalism in some instances is forced to make compromises and adjustments that challenge journalistic ethics.

Journalists who report on the environment were trapped for many years in a fairly isolated niche, in which they addressed topics like pollution prevention or nature preservation without almost any economic, social or political context. All of this changed in recent years, after the global financial crisis created a tight link between economic and social policy and the implications they have for environmental resources. Unsurprisingly, two of the newspapers that led the process of both broadening and deepening environmental reporting were The Guardian and The New York Times, among the world’s leading and most highly regarded newspapers. The New York Times even established an environmental desk, with a large staff of writers and editors.

The Guardian added to its routine environmental reporting websites specializing in broad aspects of sustainability. Its reporting is based on a worldview that believes that market forces should be constrained and supports the egalitarian distribution and exploitation of natural resources. However, the British newspaper didn’t just satisfy itself by defending the principles of social justice, but also decided that there was a need to create a channel with those that threaten justice and equality. Consequently it began a dialogue with executives at the world’s largest corporations with the goal of creating a conversation about environmental protection and sustainability.

“One needs to criticize them, but also to encourage them when they try to change,” says Joe Confino, the newspaper’s executive editor who spoke this week at the Israel 2050 conference, which focused on the environment from its economic, social and media perspectives.

In addition, The Guardian promoted developing business ties with corporations leading to the creation of the websites such as Global Development Professionals, which received financing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a host of corporations. The Guardian is also involved in several environmental ventures that are expected to yield profits. This is how the editors will assist the paper, which has been weighed down by heavy debts for several years now, in creating new sources of revenue.

Confino, who is responsible for several of the Guardian’s Internet ventures that focus on sustainability, both reporting on the environment while assists in its protection, is convinced his paper will find a way to address the ethical problems that are likely to arise from its ties with corporations.

“We are partners in ventures with businesses that we are convinced are going in the right direction on sustainability,” said Confino. “The condition for all cooperation is preserving complete editorial independence.”

Behind this cooperation lies a pretentious worldview that it is possible to convince corporations to operate differently along the entire production chain, from the raw materials stage up through handling the refuse from the final products that are sold. In environmental jargon, this is known as a “circular economy,” which means to recycle and reuse again and again material taken from nature.

According to Confino, some of the corporations have already answered the challenged and reduced their use of raw materials and greenhouse gas emissions. He acknowledges, however, that there is still a long way to go and in the interim the world continues to march toward an uncertain future of water and energy crises. “Today, even the executives of the large corporation understand that it’s impossible to continue with the current way of doing things, and that they, too, won’t have an economic future without a sustainable approach,” he says.

Confino also doesn’t deny that the media is still part of the problem because it continues to promote in its reports the culture of consumerism that depletes the planet’s resources.

While the Guardian continues its efforts to make adjustments economically and organizationally and to create new ties with corporations, the New York Times decided recently to dismantle the environmental desk it had created. In the past month, the paper announced that the seven reporters on the desk would be reassigned to other departments in the organization.

At the paper’s headquarters they stated that the step wasn’t taken as the result of cutbacks tied to the paper’s financial situation. According to senior editors at the paper, when the environmental desk was set up in 2009 there was still a prevailing view that environmental reporting should exist its own right from a professional perspective. However, now views have changed and senior personnel at the paper believe there was more logic in having environmental reporters integrated into in the financial and economic parts of the paper.

The statements made by New York Times management didn’t convince other journalists and media experts in the United States. Several of them termed the newspaper’s decision as disappointing. All of them spoke of the need for journalists committed to the environmental field even in a period of serious economic recession. They recalled that it was a New York Times environmental reporter who had warned in recent years of the consequences of climate change in a series of articles that garnered broad exposure.