The Observatory

Adrift in a sea of (no) coverage

Last October, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar called on the press to pay more attention to the Obama administration’s achievements in environmental conservation.

In response, The Miami Herald’s Carl Hiaasen suggested that the government give journalists more to write about, and he had a point. On Sunday, The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin had a revealing article (which should’ve gotten higher billing in the paper) about the president’s “modest personal interest in wilderness protection.” But Salazar had a point as well. Articles like Eilperin’s are all too rare. Case in point: Obama’s National Ocean Policy.

In 2010, Obama established the policy, and created the National Ocean Council, based on the recommendations of an inter-agency task force that he’d created a year earlier. But it was really the culmination of a decade-long effort, which began with the Oceans Act of 2000, to institute a holistic federal approach to managing the country’s oceans, coastal areas, and the Great Lakes.

More than a dozen agencies and countless laws currently have a hand in that process, and the National Ocean Policy is an effort to make it more effective, efficient, and, ultimately, cheaper. At its core is what’s called coastal and marine spatial planning, an “integrated, ecosystem-based approach” to identify the areas most suitable to activities like recreational and commercial fishing, energy production, shipping, naval exercises, and water sports. The idea is to meet the nation’s economic, environmental, and security needs in a sustainable way.

The White House emphasizes that the National Ocean Policy is about revamping the use of existing authority and that it “does not require new legislation in order to be implemented and does not supersede or alter any agency or department’s existing authority,” but it’s been incredibly controversial. While the scientific community and environmentalists support the policy, fishermen, energy companies, and others have denounced it as more big government.

Covering the animal within

The promo machine for an upcoming book, Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing, by UCLA cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and science writer Kathryn Bowers, has been in high gear all week.

It started with a 4,100-word excerpt in The New York Times Sunday Review, and continued with spots on NPR and ABC News. The excerpt is about Natterson-Horowitz’s realization, while consulting for the Los Angeles Zoo, that humans and animals share many illnesses, from cancer to compulsive behavior, and that the medical community could learn a lot from those commonalities.

The promos may have left people with the false impression that teamwork between doctors and veterinarians is basically non-existent, however. Yes, “the human medical establishment has an undeniable, though unspoken, bias against veterinary medicine,” but it’s not true that they “never talk about this,” as Natterson-Horowitz told ABC News, or that they “rarely collaborate and communicate,” as she told NPR.

An eye on environmental justice

A number of media reports in last year have examined the impacts of toxic pollution on communities, but few have emphasized, let alone focused on, the fact that low-income, minority neighborhoods tend to bear the brunt of the burden.

That changed on Monday, when the website Environmental Health News (EHN) launched a special series, “Pollution, Poverty, People of Color,” about environmental justice—the notion that no one should have to put up with a disproportionate amount of risk because of their socioeconomic status.

EHN sent eight reporters and two photographers to seven communities across the United States “to report on their struggles to cope with an array of environmental threats,” editor-in-chief Marla Cone explained in an introductory note.

Salt Lake Tribune takes Grantham Prize

For the second year in a row “the world’s richest journalism prize” went to a series of articles about threatened forests.

Last year, the The Economist’s James Astill took home the $75,000 Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment for “The World’s Lungs,” a broad survey of the plight of forests around the globe. This year, judges recognized The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah for an eight-part special report, “Our Dying Forests,” which zoomed in on embattled trees in the western United States.

Tribune reporter Brandon Loomis, photographer Rick Egan, and editor David Noyce will share the prize, which US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse announced at the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s annual Leadership Awards Dinner on Tuesday night. Their ongoing series, which started last September, provides a detailed examination of the factors that have decimated 40-million acres of conifer forests from New Mexico to the Canadian border: native beetles empowered by climate change; decades of forest management that has abetted fire and drought; and invasive disease.

How to improve environmental coverage?

Fixing the news is a tall order, or so the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage is learning.

The effort launched in late February with a “vision” statement that called on media organizations to “integrate the environmental angle into other stories and make that connection explicit, make environmental stories appealing to a larger cross section of society, focus more on solutions, and increase the visibility of environmental stories.”

It’s a classic case of easier-said-than-done, but the project’s leaders are trying to adapt on the fly to what they’re hearing as they’ve worked to forge connections within the news business over the last three months. “I was told by one executive from a large network, ‘Don’t be our friends. Push us. Critique us,’” said Tyson Miller, the project’s director. “I’m taking that advice to heart.”

CBS News hires M. Sanjayan

Network news got a little better this month.

CBS News announced in early May that it had hired M. Sanjayan, lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy, as its science and environmental contributor, filling a slot that’s been vacant for almost two and a half years. Sanjayan will cover a broad range of topics across multiple platforms and contribute to CBS News broadcasts, according to the network.

He’s done two nice segments so far.

The first was a helpful appearance on CBS This Morning, where Sanjayan talked about debris from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that was washing up along shores in the Western US. He explained that chemical toxicity was a greater concern than radioactivity from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, and went on to emphasize that, generally, it’s easier to prevent refuse from entering the oceans than it is to remove it once it’s there.

The second was a two-minute, no-nonsense report on climate change for CBS Evening New with Scott Pelley, in which Sanjayan told viewers flat out that they’d all experienced its effects “firsthand” in the form of record high temperatures. It’s a problem felt “right here, right now, in our own backyards,” he said, citing the impact of heat waves on ranchers and the elderly and the steps that insurance companies are taking to hedge against the risks of climate-related disasters.

Evolved for exhibitionism?

“Sound the evo-psych bullshit klaxon!” British science journalist Ed Yong tweeted on Thursday. He was right to be concerned.

Yong’s warning pertained to an op-ed at Wired Science by Ogi Ogas. Jumping off from the string of celebrities who’ve taken naughty pictures of themselves only to have those images leaked from their cellphones and shared publicly, Ogas argues that people have a universal desire to “sext” one another. Not only that, he says, this exhibitionist urge is an evolutionary adaptation of the brain.

“The source of all this au naturel flaunting lies not in the culture of fame, but in the design of our sexual brains,” Ogas writes. “In fact, research has unveiled two distinct explanations: Female exhibitionism appears to be primarily cortical, while male exhibitionism is mainly subcortical.”

Reparative journalism

It’s not often that a journalist convinces a prominent scientist to recant a controversial study that he has tenaciously defended for 11 years, but that’s just what Gabriel Arana did last month.

While working on an article for The American Prospect about his experience undergoing so-called sexual reorientation, or reparative therapy, as a teenager in the late 1990s, Arana interviewed Dr. Robert Spitzer, who authored a controversial 2001 research paper, which concluded that the therapy worked for some people.

Spitzer, then a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, had interviewed 200 patients who claimed the therapy had led to a shift toward heterosexual orientation.

The western frontier

American media may cluster in the east, but the west is still the land of pioneers, even in the domains of multimedia and long-form science journalism.

Two young trailblazers—Quest, a multimedia science and environment series created in 2007 by KQED, a public radio and TV station serving northern California, and Pacific Standard, a research-oriented, bimonthly magazine launched as Miller-McCune in 2008 and headquartered in southern California—deserve a special mention for their recent work.

Let’s start with Quest and the unique contribution it made to a long, ongoing story about one the California’s most intractable environmental concerns. On May 14, state officials released the final draft of the Delta Plan to restore the long beleaguered Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a vital estuary that provides water to Central Valley farmers and most of the state’s residents. The plan is the product of the Delta Stewardship Council, formed in 2009 to resolve problems with water management and ecosystem decline.

USA Today’s oily, gassy rainbow

USA Today sees an oily, gassy rainbow on America’s energy horizon.

“Energy independence isn’t just a pipe dream,” read a large, bold headline on last Wednesday’s front. It was draped over an image of oil drums stamped “Made in USA,” laid out like bowling pins in front the US flag.

The nearly 2,000-word cover story, by Tim Mullaney, described the current “energy boom” in great detail—from rising oil production and falling oil imports, to the declining price of natural gas, to increasing exports of refined petroleum products—and reported that it promises to deliver a variety of economic benefits, particularly jobs.

The piece began with a snapshot of Williamsport, a “once-sleepy chunk of north-central Pennsylvania” that’s become “a star on the map of an emerging national energy rush,” with the arrival of 100 new companies and 20-year-olds making over six figures a year. According to the article:

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