Research Summary

Training tomorrow's environmental journalists: Assessing the extent of environmental-themed training in college-level journalism programs

Exploring Environmental Journalism Curricula in U.S. Colleges

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

This study explores the extent to which college-level journalism programs include training in environmental reporting. This question is significant because environmental problems are prevalent and prominent, yet are also complex, uncertain, and ever-changing. Moreover, “environmental journalists find themselves having to simultaneously play the role of an interpreter, teacher, and gatekeeper.” This is exacerbated by the facts that the number of newspapers with regular science sections has decreased by almost two-thirds in the last 20 years, and that only 10% of television news programs have journalism staff that specialize in environment or in science more generally.

The author used a three-component data collection frame. First, Schmidt analyzed the online course catalogs from all colleges and universities in the United States with journalism or mass communication programs to assess the extent that environmental journalism was addressed in college-level classes. Second, to understand whether current students considered environmental reporting important, he surveyed about 2000 students who were on the campus newspaper staff at a sample of institutions. Finally, from a base of almost 50,000 articles from campus newspapers, Schmidt collected and analyzed over 800 articles that included environmentally-themed content from two randomly selected weeks per year over the five-year period from 2011-2015 (600 college media sources).

Schmidt analyzed the online course catalogs and coded courses as either primarily or partially related to environmental journalism and communication Questionnaires of students involved with campus newspapers requested demographic information and asked about the extent to which students took environmental journalism coursework and their perceptions about the importance of gaining training in environmental journalism. The content analysis of the student newspaper articles included collecting information about the author’s demographics and coding for frames identified from previous research. One frame included whether articles stated that environmental issues existed and were problematic, not problematic, or debated. Another frame investigated causes, e.g., whether the cause of an environmental issues was known, unknown, or debated. The third frame involved judgements, e.g., if the article advocated for action to be taken, against action being taken, or whether the best action was unclear. The final frame investigated remedies, e.g., whether the article reported a possible solution to the environmental solution, rejected a possible solution, or reported debate about the solution.

Schmidt found that very little training exists at the college level; almost 80% of schools with communication or journalism programs did not offer any courses described as directly or indirectly about the environment. Nonetheless, almost 80% of students surveyed that they thought coursework in environmental reporting was somewhat important, important, or very important. Finally, of the news articles in campus papers, under 2% covered environmental topics, and he rated these articles as typically simplistic and local (typically campus) in geographic scale.

To remedy this, Schmidt suggests that steps should be taken to increase the emphasis on environmental topics in journalism curricula or develop new programming around environmental journalism.

The Bottom Line

Journalism students are interested in training in environmental science and issues, but schools of journalism are not providing such training. Moreover, the quality of articles written by college students on environmental topics is generally poor and superficial. Given that complexity, uncertainty, and ever-changing nature of environmental topics, and the magnitude of significance that environmental problems have for environmental and human health, more high-quality training in environmental journalism should be implemented in schools of journalism.