By Andrea Silverthorne
In 1997, a news journalist organization, the Committee of Concern Journalists (CCJ), commences a study to establish written principles for their profession. Before deciding on the principles, the industry reviews its own history, conducts public meetings, and surveys their own members in order to crystallize the importance of their professional ethics and role in a free and democratic society. In 2001, the CCJ publishes the “Nine Principles of Journalism. The study and its outcome are later incorporated into the book The Elements of Journalism. It is the purpose of this effort on “Environmental Ethics,” to:
- Analyze the industry’s own journalistic principles as they apply to the state of the industry’s present day environmental reporting. The subject chosen for evaluation is the “extinction risk” of the world’s vertebrates. Two stories by well known and respected media are selected for review, evaluation, and comparison as follows:
- An October 27, 2010 story by CNN on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s, (IUCN), ‘Red List’ of endangered species. A statement on the ‘Red List was released to the public at the IUCN’s “Biodiversity Summit” in Nagoya, Japan, on the occasion of their 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
- A May 25, 2009 story for the New Yorker magazine, written by award winning journalist, Elizabeth Kolbert entitled, “The Sixth Extinction?” detailing the escalating death of bats and frogs in recent decades.
Other stories written and reported on, not by the media’s reporters, but by atmospheric scientists, will be analyzed for the purpose of determining possible (“the truth not told”) relevance to the environmental reporting of the first two stories. These stories detail discovered revelations of rising levels of formaldehyde gas in our atmosphere and the behavior of those rising levels of atmospheric formaldehyde ? in on-going gas exchanges between the atmosphere and snow. Similar studies witnessing the same exchange in water, rain and fog are included.
The CNN extinction story appears on air — and on their Internet site; it paraphrases the contents of a press release of the IUCN, a United Nations related organization that roots back to 1948, and is headquartered in Geneva Switzerland. The head of its governing body has a former association with the United Nations.
CNN’s story is seven hundred and fifty words long. It announces the beginning of the IUCN’s two week conference on biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan. The press release the wire staff uses is much longer. There are no inaccuracies in the CNN account of the release; it does not deviate from the press release content, but it is a truncated version of a revealing study.
Extinction, the small CNN story says, can be attributed to “invasion” and the effects of “agriculture.” Invasion is better defined by the IUCN as invasion of alien species into a natural habitat, but like the CNN story, it also goes into no detail on just how precisely agriculture and alien invasion is rendering specific species extinct, or what they are dying from. To the side of the CNN story highlighted in blue are the main points of the story itself: the number of species threatened is rising; conservation efforts help reduce the rate of extinction; and amphibians are the most threatened species. In the body of the story the cable network does state the remarkable fact that forty-one percent of amphibians are threatened, and that data from over twenty-five thousand species was used for the study.
The CNN Internet reportage on the news of the conference also provides a link to a more comprehensive, earlier story of October 18, under CNN’s Matthew Knight’s by line. In addition to the facts featured in the October 27 story, Knight’s efforts fills us in on the ten years of failure of the countries agreeing to the previous 2002, ten year plan. They all fail to meet their promised efforts to sustain biodiversity within their borders.
Matthew Knight explains the Convention on Biological Diversity is binding on one hundred and ninety three nations. Matthew Knight fails to mention the United States is not bound to the Treaty; it was signed but has never been ratified. The U.S. is the only country who signs the original Treaty and does not go on to ratify it. Canada, Great Britain and many other western nations do ratify the Treaty.
Knight uses strong visual words such as “alarming and “tipping point,” and he tells us the goals of the conference are a new agreement for the next ten years focusing on: conservation; sustainable use of the world’s biodiversity; the finalization of a protocol for sharing the world’s resources between the haves and the have nots; and the rights of indigenous people. There is to be a monitoring body established. Success depends — according to Knight’s discussion with interested groups — on political will and the monetary contributions of privileged countries. CNN does not mention climate change as a responsible cause of extinction; the IUNC site does, although it is not in the ‘Red List” press release used by CNN.
There are also discrepancies in the IUNC’s press release quote of a figure of twenty percent, to denote the number of world species under threat, and the information on its own site. The information on the site explains that of the over fifty-five thousand species looked at over twenty three thousand are under threat to different degrees, including over eight hundred and fifty specifies that have gone extinct during the period. The site tells you that of the species looked at, they excluded well over eight thousand of them, because there is not enough available data to ascertain any threat or non treat to them; therefore, of the new sum of the species the group studied and found enough data for evaluation on, almost forty-two percent of them were found to be under some threat of extinction, not twenty percent. The iucnrelist.org site has other revealing and alarming facts not featured in either the CNN, October 27th story or their October 18th story:
- Species that live on land decline by forty percent just between the years 1970 to 2000.
- When it comes to species that live in fresh water, the numbers were higher; fifty percent of species in this habitat decline.
- Fish in the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean have declined sixty-six percent in the past fifty years.
- Twenty-two percent of mammals now range from the vulnerable to the already extinct
- The Caribbean, which had extensive hard cover coral on fifty percent of its sea bottom, is down to ten percent in just the past three decades alone.
- The ‘Red List’ documents seventy percent of the world’s coral reefs are endanger of obliteration.
- And in the past ten years alone sixty million hectares of forest and thirty-five of mangroves have disappeared off the face of the earth.
Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff reporter for the New Yorker magazine began reporting on the environment ten years ago. She has also written a book expanded from a series done for her magazine called Field Notes From a Catastrophe. In a review of the book by journalist Marguerite Holloway in Scientific American magazine, Holloway describes Kolbert’s writing on the environment as “pithy and powerful. The possibility that she may impact public opinion on environmental threats to the extent that Rachel Carson did in the 1960’s has been raised.
In May of 2009, New Yorker magazine publishes “The Sixth Extinction?,” Kolbert’s account of the mysterious deaths of frogs and bats. Her chronicle begins with the advent of the last decade of the twentieth century in the rain forests of Costa Rica’s Talamanca Mountains.
Graduate student Karen Lips spends two years studying the area’s Golden Frog; she leaves to write her dissertation; she returns but four months later. Repeat: She returns but four months later. The frogs have all but disappeared. Kolbert says Lips sent the dead frogs she could find to a U.S. pathologist, who could not find a cause of death. The Kolbert tale does not include a tale of fungus at this point; neither the pathologist nor the graduate student, speak of finding or noticing any fungal growth on the frogs’ bodies.
Kolbert’s yarn now turns to one of carnage. Karen Lips returns just several years later at the end of the twentieth century, to continue her study of frogs. This time she selects a site in western Panama with a thriving, healthy frog population. Soon, Kolbert relates, before Lips’s eyes, the story of dead and dying frogs begins anew. They are everywhere. Again, Kolbert says Lips sends frogs to a pathologist in the United States, a different one than her first selection, but the second pathologist is also stumped; he can not find a cause of death, and no mention of fungus yet appears in Kolbert’s account of what is recognizable as a horror story.
Pausing after her succinct introduction to frog extinction, Kolbert digresses to the subject of past extinctions. She covers the notable theorists and naturalists from Thomas Jefferson, who thought that the concept of extinction was not valid— to Georges Cuvier, who first wrote of the theory of mass and sudden extinctions — through Charles Darwin, who disagreed with Cuvier and proposed that extinctions were a slow process — and then she covers modern day theorists who have proven Darwin wrong: There have been twenty mass extinctions, she learns from her research, including five cataleptic events, swiftly wiping out more than seventy-five percent of species.
Kolbert begins her story in the town of El Valle, Panama with a tale of the local folklore of their Golden Frog, and midway through her story on frogs she returns there, in person, to interview Edgardo Griffith, a herpetologist, who has established a frog conservation center to protect the frogs from their natural, remote and pristine habitat. The wave of horror hits the twenty-first century like a tsunami, moving to the east, Kolbert explains, while accompanying Griffith on a frog collecting mission in the environs of El Valle, and she learns that part of the alarm among scientists over the swift extinction of frogs lies in the fact: Frogs have been around for four hundred million years, and for two hundred and fifty million years they have pretty much looked the way they do today. Frogs pre-existed the now extinct dinosaurs; they are survivors. The problem is no longer confined to Central America; it is happening in the United States and all around the world. The problems range from drastic declines to complete extinction, in a matter of a few years. And what really has scientists scratching their heads, Kolbert says, is the fact that while remote pristine habitats are being decimated, there are habitats disturbed by man where the frogs are not under any stress at all. These facts raise peer arguments and the extinction debate rages on, and then ? frogs in a zoo in Washington D.C. Die.
This juncture in the story provokes another digression on the part of Elizabeth Kolbert to extinction theory. She puts forth the argument, without attribution for the source of the information: the ‘sixth extinction’ that we are now facing, and the current oddities of frog deaths, may have started fifty thousand years ago in Australia; large animals species, not the small ones, had a problem that “roughly” originated about the same time the land mass hosted the arrival of human beings, eleven thousand years ago. North America’s mammals also go extinct coincident with man’s arrival, and there are other extinctions worldwide that occur approximately coincident with man’s appearance too. Kolbert does not correlate that what is happening now is the reverse: Frogs in remote places not inhabited by man are dying. She does introduce the scientist’s decision on the cause of death for the frogs; it is a fungus, the Chytrid fungus which was isolated by pathologists examining the dead frogs from the D.C. zoo. Generally, the fungus feeds off of dead matter, but the fungus was introduced to frogs in the same zoo where the others had died, and the new frogs were dead in three weeks; however, she says, frogs in other environments, tested similarly, were unaffected by it.
Kolbert tells us an Australian scientist got applause when he found the virus has existed as far back as the nineteen thirties; he discovered it was spread by doctors importing them for pregnancy tests: frogs were widely affected and suffered no ill effects. The mystery deepens.
Yet again, Kolbert digresses to extinction theory this time to the hot debate over the end-Permian extinction: Was is or was it not a meteor? When Kolbert ends her discussions on this argument she returns to her story, but this time she is in the Northeast United States, and it is the rack and ruin of bats she is reporting on. It began in 2007 with small reports of bats behaving strangely in winter; when they should be hibernating; they were flying out of caves and dying, she says, and the next year, 2008, in some colonies, the debacle of death reached ninety-seven percent.
Kolbert quotes the recollections of Al Hicks, a biologist, remembering a phone call he received from colleagues visiting a bat cave: “They said, Holy shit, there dead bats everywhere!”
The dead and dying bats have white fuzz on their noses and sometimes on their wing and ear tips. The scientists, Kolbert says, decide: It is a fungus never identified before that is killing the bats, however, she also reveals that the scientist do not know how the fungus is killing the bats, and with scientists at a loss for an explanation, Kolbert returns for one last time to the extinction theory of scientists. This time she interviews Andrew Knoll a paleontologist from Harvard. She gets more extinction theory and a bottom line out of this respected scientist:” . . . its time to worry when the rate of change is fast.”
Kolbert ends her story with a trip to Vermont’s Aeolus Cave with more scientists: “The scene, in the dimness, was horrific,” Kolbert says about this cave that has been hibernation haunt of bats for twelve thousand years, ever since the last ice age. Dead bats and malingering bats, at deaths door, are everywhere and Kolbert concludes: “It struck me, as I stood there holding a bag filled with several dozen stiff, almost weightless bats, that I was watching mass extinction in action.”
News Ethic Analysis
The concept of a community and its moral character is integral to ethical concepts and norms. The press of a free nation not only serves its communities, it has developed into its own professional community. Notably the press community, unlike other collective, commercial, or corporate endeavors, has developed its own view of its role, relationship, and duties to the outside community it serves ? its country’s citizens. And the press, through its CCJ membership, has constructed its ethics in normative, written terms. The press holds itself in high regard and the public, despite frequent griping and venting of concerns over the press’s efforts or non efforts, as the case may be, holds the principle of free speech — and the communal concept of a free press that the media embodies as its vehicle — next to holy.
In today’s world of escalating and complex technology, the major ethical issue and the questions the press must address become: Are they up to the challenge of evaluating technical information and press releases under their own “Nine Principles of Journalism,” and more importantly are they even trying to do so? If they do not, or can not, are they and their self perceived role still relevant to the community they serve? Is the public in jeopardy because of the press’s inability or refusal to do more than read press releases of a technical nature?
The dedication of environmental reporter Elizabeth Kolbert to the United States community that reads her highly respected magazine, coast to coast, is not in question. She raises peoples’ awareness of their environmental jeopardy; she is doing a great job; her voice resonates with concern; however, the following recent, November 19 comment Kolbert made in an interview with Jen Jung of the gothamist.com blog site is perturbing:
You have people out there who have millions and millions of reams of what they call facts and they spin this kind of web of half-truths and misinterpreted truths and lies, and it’s very difficult for a lay person to go through them. So I try to leave that kind of thing to the scientific community, who are really steeped in scientific literature. But just having one of these kinds of arguments, unfortunately, people like me and you and those of us who feel like this is really a big problem that we are criminally negligent in not addressing, have kind of lost that public debate right now. And that’s really scary I think, to be honest.” That’s the word I would use, not just depressing but downright scary. There happens to be one side, on the scientific front, that’s just unassailable.