For 33 years, High Country News has built its reputation on giving people news about the West’s environment. At times, it’s been a lonely business. Betsy Marston, who served as the paper’s editor from 1983 to 2001, says that in the 1980s, HCN was one of the only newspapers that consistently covered issues affecting the West’s public lands — which make up half of this million-square-mile region. “We weren’t alone,” she says. “The LA Times was good in the ’80s. But the local papers missed the stories.”
These days, papers such as The Oregonian, The Idaho Statesman, The Durango Herald and the Arizona Daily Sun understand the importance of covering the environment. They know that it’s perhaps the most important story in a region where the land, both public and private, is under unprecedented pressure from suburban sprawl, oil and gas drilling, hordes of recreationists and a host of other assaults. They know that without solid information, Westerners will be hard-pressed to make informed decisions about what we want this region to become.
So these days, High Country News has some good company, but not very much, according to a recent review of the West’s daily newspapers. By and large, these papers miss “the big story” of growth and the environment, according to Matching the Scenery: Journalism’s Duty to the North American West, compiled by the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources in Missoula, Mont.
As HCN Editor in the Field Ray Ring notes in this issue’s cover story, Journalism’s Duty sheds light on a lack of environmental coverage that many readers of HCN have been painfully aware of for a long time. The report also suggests some remedies, which boil down to this: Newspapers need to put more resources into good journalism, rather than just padding the pockets of corporate bigwigs and stockholders.
While the report may serve as reality check, a real revolution in the newsrooms will require more from all of us. If we want to see less sensational junk, and more stories about the important issues, we need to make that known. After all, we’re the ones who drive the bottom lines for these operations, and we’re the ones who suffer when shoddy journalism only deepens divisiveness and makes our problems worse.
Letters to the editor certainly help, but the situation calls for more. Why not form reader advocate groups, to pressure newspapers to cover “the big story,” and to fulfill their responsibility to the public? Meet with publishers and editors. Boycott papers that continue to miss the mark. Picket the newsrooms. (The TV stations would love to cover that!) Put up billboards pointing out that the papers are falling down on the job.
Here we sit, in the middle of one of the biggest environmental stories going — the unraveling of the landscape that Wallace Stegner once called “the native home of hope.” Don’t you think we have a right to know about it?
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.