New York Mayor Bill de Blasio began 2018 by pledging to divest the city’s pension funds from fossil fuel investments and suing oil companies responsible for climate change. While major news outlets covered the announcement as a victory for de Blasio, his decision was, in large part, a response to a years-long campaign by environmental justice groups, whose members are overwhelmingly people of color.
Though climate change has a disproportionate impact on low-income Americans and communities of color, news outlets have long overlooked these groups in reporting on the issue. Part of the problem is a lack of diversity in newsrooms, which skews coverage of environmental disasters. During Hurricane Katrina and the Flint water crisis, for example, many outlets downplayed the impact these events each had on African-Americans or reinforced pernicious racial stereotypes.
The good news is that times are changing. With the Trump administration’s rollback of key environmental protections, environmental justice is becoming one of the central issues for the climate movement and is increasingly showing up in the news. Nexus Media spoke with four leading black environmental reporters about diversity in the newsroom and environmental justice.
The following conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
Talia Buford writes for Pro Publica, covering environmental justice. She previously worked for the Center for Public Integrity, where she contributed to the seminal “Environmental Justice, Denied” series that highlighted the EPA’s failure to protect vulnerable communities.
Diversity changes the way we tell stories: It’s not just about the sort of stories that get covered or the communities we cover. Having a diverse newsroom also changes the framework that we choose to tell those stories within.
When we began our environmental coverage as an industry, people weren’t the focus. We talked about acid rain and the hole in the ozone and what’s happening to polar bears, as opposed to the impact on poor or vulnerable communities. Having a different perspective in the newsroom is important because it reminds you that there are different ways to look at stories. Having people of color in the newsroom is important because it changes the conversation.
On the perspective of black reporters:
I think that black reporters and, really, reporters of color, are more well-versed in intersectionality and the idea that nothing happens in a vacuum. We’re able to draw from our own experiences — or at least things we’ve heard of and understand from our communities — to piece together what the different implications could be in a way that may not be apparent to other reporters.
There can also be a sense of safety or comfort in communities. Sometimes, people are more comfortable talking to someone who looks like them and wants to hear their story, rather than someone who reminds them of people who have been dismissing them or giving their community false information. It’s not to say white reporters can’t do the same things, but a different perspective is always valuable.
On more reporters covering environmental justice:
It’s something that’s been happening. But I also want it to be such that I’m not necessary. I shouldn’t be the single reporter who focuses on environment, race and intersectionality. It should become something that’s ingrained in our coverage regardless of whether our main beat is environmental justice or not.
But we’re not there yet. I do think a lot of news organizations are becoming more aware that we need to cover climate change in a different way, and you see the renewed awakening of civil rights coverage that is bleeding into other areas, like the environment.
Vann R. Newkirk II
Vann Newkirk is a staff writer at the Atlantic, where he covers politics and policy as it relates to civil rights. He has been following Puerto Rico’s struggle to rebuild after Hurricane Maria. His recent video, “Environmental Racism is the New Jim Crow,” has raised the profile of environmental justice.
On how growing up in North Carolina influenced his reporting:
I’m a Southerner. I grew up in a place where environmental justice was a big deal. My whole town was destroyed by floods in 1999. At that point, it was almost taken as an article of faith that certain communities would bounce back quicker than the others. It always sort of stuck with me — why did we accept that?
When I graduated from high school seven years later, there were still people in Edgecombe County who were suffering. My hometown, Rocky Mount, straddles two counties. One is about 70 percent black, and the other is about 50 percent black. The side of the town that had fewer white folks still had well water that was contaminated, still had people who had never been served. There were still FEMA trailers there, some of the first FEMA trailers we had in the United States.
On the changing environmental justice beat:
We’re operating now in the post-Hurricane Katrina landscape when it has become much clearer how environmental justice is tied to policy. I also think that Hurricane Katrina was a really big deal for black activism and for Black Lives Matter. This really big moment is coinciding with more and more people understanding climate change and more people, according to the surveys, being concerned about it.
It has always been about race: who gets in and who’s left out. If you tie in the climate change framework to that, you’re going to see people of color living in communities that are marginalized day to day. They’re the people [who are going] to suffer the first and worst. These are issues that can’t be untied or detangled from each other.
But, we have a president who is promising an end to the climate regime, whose Department of Justice is promising a rollback of certain civil rights protections, who is promising more penal enforcement of drug laws. Those things all go hand in hand. Then, we have the EPA itself, which seems to have totally gone away from meeting environmental mandates, including environmental justice.
On the disconnect between environmental justice and climate change:
I think it’s the bigger climate groups who are treating environmental justice as a secondary or a tertiary concern. [To them, environmental justice] may intersect with climate but is not totally a climate issue. What I’ve seen through my reporting is that climate change is always part of the concerns of environmental justice groups and people of color.
The first stirrings of climate change — writing about it and thinking about it — came from what might be called the environmental justice communities. You had the folks in the islands who were noticing sea-level rise decades before it became a modern, household term. There are black farmers who noticed that their lands were becoming more arid. People on the margins have always known about climate change because that’s where the climate is changing.
Justin Worland covers energy and climate for TIME. He has written extensively on China’s energy policy, the rise of renewables and the Trump administration’s work to dismantle federal climate protections.
There are a lot of obvious reasons why diversity is important in any organization. It brings new perspectives in a way that’s productive everywhere. That’s amplified in a newsroom, where journalists are required to interact with lots of different things, lots of different people, and be responsible about that.
I also believe that diversity in the newsroom builds credibility, especially at a time when journalism is being called into question in some places.
On the disproportionate impact of climate change:
Climate change will hit people of color and black America harder than elsewhere. You can look at any climate impact, really, and the situation is consistent. Take extreme heat. People of color often live in urban areas, where the heat island effect is worse. Or, you could look at the fact that communities of color tend to be in areas that flood more.
If you look at environmental justice specifically, and the civil rights issues that communities of color and minority communities face, they are very closely linked.
Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab where he reports on justice. In the wake of last year’s hurricanes, Brentin explored how discriminatory policies force communities of color to live in dangerous locations. He has also written about the connection between environmental injustice and police violence.
On environmental racism in black America:
The issue of climate change itself is yet another exacerbation of the kind of quality of life — and even life-and-death — issues confronting African-Americans throughout the entire history of being in America. These are basically borne out of racial segregation. Everything starts first with slavery, and then also with racial segregation, which took away the choice of where black people could live post-slavery.
We couldn’t live where we wanted to live, and the places where we were told we could live were often the places that were least desirable. They were often the most dangerous places and those places that posed the highest risk to public, financial and even mental health.
Even before climate change started to really impact lives, there always have been the environmental justice burdens of living in the most polluted zip codes and in areas with fewer financial and economic opportunities. These communities have the worst schools. They have the least amount of investment.
So, climate change takes those issues of racial segregation and takes those people who have been made vulnerable, and it just adds another risk to their lives. In fact, climate change is one of the most threatening factors because its impacts could be final. They could destroy your home, business or your neighborhood. They could definitely take your life, whether that’s through the urban heat island or floods.
On the importance of different perspectives:
Diversity is important because you need a multiplicity of perspectives in the news. For example, not everyone looks at climate change from the same perspective, and neither does climate change impact everyone the same or even equally. For some people, the biggest threat of climate change might be the destruction of certain plant or animal habitats. And while that’s important, that won’t be striking the same kind of way as somebody who, for example, lives in a floodplain zone and whose very own human life may be endangered because of their vulnerability to a possible flood.
The people living in the most at-risk areas are often people of color and people with low income. And if you don’t have a diversity of reporters or writers who can kind of represent all of these various perspectives, then you are doing a disservice to your readers, because they are not getting the whole picture.