Earth & Environmental Science Journalism

Why does the world need people trained in this field?

Legacy site: 

Times change, and it would seem that the limiting factor on adults’ understanding of the Earth System is no longer a shortage of well-trained, motivated, hard-working environmental journalists and science writers.  See:  Society of Environmental JournalistsNational Association of Science Writers.

Many of the most urgent problems facing society today involve interactions between society and the environment in which we live. Voters, taxpayers,legislators, and businesspeople are called upon to make decisions about topics as diverse as burying radioactive waste in underground caverns, strengthening building codes to resist earthquake damage, and limiting fossil fuel consumption to ameliorate global climate warming.

All of these decisions can benefit from a working knowledge of the underlying natural processes that humanity's actions may have perturbed. Pre-college school systems cannot be relied upon to provide this working knowledge. Even if every school child received an exemplary grounding in earth systems science (which is far from true), the time lag between schooling and decision making is too long. Many of the problems that face today's decision makers had not been articulated when those individuals were in school, and much of the science that could contribute to solving those problems had not been completed.

In our society, journalists are the purveyors of "just-in-time learning" for the adult population. Journalists deliver the information needed to make an informed decision to the breakfast table of the voter or decision-maker, on the morning that the vote needs to be cast or the decision needs to be implemented. We think that the most efficient conduit to convey information from the insight-generating Earth Scientist to the decision-making adult citizen is via responsible, well-trained science journalists and environmental journalists.

Science writers can be viewed as "translators" between those with the knowledge and those with the need to know. Columbia's E&ESJ program marries the strengths of one the world's best Earth research institutions with one of the world's best journalism schools to produce graduates who are fluently bilingual in the language of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the language of public debate.

But beyond merely translating scientists' verbiage for the lay reader, journalists who are trained in both science and investigative journalism play an important watchdog role in society. These skeptical, probing watchdogs look many directions: towards the scientific community, where they may uncover research misconduct; towards industry, where they ask tough questions about science-laden controversies such as toxic emissions; and towards the political process, where they may find science being ignored or misapplied.

Premises Underlying the Design of the Program

  1. that as the earth approaches its carrying capacity for human beings, an increasing percentage of the most pressing policy and economic issues facing humanity include an aspect of earth or environmental science;
  2. that a consequence of item (1), the interest level in the Earth and environment among voters and taxpayers is rising;
  3. that the body of knowledge about the Earth and environment is growing at such a rate that it is increasingly difficult for a writer to self-educate himself or herself in these fields without formal training in science;
  4. that a prospective science journalist benefits from immersion in a world-class group of scientists as part of his or her professional preparation, to learn the language, values and culture of the scientific community;
  5. that a prospective science journalist benefits from hands-on experience of scientific research, to get a feel for the limitations and power of real data;
  6. that a science journalism graduate should be prepared to report and write on a broad range of topics in addition to science;
  7. that a journalist covering science or the environment should be prepared to do serious investigative reporting;