When Watchdogs Head To Court: The Complexities of Covering Environmental Litigation

              When environmentalists feel the government isn’t doing enough to clamp down on polluters, they often turn to ligation, filing suit to bring about change. The courts have been a tool for environmentalists to secure victories in all areas, from regulation of greenhouse gas emissions to more strict implementation of waste cleanup standards. The government uses the courts to punish companies when it believes there has been a violation of environmental laws, as in the case of the BP oil spill. Citizen suits are also a common route. But some believe that trying these issues in court take too much time, cost too much money to litigate and can hinder progress. This week’s readings provide a brief overview of the history of environmental lawsuits and highlight a noteworthy case. How can journalists make sense of the complicated court system to provide information that’s most helpful to readers? Do you feel they’re doing a good job in this area? Or could more be done to better simplify and explain the issues? Do you think environmentalists are too quick to bring lawsuits and push for onerous demands? As you read through the articles, what questions do you think they raise for journalists covering environmental cases. Andhttp://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/o/oil_spills/gulf_of_mexico_2010/index.html?8qa here is an article on thoughts to ponder when covering environmental litigation. University of Michigan professor David Uhlmann dissects the BP oil spill case in this article. Here’s coverage of the latest BP oil spill developments. And this article covers the same topic. What are your questions for students on how it compares? Also, please check out the word files on C-Tools on citizen suits and the Environmental Law Institute primer. Feel free to add your reflections on those readings here as well.


About jhalpert

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist with more than two decades of experience writing for national publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek, CNNMoney.com, iVillage, Fortune.com, and AARP Bulletin. She currently contributes regularly to over 25 publications. She is also the co-author of Making Up With Mom (http://www.makingupwithmom.com/) and has recently started blogging for The Huffington Post. Her subjects have focused on everything from how auto makers will reinvent themselves following bankruptcy, to the viability of various environmentally-friendly technologies and how boomers will reinvent retirement. She also covers parenting and family issues for such magazines as Parents, Family Circle, MORE and Redbook. She has reported on the air for many public radio programs, including The Environment Report, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She also co-teaches an environmental journalism class in the University of Michigan's Program in the Environment and was a founder of The Society of Environmental Journalists.

3 Responses to “When Watchdogs Head To Court: The Complexities of Covering Environmental Litigation”

  1. There are many challenges in journalism but I think navigating litigation and the court system is high on the list. I think that part of the reason it is not covered well is because of the layers of politics and inefficiencies of the system as well as the often slow progress. I feel that the court system should not play the role of a tool to make demands but instead the last resort to settle conflict. However, its accessibility makes it easier to misuse. I think it is important to cover these issues from all angles to expose the inefficiencies of the system and help people to have a better understanding of the court system. The big question is not if it is important but instead how it should be tackled.

  2. Citizen-suits are a great way for environmentalists and communities to engage with issues within the system, safely and legally. However, court filings can be extremely inefficient, and certain rules that do get made can actually conflict with the interest of environmentalists in the future. Therefore, though this is an important step, its not the only one necessary to really help mitigate environmental issues. This is one place that journalism can serve an important role. Public values and norms can be influenced by what they read, and journalists have the ability to educate and impact people’s decisions. The BP incident, for instance proved to hold a special role for journalists in getting people fired up. It’s hard to believe that the courts would have come down on the BP corporation quite as hard if there was not strong public pressure for it–although some think this pressure did not bring about harsh enough consequences. So, yes, I think that its important for journalists to represent these issues in a clear, understandable way. Citizen suits might have made a major difference in environmental policy, but education and transparency inside and out of these suits are critical to inspire lasting changes to cultural opinions and practice.

  3. Journalists can help make sense of the court system to help readers understand the complexities of environmental issues. Environmental issues are rarely purely environmental, but are linked inextricably with politics, economics, public health, and law, among many fields. Hence, when discussing environmental litigation, journalists need to be aware that a majority of their readers have little knowledge of environmental lawsuits and related issues. By teasing apart issues and even simply providing definitions/background of legal concepts, they can help readers feel more informed and less intimidated of such issues.

    The only way for these litigation stories to come to light to the public is if journalist push for lawsuits and increased, durable coverage. If there’s a lack of consistency or no push for onerous demands, the public never learns of these issues and there is little public support. If there is greater coverage, then the public will grow in its support for environmental issues in general.

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