Rating Criteria

Criteria in Environmental Journalism

 

1. No Trivialisation / No Scaremongering

Problems are neither played down nor exaggerated.

The report presents the extent of damage and risk correctly and appropriately on the basis of the current state of knowledge. It neither exaggerates nor plays down the dangers. On the one hand, the precautionary principle should come into force in this context: If there are there serious indications that health and the environment are in danger, reporting is justified even before the extent and possible impact are absolutely certain. On the other hand, unfounded scandalmongering should be avoided just as studiously as trivialising the problems. A piece should not create the impression that actual or possible damage or risks are larger or smaller than the available data prove. If the extent of the problem is not sufficiently well-known, the uncertainty must be specified. If at all possible, risks should not be expressed in relative figures (“The risk is increasing / diminishing by x per cent.”), but in absolute figures (“120 more/fewer inhabitants are affected.”). Appropriate comparisons make issues clearer.

The rating may be “not satisfactory” if, for example, a certain exposure limit that has been exceeded is played down as “no risk to health” although there actually is a genuine risk, or the precise risk is unknown; and vice versa: if the issue is presented as an acute health risk although there are no concrete indications to this effect.

 

2. Documentation / Evidence

The presentation of studies, facts and figures on environmental risk and danger elucidates the evidence.

It must be made clear how valid the reported events and facts are upon which the piece is based. The report must explain whether it refers to measurements taken from a few random samples that – however alarming they may be – only have limited validity or whether it refers to a long-term study, actual observed environmental changes, forecasts and model calculations, or retrospective reconstructions. The difference in the validity and reliability of the various procedures must be elucidated. For example: “The figures stated in the forecast are based on model calculations, uncertainties include …” or “In seven of the 20 random samples limits were exceeded, in three cases by a factor of ten or more.”

The rating may be “not satisfactory” if, for example, serious contradictions or uncertainties in the data available have been concealed, or if forecasts and model calculations are only based on the most favourable or unfavourable scenarios without the media user being informed accordingly. The rating may also be unsatisfactory if it is claimed that a certain pollutant could “not be detected” but details on the accuracy of the measuring procedures are missing, or if reports on detected pollutants do not state and discuss the legal limits.

 

3. Experts / Transparency of Sources

The sources of factual claims and assessments are named; their degree of independence and objectivity is elucidated for media users.

The piece makes it clear where the information and assessments used come from. It draws on several, at least two, unrelated sources. If a story refers to studies, measurements, model calculations or other data it must explain by whom and on whose behalf (financing) this data has been collected. If expert opinions are cited, their affiliation to organisations, authorities and businesses must be stated. Dependencies or potential conflicts of interest must be named. “The statements made by the company spokesperson x contradict the fish expert y from the environmental organisation z …”

The rating may be “not satisfactory” if the report cites, for example, a study that has been conducted on behalf of industry or an environmental organisation without naming the client, or if an expert’s affiliation to a university is mentioned but not his or her reviewing activities for an environmental organisation. The rating may also be unsatisfactory if an expert is only introduced as a “reviewer for the the European Food Safety Authority” without reference to his or her other activities for an industry-related company, or if only one source is cited in the report.

 

4. For and Against

The essential, relevant views are presented appropriately.

When issues are controversial various points of view should be explained and possibly weighted and classified according to their relevance and scientific content. If possible, it should be made clear who will gain or lose from certain decisions, who is responsible and who is affected. At least some examples of the advantages and disadvantages for the environment ensuing from certain decisions and actions should be mentioned, possibly also those affecting business, the consumer, the quality of life or other precious domains. For example: “In the course of the energy shift the power network is due to be extended by x kilometres of new high-voltage power lines. Those living nearby fear the effects of electosmog and are demanding underground cabling. This would be y times more expensive than erecting pylons, could however be cheaper if it were mass-produced and laid on a large scale.”

The rating may be “not satisfactory” if, for example, the piece fails to include both sides of an unresolved scientific controversy or conflict between different interest groups, if essential arguments are ignored, or if the opinions and procedures of scientific outsiders (e.g. radical climate sceptics, esoteric products to fight electrosmog) are given undue prominence. A story may certainly focus on a particular aspect but it may not create the false impression that there are no opposing arguments.

 

5. Press Release

The information contained in the report and the presentation go well beyond that of a press release / press material.

It is not acceptable to use a press release as the only or major source for an environmental report. Reprinting or reformulating even a sophisticated press release, whether issued by a company, an authority, or an environmental organisation, is not an act of journalism. It is always necessary to use at least one additional independent source to confirm, relativise or contradict any central statements contained in the press release. Even information taken from press releases issued by respected scientific institutions should not be used without being checked against a second source. If no additional evidence is provided to substantiate a claim, the recipient should at the very least be made aware of this (“According to the y Institute … No findings are available from other institutions.”).

The rating may be “not satisfactory” if large parts of a press release have been quoted or reworked without citing other sources or if extended passages have been used without elucidating the source.

The rating may be “not usable” if no relevant press release can be found but it cannot be excluded that the piece draws on a press release that may only be available regionally.

 

6. Novelty

The report makes it clear whether it deals with a new or newly-discovered issue, an innovative environmental technology or a novel potential solution/regulation or similar, or whether this has been in existence for some time.

The existing state of knowledge on an environmental topic should be explained and the actual or assumed novelty classified. For instance: “The authorities are aware that substance x can be found in the company’s effluent and have permitted the levels. However, a study published last week by the y Institute shows that x accumulates in edible fish and therefore may be more problematic than previously assumed.” In this case the point is not that the issues addressed in the report have to be as novel as possible, but that it should be made clear whether they are really new, or allegedly new, or are a significant long-term topic that keeps recurring. The latter case may well be a good peg for the story but should then not be presented as something “new”. Whether there actually is a newsworthy reason for reporting is considered below with reference to the general criterion of “Choice of Theme”.

The rating may be “not satisfactory” if a phenomenon that has been known about for a long time is blown up into a purportedly new scandal, or if some environmental technology that has only been marginally modified is hailed as a completely novel solution.

 

7. Potential Solutions and Paths of Action / No Greenwashing

The piece outlines ways of solving or avoiding the environmental issue, if and where appropriate.

If potential solutions or paths of action already exist in response to the environmental issue being addressed in the report these should be named and classified. It is not necessarily the journalist’s task to suggest solutions to environmental problems but he or she should know about the measures under discussion or already in force. The report makes it clear whether environmental damage could be reduced or avoided by political, legal or technical measures (changes in production, substitutes for problematic substances, amendments to laws and provisions). If several options are under discussion, they are named. If appropriate, readers/listeners/viewers are told how changes in their behaviour could help to solve the environmental problem. Sustainability strategies and suggested solutions for environmental issues are elucidated to determine whether they spell genuine advantages for the environment or are just greenwashing. The piece avoids pseudo solutions which have no effective impact on removing or avoiding the environmental problem but serve an advertising purpose rather than an environmental one. “Ecological innovations” plugged in advertising campaigns are scrutinised critically; if possible, ascribed attributes like “sustainable”, “eco”, “environment-friendly”, “renewable” or “recyclable” are verified.

The rating may be “not satisfactory” if, for example, potential solutions to the respective environmental issue are being discussed at technical, political or legal level, but they are not addressed in the report, or if it favours one of several solutions unilaterally and without a plausible reason. The rating may also be unsatisfactory if there are indeed practical ways in which the recipient could avoid or help to reduce an environmental risk (not buying certain products, not bathing in polluted water) which are not mentioned in the report. Finally, the rating may be unsatisfactory if the reporting on measures and actions (eco car prototypes from companies that otherwise produce petrol guzzlers, only allegedly recyclable packaging) is uncritical, that is, they are more likely to enhance the image of the company, NGO or research institute than benefit conservation.

 

8. Geographical Dimension (global – local)

The geographical scale of an environmental problem and the connection between local and global perspectives are presented.

The report must make clear which regions are affected by an environmental isseu. Many environmental problems and potential solutions have both local and regional or global aspects which should, if possible, be connected. What effects does our nutrition have on countries which specialise in growing animal feed? Does the pollution of a certain river only have a local impact or does it also affect the ocean into which the river flows? Does the piece discuss whether an environmental issue in other parts of the world can tell us anything about the potential danger to human life in our own country?

The rating may be “not satisfactory” if, for example, the dimensions of an incident are not addressed although they would be of relevance to the topic, that is, whether it is locally restricted or whether there is interaction between global and local aspects. This is also the case when connections are opined, which do not exist as stated, or have not been adequately substantiated (e.g. between certain local weather phenomena and global warming).

 

9. Temporal Dimension (sustainability)

The temporal scale of an environmental problem or phenomenon is presented.

The piece explains whether it is addressing a single, short-term event or a long-term problem area. In the case of a chemicals accident, for instance, is it important to note the acute effects (injured workers, damage to residents) but also whether any long-lasting poisons have been released into the environment. Furthermore: was it an unpredictable, in its way, unique accident, or have similar incidents occurred at comparable plants; has there been a series of accidents? Would a regulatory recommendation help to minimise the long-term environmental issue? Did the decline in biodiversity in an area begin suddenly or has it been going on for a long time?

The rating may be “not satisfactory” if, for example, the question of the long-term impact of an incident is not addressed, or if the disappearance of certain species is presented as a one-off problem (“Corn Crake endangers motorway construction.”) without investigating whether this should be placed in a broader context as an indication of the creeping change in habitats and biodiversity. And vice versa: if a pollutant degrades quickly and thus only has a brief environmental impact, this must be clearly stated, too.

 

10. Context / Costs

In addition to scientific, health and technical aspects, political, social, cultural or economic aspects of an environmental topic are also considered.

Depending on the type of report, some, although not necessarily all, of these dimensions should be included. In national media this might mean EU legislation on water in relation to newly discovered water pollution; in local reporting it might mean considering how a local recreation area would be affected by planned construction work and the concomitant attitudes of various officials, companies and associations in the region. If appropriate, the costs of environmental damage and conservation measures should be stated (e.g. if experts or others introduce financial aspects into the debate).

The rating may be “not satisfactory” if, for example, such points of reference are obvious, but the piece restricts itself to purely scientific or technical aspects. The rating may also be unsatisfactory if the report fails to mention costs although they are significant and figures are available.  

General Criteria in Journalism

 

1. Choice of Theme

The theme is topical, or the piece picks up on a theme that is relevant or original irrespective of how topical it is.

It must become clear why an environmental issue is being addressed here and now. This may be because it is topical (emerging environmental damage, new environmental technology or a current study or conference …), in which case it should be examined whether the report is appropriately topical for the respective medium (daily paper, monthly) and whether it conveys this topicality to the reader (e.g. using formulations such as “findings published this week in a specialist journal” or “… as the EU Environment Council decided on Monday in Brussels …”). On the other hand, many environmental themes are of long-term relevance going well beyond current “scandals” (climate protection, biodiversity, tropical deforestation, overfishing). Finding topical or original pegs for such important fields, or providing background information that is likely to rouse the media user’s interest, should be rated positively irrespective of its immediate topicality.

The rating may be “not satisfactory” if there is neither a topical reason for the report nor is the theme relevant enough to justify reporting without such a reason, which could cause a deadening effect.

 

2. Presentation

Elucidating complex environmental relationships.

This criterion has been met if a report is comprehensible because it is clearly structured, uses sentences of appropriate length, only occasionally throws in jargon (which it then explains) and elucidates relationships. An original presentation, lively examples and a good choice of appropriate graphs, illustrations and sound elements also play a role. Additional plus points may be gained if the story applies dramaturgical principles (personification, narrative elements, references to everyday life etc.), and if form and contents are harmonised. Inappropriately histrionic or trivialising language should be avoided. If the story is a news item, the basic who, what, when, where, why, how questions should be fully answered. Generally: the benchmark is the appropriate presentation for the format.

The rating may be “not satisfactory” if technical jargon is used without explanation, if relationships, causes and effects are not appropriately explained, or if the report is not clearly structured, making it difficult to understand or even unintelligible for non-specialist readers.

 

3. Factual Accuracy

The report presents the essential data and facts correctly.

This criterion examines whether a report has avoided obvious, significant errors with regard to the facts. Does it correctly replicate the main message in a study or other source used? Does it describe accurately – as far as can be verified – the events and processes, measuring procedures, or methods used in a study? Accuracy in this case does not mean objective truth or completeness. It is not necessary, for instance, to describe every aspect of a study, every event during an environmental disaster, or every single detail of a measuring procedure but the facts given must be verifiable and correspond to the sources cited.

The rating may be “not satisfactory” if patently incorrect information is presented, if identifiable contradictions or uncertainties in the data are concealed, if the report cites discernibly wrong data, figures or facts, makes wrong connections (cause > effect) or presents preliminary assumptions and risk assessments as secure knowledge.