I’ve been an environmental activist for a while, which means I’ve had occasion to be interviewed a time or two. I’ve also read a lot of environmental reporting. And I’ve seen All the President’s Men, as did just about everyone in my generation who went on to major in journalism and become a reporter.
I am a fan of the men and women of the Fourth Estate. Going out and getting the story, informing the public and thereby helping democracy to thrive, is a noble vocation. So this should be considered a gentle critique.
Lately, the journalistic method often seems to consist of the reporter interviewing subjects involved in the story, making sure the statements of opposing sides are represented in rough proportion, and writing an inevitable variation on he-said, she-said.
I’m sure omnipresent deadlines are a factor in how deeply a story gets reported, not to mention decisions that must be made by editors about how much money to pour into a reporter’s quest to dig up everything they can.
But reporters who report on land use issues have an advantage. If they want to go beyond the clash of opinions, they don’t need to wear out shoe leather tracking down suppressed memos and filing Freedom of Information Act requests. When a major development project is announced and starts heading for a permit hearing, all the reporter needs to do to get the story, in addition to asking project opponents and proponents what they think, is tap a keyboard a few times and pull up a document called an environmental impact report (EIR).
If a development project were a patient, the EIR would be its full medical history—all the tests, X-rays, full body scans, bone marrow density, and courses of treatment. They tend to clock in close to a thousand pages in length, and some could occupy several feet on a library shelf. The California Environmental Quality Act requires a high degree of thoroughness, and very long and expensive documents are the result. Everything anyone could want to know about the project—how it relates to all other current and proposed development in the area, what its impacts on the environment would be, what mitigation measures could reduce those impacts, and what impacts cannot be reduced by mitigation measures and why—is all there, in granular detail.
And though they look daunting, their indexing is equally thorough, so it’s not that hard to get to the section that has the information you need. (And while the environmental consultants who write EIRs may sometimes choose to interpret data in a way that makes an impact seem less harmful and makes life easier for the developer, no environmental consultant has ever massaged the data to make a project look like it will inflict more harm than it actually would.)
Last November, The Tribune in San Luis Obispo published a story on the Dana Reserve development in Nipomo headlined, “SLO County housing development could add 1,289 homes. Why are neighbors opposed to it?” The Dana Reserve is a historically large project, with, as I’ve noted previously, massive environmental impacts. The story was appropriately long. The reporters interviewed Nick Tompkins, the developer, who is in favor of the project as designed, and local residents opposed to it, and a county planner who likes the idea of fulfilling the county’s “above moderate income” housing requirement at one shot. They all made their arguments in roughly equal proportion.
At no point in that long story did the term “environmental impact report” appear. As a result, statements like this simply skated by:
• The developer said “he will mitigate the loss of these oak trees by planting about 1,500 new oak trees on the property, and conserving a tract of oaks on a ridge several miles from the development. He will also preserve 1,552 oak trees already on the property.”
• Referring to a much less impactful design alternative, the developer said “the county rejected this plan, however, because some of the homes were too close to the freeway by San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District standards.”
• “Critics are also concerned about how the Dana Reserve project would impact traffic.” But the developer said he’ll implement measures that “will offset many of the circulation problems.”
• And “a member of the San Luis Obispo County chapter of the Native Plant Society doesn’t agree with Tompkins’ conservation methods.”
But in fact, those “conservation methods” were analyzed and discarded in the EIR because they won’t work. And residents are concerned about how the project will impact traffic because the EIR makes it clear that no amount of mitigating measures would reduce the significance of the project’s traffic impacts. And the EIR tells a different story—several, in fact—about why the less impactful alternative design was rejected.
I know that reporters prefer interviewing people and writing down their statements, and this puts the average thousand-page environmental document at a disadvantage. But when reporters have the facts at their fingertips and ignore them in favor of opinions, thereby making opinions sound like facts and vice versa, they are reporting the conflict, but they are not reporting the story.
Andrew Christie is the director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Respond with a letter to [email protected].