Ten tips for covering biofuels  

Based on discussions with journalism students and faculty at the University of Missouri,
the University of Nebraska and Concordia (Montreal), 2007 - 2011.

By Bill Kovarik, wkovarik@radford.edu (Photo by Bill Kovarik Sao Paulo Brazil 2005).

1.  Seek the truth. In biofuels as in many other scientific controversies, charges and countercharges are often made by partisans.  As a journalist, your job is to get beyond the sound bites and to define and analyze the issues.  Avoid “false balance” and “he said – she said” reporting by taking the time to understand the issue.  In the words of Atlanta editor Ralph McGill, don’t let rigid objectivity get in the way of the truth.   Sometimes one side has a lot less credibility than another. That becomes obvious when you spend the time learning the beat. 

2. Public interest is the bottom line. During the Civil Rights movement, many people in the media realized that there was a public interest in a vision of a South that was “too busy to hate.”  The public interest was the median for coverage and the bottom line of excellence. To objectively report equally on racist propaganda, alongside the eloquent educational effort for reform, would have been a hollow exercise of duty but not conscience. Where is the ultimate loyalty? McGill and progressive Southern editors saw it in the long view of the public interest.

Similarly, there is a public interest in a vision of long-term environmental stability, and there are similar challenges.  Unfortunately, hate speech has become normal in the environmental debate, just as it was during the civil rights movement, and similar issues of credibility and taste are in play. But the social interest in clarifying the issues is too important for journalists to be distracted by hate speech.

3. Consider the source.  While industry trade groups have glowing things to say about ethanol and biodiesel, its important not to take them at face value. Check with credible  authorities, especially scientists and non-partisan researchers.  But avoid vitriolic comments. Remember, we are “watchdogs,” not attack dogs and not lap dogs.

4. Set a full public interest agenda.  If you find yourself sniping from the sidelines or reporting on staged events, back up and evaluate the whole field. Who are the main actors? What are their goals and obstacles? How do they support (or fail to support) the public interest? Use your own initiative to explore the whole field. Find local scientists and engineers whose voices have not yet been heard, for example, through the Web of Science or the Science Citation Index.     

5. Learn the technology and history of your subject. 

• For instance, just because ethanol has 2/3 the btus of gasoline doesn’t mean the fuel tank has to be bigger, since ethanol is a more efficient fuel. 
•  Just because the vapor pressure is higher than some winter gasoline doesn’t mean that ethanol pollutes more than gasoline. Evaporative emissions are only one type of emission. Others include C0, HC, NOx, and air toxics.
• Superficial market costs do not reflect real costs of production, internal or external.
* The history of biofuels goes back to the earliest days of the automobile. Ethanol, methanol and vegetable oil fuels have long been known as top quality for IC and diesel engines when used appropriately, but technological sniping by oil and auto companies created unfavorable impressions in the past. Some of those impressions still linger.

6. Understand the whole context of the issue. Understand that there are critics who insist on considering issues by the slice rather than in their whole context. Reporters should understand that “the perfect” is not the enemy of “the good.” 

• Alcohols are anti-knock additives that replace benzene and lead.  Even if evaporative emissions are higher, or NOx tends to be slightly higher, biofuels in context are far less polluting in terms of CO, HC, air toxics and other emissions.
• Another context issue for biofuels is the idea that ethanol demand will use up all cropland.  Ethanol use from corn only involves the starch and leaves protein in the form of distillers grains.
• Also, anti-knock additives represent only a percentage of the overall fuel supply and don’t necessarily represent a threat to all crops.  It is the second generation of biofuels from cellulosic biomass that is seen as replacing petroleum.
•  Yet the “food or fuel” problem is a serious one because energy is now competing for food land and resources on a broad international scale.  

7. Help your editors find enthusiasm for telling  “the story of the century.”  Environmental and energy technologies are the most important stories of our lifetimes, and we have to tell the story with accuracy, insight and power. You need your editor’s support to be able to do that.  Show her / him that there are real people with real issues at stake. Find those people and tell their stories. 

8. Never lack sympathy with the poor.  This is one of Joseph Pulitzer’s most important aphorisms that doesn’t get repeated enough. Biofuels impacts on the poor, like impacts of any technology, can be both good or bad, or some of both, depending on the circumstances.

On the one hand, sugarcane biofuels present industry with a new way to force Peruvian farmers off the land, and journalists who have written about this are aware of the outrage. On the other hand, oilseed biofuels are being raised in Haiti by people who would have no other job, working on lands that are so poor they would grow no other crop. Journalists who have written about this can make it seem like the answer to prayers. Some say biofuels are "killing more people than the Iraq war." Others say a biofuels industry could create jobs for millions in developing nations where solar energy is abundant and the labor costs for collecting it are low, and this could save millions of lives.

Obviously, journalists need to approach the issue with patience, with an aversion to hyperbole, and with a certain posture of humility in the fact of extraordinary complexity.

9. Recognize the international scope of the story --  There are those who say the biofuels industry could become an international nightmare for the environment, and they point to instances where Brazilian or Indonesian rain forests have been cut down for sugarcane or palm oil plantations.  Yet the European Union is far ahead of the US in debating the sustainability standards for bioenergy. These standards will be the basis of tax incentives and disincentives, and they are taking the debate in a useful and positive direction, rather than in the highly charged and politically conflated directions that distract the US from serious debate. 

10. Professional networks are treasures.  Specialized associations like the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers can be an enormous help. Experienced reporters are happy to share their insights. Both SEJ and NASW have contests for great writing and annual conferences where issues are discussed. 

Other important associations include the Canadian Science Writers Association and the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.

Also don’t neglect general associations, especially the Society of Professional Journalists

A final note -- Don’t be afraid to be humble. We in the news media have so much to be humble about. Go ahead, ask the dumb question. Don’t worry about calling back for clarification.  Read parts of your story back to sources.These are things that careful reporters should do.

Kipling may have said that “a good reporter is a work of God” --  but think about the flip side of that statement -- what Kipling didn't say.


For more on ethanol history see:

SEJ has tip sheets on several ethanol controversies. Check  http://www.sej.org Also see http://www.sej.org/pub/index1.htm and search for ethanol. 


The Fuel of the Future Society of Automotive Historians paper by Bill Kovarik

The Forbidden Fuel by Hal Bernton, Bill Kovarik and Scott Sklar

Slideshow about ethanol history