"What you do professionally is enormously important to the nation," MIT President Charles M. Vest told a gathering of environmental reporters Friday morning, Oct. 27, in Kresge Auditorium, at the official opening of the Fifth National Conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ).
David Ropeik of WCVB-TV, the 1995 conference chair, and Emilia Askara of the Detroit Free Press, SEJ board chairman, who introduced Dr. Vest, opened the session and thanked MIT for acting as host.
The conference, which was highlighted by the appearance of Vice President Albert Gore on Saturday evening, drew some 500 of the SEJ's more than 1,100 members to a wide range of activities.
The purpose of the organization, Mr. Ropeik said, is to increase the quality and quantity of information the public is getting about environmental issues.
In his welcoming remarks, Dr. Vest noted that more than 100 faculty members are engaged in some significant way in environmental issues.
He also formally announced the formation of the Alliance for Global Sustainability (Tech Talk, Oct. 25), in which MIT, the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology and the University of Tokyo will work together with other organizations to develop new technologies, provide "fundamental advances" through research and identify policy directions that will encourage economic development while preserving and enhancing the environment.
Later in the conference, the Alliance and the MIT News Office were hosts to about 250 journalists and faculty members at a reception that provided an opportunity for informal discussions on environmental research.
Dr. Vest then introduced Dr. Mario J. Molina, professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences and of chemistry, one of three environmental scientists awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry for showing that human activities can imperil the fragile ozone layer that protects the earth from the ultraviolet radiation of the sun.
Dr. Molina said the accomplishment was the "joint effort of many scientists and environmentalists" who started out by warning of the danger and then participating in the solution.
"Government representatives, scientists, industrialists, all working together, created an important precedent as to how environmental problems can be solved," he said.
His parting words to the journalists acknowledged the difficulty they face "in exciting the public about the challenges" posed by environmental issues, but he also warned of the "danger of backlash if the media exaggerates."
That proved to be one of the principal points in a lively panel discussion moderated by former Massachusetts governor and Democratic president candidate Michael J. Dukakis.
The focus of this opening plenary session on "Environment and the Mood of America" was a 1995 poll-a "national environmental forum"-conducted by Roper Starch for the Times Mirror Magazines Conservation Council.
Dr. David B. Rockland, the council's executive director, summarized the poll, reporting that not only are the media thought to be doing only a fair job of informing Americans about the environment, but that more than one American in three says the media make environmental situations appear "worse than they really are."
Nevertheless, he said, the public's appetite for environmental information is growing, despite-or perhaps due to-the perceived lack of quality information supplied or the spin that is often associated with current coverage.
Picking up on this theme, panelist Malcolm Wallop, former Republican senator from Wyoming, said that "success is not a story, so we constantly get an apocalyptic view. The public gets anxious and is never told that these things didn't happen, so there is anxiety."
Ellen Goodman, Boston Globe syndicated columnist, said there is "tremendous confusion about what's going on." Reporting on the environment is both "apocalyptic and anti-apocalyptic," she said, "but we don't see what's true."
Media critic Bud Ward said there had been improvements, but these may prove "very ephemeral. It can change with the next environmental disaster."
Dr. Henry W. Kendall, J.A. Stratton Professor of Physics, Nobel laureate and head of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that "in spite of over-reporting occasionally," there is "broad understanding of environmental issues."
Meanwhile, he said, there are "deep, underlying pressures on the environment and some are acute. He named three "unsustainable areas:" food shortages, air pollution and procreation.
Later, during a question and answer period, Professor Kendall said the situation was made particularly difficult because of its universality. "We are very slowly learning how to deal with international issues," he said. "The human race does not know how to deal with large-scale international problems."
Carol Browner, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, said the "issues we are dealing with are much more complex. We have clearly made progress. but challenges now are more difficult. The public wants more protection."
She was critical of the current Congress for not providing the "tools or resources" needed to do the job. The work of the EPA had been "severely restricted," she said, and there was insufficient discussion in Congress of bills and environmental policy.
Among other comments:
David Bartlett, president of the Radio and Television News Directors Association: "We are not very good at assessing the mood of the country. Opinion polls do not show what people will act upon. People are willing to say what should be done, but not what they're willing to sacrifice."
Robert Bullard, director of the Center for Environmental Justice at Clark University in Atlanta: In environmental matters, "there are differences between what white people see and black people see." As an example, lead poisoning has been largely solved, but not in the inner cities.
Michael Dukakis: "The environmental story is not being covered on TV," from which a majority of the public gets its news.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 1, 1995.