The Best Beat in American Journalism: Covering the Florida Environment

Craig Pittman and Rebecca Renner in conversation with Eve Samples

by Michele Nereim

 

No, Craig Pittman and Rebecca Renner didn’t roar up on an airboat, driving the Greedy Developer into the karmic jaws of an American crocodile (à la Hiaasen), but that was the energy they brought to the stage in their talk, “The Best Beat in American Journalism: Covering the Florida Environment.” Pittman called out Florida’s politicians with their “brave promises” and cheap “lip service” paid to environmental issues (lest they upset their corporate contributors), resulting in political action like 2020’s Clean Waterways Act: legislation “like one of my Panhandle grandmas,” Pittman quipped. “No teeth.” Plus, political pageantry like the millions of dollars in romaine lettuce dumped into the Indian River Lagoon, the superficial response to the manatee “mortality event” that sidestepped the real issue starving the manatees–the death of thousands of acres of seagrass. “We’re treating the symptoms here in Florida,” Pittman said, “and not the root cause.”

Pittman and Renner reaffirmed the vital role of the environmental journalist, reaching through the spinning, bureaucratic murk to grip the bad actors by the ankles, holding them in accountability for the broader Florida population to see. Both writers spoke of the people (outside the capitol offices and developer dens) as aligned with environmental interests, poised for galvanization. The writers spoke of the push in Titusville to make clean water a human right, of how the citizens of Pinellas County showed up in force to stop Walmart from rezoning a local property and dozing their mangrove forests. Renner held up the groundbreaking work of indigenous people, spearheading a movement to recognize and legally enshrine the inherent rights of nature itself, rights to protectorship, health, existence. But our hiaasean villains know the power of good local and investigative journalists, would like to see them go the way of the Endangered Species List. “Thousands upon thousands of journalism jobs have been lost in the state of Florida over the past 20 years,” Pittman warned. “That’s not an exaggeration.” A valuable institution increasingly replaced by corporate-controlled, politician-friendly coverage of low-stakes news stories. The state of journalism itself, another corrupted system requiring the bright beam of the journalist’s Maglight.

Sometimes environmental journalists have the beautiful job of simply reminding us that our wilds are a treasure and that we’re capable of doing good for them, as with the success story of the American crocodile. Anticipating the fears of an audience who remembers Steve Irwin, leaping like a spidermonkey onto massive, thrashing saltwater crocs, Renner described the salty’s smaller American cousin, a shy species, “medium-sized lizards” (typically no larger than our American alligator). When she’d spot a crocodile during her research trips, the great reptile would slip away, quick as he’d appeared, minding his own business. Previously driven to endangered status, the crocodile has flourished alongside successful mangrove conservation efforts and has even returned to its “ancestral land” north of the Keys.

 

Michele Nereim has her PhD in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston and works as a teacher in The Villages, Florida. She was a recipient of a 2024 Teacher & Librarian Scholarship.

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