Image courtesy of Extinction Rebellion Boston
Image courtesy of Extinction Rebellion Boston

Environmental zap action in front of Gov. Baker’s Swampscott home gets lots of attention with little useful context due to shrinking local press corps

Last Tuesday, the environmental groups Extinction Rebellion Boston and Sunrise Movement Boston held a protest outside Gov. Charlie Baker’s Swampscott home. Like many such zap actions, it featured a nice piece of visual schtick—an actual sailboat painted bright pink with the words CLIMATE EMERGENCY stenciled on one side in white and JUST TRANSITION on the other—aimed at attracting press with the hope of informing the Massachusetts public about the whys and wherefores of the outing.

Was it successful in getting coverage? Absolutely. A “grand slam” as I would have called it when I was running media relations for similar protests 20 years back. But was it successful in raising awareness of the governor’s role in exacerbating the climate crisis in the Bay State and beyond? I would say no. Because none of the coverage gave any background about the groups behind the protest or went into any detail about what led the groups to hold the protest to begin with

And was that failure to communicate the fault of the activists? To some extent, but it was mainly the failure of the news media to do its job and provide onlookers the information they need to make informed decisions about matters political and, in this case, environmental.

Was that very evident failure the fault of the journalists assigned to cover the story? Again, yes, to some extent. But here I must primarily blame the ongoing destruction of local news organizations by a combination of forces including the rise of the internet combined with the greed of an ever-smaller number of multinational media corporations for the poor reportage.

Something I have written about many times over the years.

How badly did the coverage fail to cover the story of the protest? Let’s put it this way: I reviewed 28 news articles on the blockade of Baker’s house to prepare to write this column. And if I put all 28 stories together into one single article, it would still be woefully inadequate coverage of a relatively simple political action.

Why? First of all, because there weren’t really 28 articles. There were nine. Local TV stations NBC 10, WHDH, WCVB, and WBZ had reporters on the scene. The Boston Globe probably didn’t, but produced the best of the iffy pieces on the protest. The Boston Herald, Associated Press, and State House News Service also covered it remotely based on press statements by activists and cops plus whatever they could glean from relevant social media. The Salem News had its courts reporter cover the arraignment of the arrested activists in Lynn District Court. Of those, only the Globe and the Salem News provided a bit more context in their coverage. Though not nearly enough.

The other 19 stories—and there were doubtless more that didn’t show up in my Google News search—mostly used parts of the AP and/or SNHS stories for their coverage. Although one of those pieces was a typical Howie Carr column in the Boston Herald using the occasion of the protest to mock “Tall Deval” (his pretty hilarious nickname for Gov. Baker) as some kind of left-winger—providing red meat for his audience of suburban reactionaries as ever.

Sadly, the only news organization actually based where the protest took place, Wicked Local/Swampscott Reporter, ran a piece clearly hastily cobbled together from AP reporting and snippets from social media accounts. And, like most of the weekly newspapers owned by the Gannett media conglomerate nationwide, the Swampscott Reporter has only one (doubtless underpaid) reporter that it calls a “senior multimedia journalist” (and no other editorial staff) focused (but not exclusively) on the town it’s named for. A reporter who is so busy just trying to keep up appearances for one of the corporations most responsible for the destruction of local news in the Commonwealth that he can’t even go cover an exciting event on his own turf in person.

So the very news outlet that would have been most likely to go deeper than any other in covering the protest—and then follow up on the story repeatedly, adding more detail each time—had some of the least complete coverage. Thrown together by an overworked journalist trying to prop up a newspaper that has long since ceased to be what it once was: An independent institution that definitely would have had at least one full-time reporter and one full-time editor able to do a more solid job of covering the town it served. Rather than barely surviving as a small cog in an infernal machine keeping advertising dollars flowing from over 100 small towns and cities just like Swampscott around Massachusetts to Gannett’s shadowy corporate owners. 

This is exactly why my colleagues at DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and I joined with the legislative sponsors of a bill to establish a Mass journalism commission to look at ways that state government can help revive proper local news coverage around the Commonwealth in the interest of democracy. A bill which passed into law in January because of a great deal of work by my crew, many fellow journalists and college journalism departments around the Bay State, the national media reform group Free Press (based in Northampton and Washington, D.C.) and, critically, the bill sponsors Rep. Lori Ehrlich (who represents both Marblehead and Swampscott) and Sen. Brendan Crighton (who represents Lynn, Lynnfield, Marblehead, Nahant, Saugus, and, yes, Swampscott).

Making what I read as the weak and incomplete reporting of an important environmental protest in Swampscott yet another reason why Rep. Ehlrich and Sen. Crighton were absolutely right to sound the alarm about the imminent collapse of local journalism when they did. And yet another example of why the journalism commission can’t get its work to help rebuild local news organizations started soon enough.

Update: 10/4/21, 1:26 p.m. – Got an email from a former Daily Item journalist pointing out that the Lynn newspaper (owned by Essex Media Group) actually did the best story of all. Apologies for missing it, but glad it proves my point: We need to figure out how to keep local news outletsideally good independent local news outletsafloat in the democratic interest. Read the piece here!

Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Contact for more information. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2021 Jason Pramas.