When a state is 61 percent covered by forests and forest products ranks as a top industry, you’d expect reporters covering the state’s forest products industry to do so fairly and solicit input from a broad range of stakeholders.
Unfortunately, this was not the case in a recent, major series of reports from the Raleigh News & Observer that delved into the environmental credentials of renewable wood energy, a major component of the state’s forest products economy.
The reporting was done by two anti-forestry activists with a demonstrated bias and opposition to one of the most basic tenets of journalism: objectivity. It’s an insult to the hardworking men and women who make North Carolina an international player in the forest products industry, as well as journalism as a whole.
The North Carolina wood pellet industry has grown in recent years to fuel increasing demand for a commodity the world desperately needs: sustainable, renewable energy. Renewable wood pellets, formed from the byproducts of the forest products industry, are used to replace coal in countries across Europe and even in Asia.
It makes sense that North Carolina would be an international hub for this type of export – it is widely known for having some of the best managed forests in the world. The state’s nearly 19 million acres of forests represent one of the pillars of the North Carolina economy. Statewide, the forest products industry supports some 160,000 jobs, contributing over $29 billion to our economy, with exports abroad totaling $1.47 billion each year.
But this new series claims that the wood pellet industry is being “condemned in NC.” This raises the question, who is doing this condemning?
As it turns out, these wild claims are being made by two freelance reporters who appear to be more activists than journalists: Justin Catanoso and Saul Elbein.
Catanoso has a history of writing biased missives against renewable wood energy. In a piece he wrote in June for Mongabay, an environmental website, Catanoso claimed that wood energy was a “scam” and went so far as to state that that “Nature will not be fooled by the cooked books.” It goes further. Catanoso has a personal blog in which he’s made disparaging claims against wood bioenergy, calling it, “One of the most disturbing stories I’ve covered in recent years.”
Bias is one thing, but his partner on this project, Saul Elbein, openly rejects objectivity in journalism as a principle even worth defending. Elbein says he’s “never much cared for that ‘objectivity’ style of journalism.” He thinks being objective is “boring.”
These aren’t “reporters,” they’re activists. And while there’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with activism, we shouldn’t confuse the two.
Indeed, across more than 5,500 words in this series, they fail to acknowledge or make reference to any academic or professional reports that support wood bioenergy as a low-carbon energy source, despite the fact that there are recent reports that do so from institutions ranging from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the University of Georgia, the US Forest Service, and hundreds of top university scientists. They imply that forests in North Carolina are shrinking, when in fact they’re growing. Data from the UDSA’s Forest Inventory and Analysis service shows that the state actually gained approximately 150,000 acres of forest land over the last five years (from 2013 to 2018) – now at more than 18.7 million acres of forest land.
When individuals like Catanoso and Elbein are given a news platform, they should check their bias at the door. When they don’t, it does a disservice to readers and makes us lose trust in the news.