The climate crisis is on everyone’s mind. But journalists have an extra burden when it comes to the biggest challenge of our time: telling the story. Traditionally, this has been a tough topic to tackle because it is big, complex, and even polarizing. However, the media seems to have turned the corner when it comes to climate coverage — learning how to walk the fine line between doom and gloom, education, and impact.
Climate coverage: How it started
Reuters’ “Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions 2023” report reminds us that media hasn’t always achieved the right tone when it comes to climate coverage: “The news media are routinely criticized for covering these stories breathlessly, without joining up the wider dots or following through on the lasting consequences. Others argue that the media have too often treated climate as a discrete subject, rather than as an integral part of wider political and economic decision-making.”
Meanwhile, attempts to present “both sides” of the climate story have ultimately led to a credibility problem and audiences with a distorted perception of the issues at hand. A Northwestern University study “found that false-balance reporting can make people doubt the scientific consensus on issues like climate change, sometimes making them wonder if an issue is even worth taking seriously.”
With the problems clearly articulated, the media has taken note and is adjusting accordingly.
Climate coverage: How it’s going
Better coverage of the climate crisis takes many shapes, but there are some overarching goals. An EBU News report, “Climate Journalism that Works: Between Knowledge and Impact” suggests journalists must help “audiences find the facts, understand the magnitude of this crisis, and discover opportunities to act.” For many organizations, that means dedicating resources to climate coverage.
The Reuters report found that 49% of respondents have created a climate team. Among them is The Washington Post. Speaking at Aspen Ideas: Climate, Sally Buzzbee, executive editor, explained why the Post developed a “Climate Solutions” section. “We’re trying to actually capture what we see as a change in the audience and push that forward to what journalism is needed now,” said Buzzbee.
In order to provide the kind of journalism the world needs now, Austrian publishers “recently got together to create a set of guidelines for newsrooms including the accurate use of language, coverage of solutions as well as problems, separation of fact and opinion, and the creation of resources and structures to support better coverage across disciplines,” according to Reuters. In practice, that’s translating into bigger staffs and a wider lens through which the media is examining the climate crisis.
One of the key ways editorial teams are rethinking how they cover environmental issues is by recognizing the need to find the climate angle in every beat. As the EBU News report puts it, “the protection of our planet and our lives must be the frame through which all of journalism operates—just as it is with democracy or human rights.” And the media has gotten the message. Reuters found 44% of respondents are “integrating dimensions of the climate debate into other coverage (e.g. business and sport).”
Making climate coverage a priority isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s good business. Buzzbee said that she’s seen a shift in recent years and that audiences are hungry for this kind of coverage. On the same panel, Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, said that climate coverage is a revenue driver. In fact, The Guardian noticed readers often donate to the publicly supported organization immediately after consuming content about climate change.
Significantly, organizations like The Guardian also seem to understand the importance of establishing credibility by walking the walk when it comes to climate. Reuters found that 33% of news executives say they have taken steps in the last year to improve sustainability. For some, that means reducing their carbon footprint and putting out a sustainability report. At The Guardian, Viner said they have committed to no longer taking ad dollars from fossil fuel companies, to show readers “we mean what we say.”
Opportunities remain for climate coverage
As the media finally finds firmer footing on this topic, it’s only natural to wonder what’s next. Well, there are still challenges to be met. “People from the climate units keep telling us, the gatekeepers at the news desk pay lip service, but they don’t really get it,” Mark Hertsgaard, Executive Director and Co-Founder at Covering Climate Now, told EBU. “They still think it is optional.”
This may be changing as more newsrooms put together climate teams and instruct every desk to look for climate-related angles to the stories they tell. Still, to break through the noise, journalists should think about better ways to tell those stories. Other Reuters research found that“more people say they pay attention to documentaries (39%) than to major news organizations (33%) for information about this topic. This is the case across all markets in the aggregate, as well as across age groups.” This suggests that there is an opportunity for long-form content that takes the time to deep dive into the intricacies and nuances of climate science. If a documentary is out of the question, think about other visually compelling ways to tell the story.
Reuters also states that, “audiences express more interest, pay more attention to climate change news, and feel more inclined to support journalists taking a stand in places where the direct impacts of climate change are acutely felt.” This makes sense. However, it may also suggest that driving home the story requires journalists to find the local angle. That makes it the role of local journalists especially important in this fight.
Moving forward, news organizations cannot afford to fumble the ball on climate change. Whether you look at it from an ethical or an economic point of view, finding ways to reach audiences with environmental stories is a must for every editor.