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IonE Webinar: What the Media Gets Right—and Wrong—in Climate Coverage

Though media coverage of climate change has improved significantly in recent years, it still fails to adequately convey the scale of the crisis, according to five expert panelists at a webinar hosted earlier this month by the Institute on the Environment (IonE) at the University of Minnesota.

Webinar host and IonE Associate Director Todd Reubold, pointed to a January article in Heated, journalist Emily Atkin’s acclaimed climate newsletter, as the initial spark for the conversation about what media get right and wrong in their coverage. In the piece, I’m a Climate Journalist, Demand More from Me, Atkin contended that coverage of climate change is not improving fast enough to keep up with the severity of the situation.

“The climate crisis is a failure of systems,” she wrote, “and one of those systems is journalism.”

More recently, however, Bob Lalasz, founder of Science+Story, published a piece urging climate advocates to avoid heavy discussion of climate issues while the world is “falling apart around us”: in the current moment, he argued, there is only room for insights that are “hyper-relevant” to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the webinar, panelists dug into the tension between these contrasting viewpoints, and how climate journalism can continue to improve while navigating news cycles that are dominated by COVID-19.

February 2020 ended a recent period of dramatic increases in climate reporting, said Max Boykoff, Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy at University of Colorado Boulder. The university’s Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO), which monitors 126 news sources from across 56 countries, initially observed a 73% rise in climate coverage worldwide from 2018 to 2019, then documented a 36% drop from February into March of this year. The total coverage for March 2020 amounted to an 18% decrease year over year.

In the initial surge in climate coverage, MeCCO identified improvements in the quality of the reporting. Stories that were more focused on substantive issues “from sources, to impacts, to solutions” were on the rise, said Boykoff. Yet despite this turn toward “productive ways” of covering climate issues, “we’ve still seen a lot of chasing Donald Trump, and chasing administrative negligence and rollbacks,” he noted—an approach that tends to entrench climate conversation along partisan lines, while skirting discussion of more substantive issues.

Meteorologist Eric Holthaus, a climate columnist with The Correspondent, said he finds COVID-19 reporting clarifying, as the pandemic is seeing the kind of coverage he believes climate change should have been getting all along.

“Climate change is the main story of this century,” Holthaus stressed, and our actions in the face of it may determine “whether or not we exist as a global civilization” in 50 or 100 years. Against such dire consequences, he added, current coverage seems very lacking. With COVID-19, however, we’re seeing nearly every news story on every topic fed back into discussion of the pandemic—just as it should be with climate crisis reporting.

To cover climate stories effectively, Holthaus said journalists need to get better at communicating that “climate change is a symptom—it’s not really the cause of what’s all going on.” To reach the cause, reporters must tell the story in a systematic way, addressing questions like the structure of capitalism and the legacies of European colonialism. But, he notes, it is rare to see climate covered in this way.

Climate reporting does, however, have an expertise advantage over pandemic coverage, said Kendra Pierre-Louis, climate reporter for the New York Times. Papers like hers tend to assign journalists with deep expertise to write on the issue, while COVID-19 coverage has been “all hands on deck,” using editors and writers “who don’t necessarily understand epidemiology or statistics.” She noted, though, that climate journalists need to consider the gap between the various platforms that citizens use to consume news.

“The media is not just one entity,” she said. “Print is very different from TV, and as much as I like to think that everybody is a regular reader of the New York Times, a lot of people still get most of their news from TV.”

Amy Westervelt, editor in chief of Drilled News, echoed this point, highlighting a recent story in the Columbia Journalism Review that exposed considerable pipeline activity taking place below the radar in areas that are “news deserts”—geographies that receive little attention from national journalists. “The only thing that’s going to help is to forge some kind of partnership between larger outlets and local reporters,” she said, although “the legacy of competition in media” can complicate this networking process.

A positive recent development in climate journalism is the telling of different types of climate stories, added Westervelt. “I can’t remember seeing so many personal essays on climate change, nor so many people covering it and feeding it into their analysis,” she said. But she still noted many occasions when she finishes reading a story and thinks, “Do they not know that there are experts who study this?” While climate journalists are effective at finding physicists and climate scientists, she says, they often forget about “the social and political side.”

Westervelt rejected the ideas that climate coverage should avoid comparisons with COVID-19, or that readers only have room for one disaster at a time.

“The fossil fuel industry wasted absolutely no time to leverage this pandemic for all kinds of policy requests and stimulus requests—and so this idea that somehow it’s too ideological to talk about climate right now seem really silly to me,” she said. “It plays into whether we survive one day to the next, and it’s laying the groundwork for future pandemics.”

Pierre-Louis agreed that climate and COVID-19 coverage are compatible, as the two crises compound each other. In the Los Angeles area, firefighter training and brush clearing have been suspended as physical distancing measures prevent fire teams from meeting. Earlier climate action could also have saved lives during this pandemic.

“The reason Black and Hispanic people are dying of COVID-19 at a higher rate is because of PM2.5 pollution—they are living downwind from plants that are also associated with climate change,” Pierre-Louis said. She urged journalists to reveal these relationships now, as they happen—“because later on, we’re going to want to forget the pain and horror that we lived through, and we’re not going to be in a place to make those connections.”

If anything, the pandemic has raised the stakes of the climate crisis, added Holthaus. “Our decisions right now will have decades of ramifications in terms of public policy, as well as the stories we tell, as well as life-and-death situations among the most vulnerable people in society.” Governments need to be thinking long-term as well as short-term as they throw “trillions of dollars into a bailout plan,” he said.

The panelists also agreed that there is a particular need to highlight stories from marginalized people, both in terms of COVID-19 and the climate crisis. “Climate change is a threat multiplier,” said Boykoff. “So COVID-19 is a way in to thinking very carefully about institutional structural inequalities.”

Westervelt added that she’d like to hear the viewpoints of more Indigenous writers, rather than “siloing” these writers into talking about pipelines and land rights. Voices from the Global South, which is disproportionately affected by climate change, are also critical, added Pierre-Louis. “Because of the legacies of colonialism, these communities often have the least resources to adapt [to climate change].”

Holthaus said his publication is trying for a “transnational approach” to these issues, telling climate stories “that are common across countries.” The goal is to shift the needle away from stories that make divisive distinctions between the climate policies of different countries, in order to focus on “stories that are happening everywhere—stories that can be told from multiple viewpoints.” The Correspondent seeks out voices from the Global South, rather than telling the stories on their behalf. “It would be great to see more legacy publications and cable TV outlets adopting this kind of approach,” he said.

The youth voice is also important, added Boykoff. His university is running a creative project called Inside the Greenhouse, “where we are trying to help younger people make sense of the challenges around them—to recognize that they don’t have to get a PhD in physics before they can bring their perspective to bear.” #FridaysForFuture founder Greta Thunberg is demonstrating how powerful this kind of grassroots storytelling can be, he said.

Addressing how to report on an issue she cares deeply about in a world “where journalists and academics are expected to adopt the professional persona of unbiased neutral observers,” Westervelt said she never says anything she can’t back up with reporting. “If you present a bunch of evidence and then just say, ‘Make up your own mind,’ then how are you any better than a tape recorder?” she asked.

To Holthaus, commitment and reporting are not in conflict. “I think what’s needed as a journalist, or as a person that’s alive today, is just truth-telling,” he said. His strategy is to stay focused on the science, and the conclusions of the science. The IPCC’s 1.5°C pathways report in 2018, for example, “proposes a sort of a world view that is far beyond anything that would be even remotely considered mainstream political dialogue in the United States.”

Turning back to the COVID-19 crisis, panelists listed lessons they are learning from covering the pandemic. Back in February, reading early reports from Europe on social media, Pierre-Louis found herself buying extra food and other goods. “The whole time I was saying to myself, ‘You’re crazy’—I was doing it against every fibre of my being,” she said. But because she trusted the people she was hearing from, she continued her preparations.

“The allegory is that there were smart people warning us quite some time in advance that it was coming for us, and we were still wildly unprepared,” she said.

Boykoff called the pandemic “a period of accelerated learning,” adding that there is a chance society is developing a “greater respect and humility for the things we don’t know.” But while he senses a “newfound appreciation for the role of government, for the role of early action,” COVID-19 also reveals a “hollowing out” of institutions that should be critical to addressing crises like the pandemic.

“I think we’re learning that we are able to do things we thought were impossible just days previously,” said Holthaus. He recalled a recent interview with a former U.S. Navy rear admiral who said that while training drills and game theory can help participants prepare for the worst, “we also need to be prepared for what he called ‘catastrophic success’—which is to say that sometimes a window opens to create that revolutionary change that benefits everyone.”

To act as catalysts for that change, climate journalists must focus on building larger political constituencies, and avoid the trap of “preaching to the choir,” the panelists agreed. Westervelt pointed to the many “on-ramps” to the climate movement that don’t necessarily involve being convinced by the science itself. As an example, she highlighted a recent episode of her Drilled podcast that profiled a community of crab fishermen who launched a groundbreaking lawsuit against Big Oil—despite the fact that “half of them don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change.”

Pierre-Louis added that it is important for journalists to keep the goal of constituency-building in mind as they write. Before working at the Times, she was a writer for Popular Science magazine, which is very well-read in predominantly conservative states such as Texas and Florida. In writing for that audience, she learned that how her readers will interpret information is “ambiguous.” News of a regulatory rollback, for example, could be read as positive or negative, depending on the reader’s political beliefs—which underscores the importance of saying why an issue such as increased air pollution might be bad. Explaining the real-world effects can help the audience avoid reading information “through the filter of their own biases,” she said.

Holthaus agreed that how you tell the story can change the outcome—and it is especially important to find ways to unite communities. The politically conservative oil state of Texas, for example, has become the “number one wind producing state,” something that would not have been possible without everyone being onboard.

“It doesn’t matter how you come to this conversation,” said Holthaus. “It just matters that you’re here, that you’re willing to participate in doing what needs to be done.”