When climate journalism hits the wall – what are the challenges in climate reporting?

From a media perspective, one of the most pressing questions when it comes to climate change is how to go about reporting responsibly on topics which are routinely frightening, intractable and depressing. Yet, at the same time, climate journalism is not only influential, but plays a central role in getting the climate emergency under control.

That was the starting position of The Energy Mix, a free e-digest of curated content on climate change, energy, and the transition to a low-carbon future based in Canada, which recently hosted an online panel discussion of media experts on the topic.

The panel included Anna Hiatt, Executive Editor, Covering Climate Now, New York; Megan Darby, Editor, Climate Home News, London, UK; Alex Kirby, Co-Founder, Climate News Network, Brighton and Hove, UK; Greg Overmonds, Director, Marketing & Communications, Vancity Community Investment Bank, Toronto; Binnu Jeyakumar, Director, Clean Energy, Pembina Institute, Calgary; Steve Winkelman, Executive Director, Ottawa Climate Action Fund, Ottawa; and the moderator, Mitchell Beer, Publisher, The Energy Mix, Ottawa.

Big improvements in reporting, but big gaps still to fill

Quoting Al Jazeera’s Giles Trendle, Anna Hiatt of Covering Climate Now opened the discussion by speaking about the “tyranny of the immediate” and how it becomes a barrier to climate reporting. “How can we ensure in newsrooms that we are asking every day: ‘what is our climate story today?’” she said.

Alex Kirby of the Climate News Network agreed. Although world-changing events like Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine – the levelling of cities, mass destruction and death – rightly capture our attention, that could also be happening on a larger scale with the climate threat. Yet, “People understandably pay attention to what is immediately dangerous,” he said.

Greg Overmonds of Vancity Community Investment Bank is impressed with the increasing use of data and strong storytelling in climate coverage. “These hand in hand are some of the great successes of the past several years, something I notice as a marketer,” he said. “It’s good to see that effective combination of qualitative and quantitative storytelling to convey the urgency.”

Nonetheless, in his perspective, there remains a lot of scepticism towards corporations who are genuinely trying and succeeding to move the needle. “There’s so much greenwashing, it’s hard to be heard by media outlets – even when you’re doing good work,” he said. In his view, because the media business model is still somewhat dependent on ad revenue, this means that the things that drive traffic – the good news pieces that come from climate firms – don’t get as much attention. 

More diversity of perspective needed

Something else that occupied panellists is the often-invisible voices of people in the Global South or parts of the world most severely affected by climate change.

Binnu Jeyakumar of the Pembina Institute pointed to the increasing use of factchecking, data and visualisation to tell good climate stories, but noted a gap in which stories are still dominated by industry voices that are quite established, and in a “white colonial context,” she said.

“How can we represent voices that you wouldn’t find on page one of your Google search?” she added. “We need to bring in voices from the global south, women in energy sector, BIPOC – will help fill out the picture better.”

Megan Darby of Climate Home News described her organisation’s aim to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. “Part of our job is amplifying the voices of people who are most vulnerable to the impacts, and being hit by them now,” she explained.

“We draw the dots between the high-carbon lifestyles of people like most of us in this audience, probably, and taking on vested interests – and we try to resist the (hopefully going-out-of-fashion) journalistic tradition of ‘both sides-ing’ things. There are not two equal sides in climate change, there is only following the evidence – which points towards burning fossil fuels.”

Keeping the message simple

Another issue, pointed out by Steve Winkelman of the Ottawa Climate Action Fund, is that stories about climate change are often too complex for people to understand. “We’re terrible wonks in this industry,” he said. “And the public is still not great at understanding of all aspects of climate change.”

It’s great that people care more about reducing unnecessary plastic like straws, for instance, but there are bigger issues that require more attention. “We need to keep it simple for the public: prevent and prepare,” Winkelman advised. “There is still a shocking level of climate illiteracy. It’s wonderful to reuse your plastic bags, but buildings and transportation are ultimately the worst offenders. We need simple messages: electrify your vehicles and drive less.”

Climate change is abrupt and irreversible …

The challenge of getting the message out there in ways that will actually lead to action is very difficult to surmount, the panellists agreed.

One reason for this is that “A lot of people still think climate change is something that is neither abrupt nor irreversible, when in fact it is both,” said Alex Kirby. “It deals in tipping points. The workings of connected earth systems could be thrown completely out of kilter.”

His organisation Climate News Network has therefore tried to report in a way that conveys this urgency. In August 2020, for example, they wrote that climate science’s worst-case scenario isn’t just an awful warning, but describes what is happening right now. “I think this helps to focus attention,” he said.

… But hope comes with action

To end, the panel discussed bright spots on the horizon, and how to build hope into their reporting.

“Scary coverage tends to turn people off,” said Anna Hiatt. “As a journalist, hope is an essential ingredient that I try to hold on to, and which I try to encourage other people to have. Otherwise, we’ll not be able to address this as we need to.”

“We should think of journalism as empowering our audiences to act,” Megan Darby said to end. “Hope comes with action. We used to think of climate change as being something that the experts would fix without ordinary people having to do much. But everybody has a role to play. Informing people and giving them the tools to play that role and be thoughtful about it is one of the most important things journalists can do.”

“We need to guide people through the journey, so that when a [climate] report comes along they are not scared and paralysed into inaction and thinking they cannot do anything,” agreed Greg Overmonds.

Watch the full webinar here.


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