Climate change may be the most important issue of our time — but media coverage does not always reflect that reality. While the media has had a lot to contend with over the past few years — everything from disinformation to declining revenue has plagued newsrooms — Reuters’ “Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions 2023” still sees the media’s coverage of climate change as a core concern shaping this year’s news.
As the impacts of climate change are felt across the globe due to increasingly severe weather events, the media has come under scrutiny for their coverage. As Reuters puts it, “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.”
With the public divided over climate change, it’s increasingly difficult for journalists to understand how to approach the topic — especially when concerns about news avoidance and revenue continue to plague the profession. But 2023 may be the year that the media starts to give the subject the coverage it deserves.
Media pledges to do better
It’s not just Reuters that sees an issue with the media coverage of climate topics. Journalists acknowledge the problem and are pledging to do better. Published in September of 2022, the “Charter for upgraded journalistic practices to tackle the ecological emergency,” attracted a number of notable signatories, including the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ). The charter addresses 13 specific points and calls on reporters to:
- Cover all stories related to climate, biodiversity, and social justice in an interdisciplinary manner.
- Take an educational approach.
- Reflect on the wording and images used.
- Widen the scope of coverage.
- Investigate the causes of the current events.
- Guarantee transparency.
- Expose the strategies employed to plant seeds of doubt in the public’s mind.
- Inform on the actual solutions.
- Keep training.
- Oppose financing resulting from the most polluting activities.
- Strengthen newsrooms’ independence.
- Gear up for “low carbon” journalism.
- Cultivate cooperation.
(Take a deeper dive into the meaning of each of these by reading the charter.)
Investing in climate change coverage
The Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post is putting its money where its mouth is and significantly expanding its climate coverage team. The team has gone from just six people in 2018 to 30, signaling a — pardon the pun — sea change in climate coverage at the Post. Digiday reports, “Given the topic spans coverage areas across the newsroom, the number of people covering this beat is now ‘closer to 40,’ said climate and environment editor Zachary Goldfarb.”
While the topic may be controversial for some, at the Post, climate coverage makes sense — and cents. “The challenge, of course, is continuing to ‘grow our audience to understand the importance of the climate stories,’ Goldfarb added. ‘We do see a very large audience for climate stories already. And one of the big motives behind this expansion, and especially using all these new formats of storytelling methods, is to bring the story to a much bigger readership,’” reports Digiday.
This new, bigger team is enabling another initiative at the Post. Climate Lab will use visualizations and interactive features driven by data to tell the story in more personal and impactful ways. This is in addition to more traditional forms of storytelling, like three new columns that will share everything from advice on how to live a greener lifestyle to wildlife stories.
While the Post did not share specific numbers about the popularity of climate coverage with readers or advertisers, the demand for more coverage has been in the air since 2021. Ivy Liu reported that the BBC, Bloomberg, Financial Times, Group Nine Media, and The Economist said “advertisers are sending out more requests for publishers to pitch campaign or sponsorship opportunities around their solutions-based journalism, showing a growing interest this year in publishers’ coverage of climate and sustainability.”
In other words, it makes good business sense to put an emphasis on climate coverage.
The controversy around climate coverage
One of the problems that have plagued climate journalism is climate change denial. The media has been careful to cover “both sides” of the debate, despite the general consensus that there is no controversy — climate change is real and caused by human activity. By trying to provide balanced coverage, journalists have often been misleading and misinforming their readers.
A study from Northwestern University found that “bothsidesism” has damaged “the public’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction and lead audiences to doubt the scientific consensus…” This is true in the case of climate change as well as the efficacy of mask-wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Nanette Braun, who leads communications campaigns at the United Nations, told the European Broadcasting Union, “We see a worrying amount of mis- and disinformation. We still see climate deniers, even though the tone has shifted from overall outright denial to misleading information that is watering down the urgency of the climate crisis with the aim to delay action.”
So how do journalists tackle the topic in the current media climate? Here are a few suggestions from the United Nations:
- Avoid drama — “[The dramatic angle] will get you the clicks. But one thing I say a lot these days is, if clicks are the metric of success in environmental journalism, then we're kind of doomed because what you really want is to build an engaged back and forth with readers and with experts so that you as a medium, or journalist of a media company, become a kind of trusted guide," Andrew Revkin, an experienced environmental journalist and the founding director of the new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, told UN News.
- Treat climate as context — Rather than treating every story as a chance to illustrate the risks and impacts of climate change, it’s important to take a contextual approach. Focusing on risks in developing countries, which disproportionately feel the impacts of climate change makes sense. But in countries like the U.S., taking a solution-based mindset is more impactful. Revkin points to a calculator that lets people see how they can benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act — U.S. legislation that sets up the largest investment in combating climate change in U.S. history — without ever mentioning climate change.
- Focus on climate justice — Not all people are impacted by climate change proportionately. Nor do they all have equal access to the tools they need to be prepared for the continued onslaught of storms, floods, and other consequences of a changing climate. Journalists have a duty to tell this side of the story. Revkin points to the work of “geographer Stephen M. Strader, which examines the ‘expanding bulls-eye’ of climate hazards.” This helps draw the attention of the masses to the people and places affected disproportionately.
Climate change is complicated and so is the question of media coverage surrounding the issue. However, these guidelines — and others — can help journalists work toward a better understanding of how to tell this story in a way that is impactful and solution-oriented. This allows journalists to do what they do best; draw attention to the most important stories of our time.