Expertise of Climate Change Communication Researchers Needed in #CoveringClimateNow
On Tuesday the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation jointly announced a new project, “Covering Climate Change: A New Playbook for a 1.5-Degree World,” with the goal of improving climate change reporting among U.S. media with a one-day town hall in New York City at the Columbia Journalism School.
In the interest of not contributing carbon-emissions by traveling from Chicago to New York, I followed along via the event’s live-stream, an archive of which is available on YouTube. In an important element of user-generated content, London-based freelance environmental journalist Juan Mayorga provided Spanish translation via Twitter.
One theme of the day was that climate change is the context for all sorts of stories, not just ones about climate science. “Climate is not a story,” said panelist and author Naomi Klein. “It is the backdrop for all of our other stories. It is life.”
Familiar Critiques, Heightened Urgency
The #CoveringClimateNow project is well-timed and needed. It’s long overdue, for that matter. The IPCC’s special report on 1.5 °C warming in the fall, along with the U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment, again sounded the alarm on climate change. Media coverage of climate change in relation to extreme weather events in 2018, from heat waves to wildfires, or the lack thereof, elicited public discussion, especially commentary that media outlets weren’t doing enough to draw connections to climate change. NPR Public Editor Elizabeth Jensen opined on factors that continue to make climate change a challenge for journalists to cover, particularly for non-climate beat reporters covering breaking news. My research on the extent to which media coverage of extreme weather events discusses climate issues shows that for both heat waves and wildfires, climate change issue attention increased significantly from summer 2013 to 2018.
These critiques aren’t new. Back in 2012, journalist turned climate activist Wen Stephenson called on journalist colleagues to “cover the climate crisis as a crisis -- one in which countless millions, even billions, of lives are at stake.”
The criticisms have continued. To name one such example, Guardian US environment reporter Emily Holden wrote “even as there are signs that airtime for climate is beginning to increase, questions remain about the depth and quality of the coverage.” Importantly, in her article Holden provides concrete, evidence-based suggestions, for ways in which media can improve, such as “cover climate as a local news story.” Importantly, Holden also interviewed climate change communication experts, including Edward Maibach from George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.
Missing the Contributions of Climate Communication Scholars
This highlights a major omission in the #CoveringClimateNow conversation so far. Climate change communication researchers, along with journalism schools as training grounds for future reporters and editors, need to be an integral part of the conversation. Our voices, as scholars (largely) weren’t at Tuesday’s town hall. It’s not only a matter of increasing media attention to climate change. It’s also about the need to improve the quality of climate journalism, and to do so at general interest publications, television news and on social media.
Climate change communication as a field can make a major contribution. Science communication scholarship shows that it’s not enough to provide more information, as in more news coverage. A key problem for climate change communication, including through media coverage, is according to Susanne Moser, that individuals need to care and be motivated to take action on climate change. Any project to improve climate journalism needs to be rooted in the understanding that Individuals come to their beliefs about science, including climate change, based on a mix of pre-held values, social networks and political ideology.
It’s essential that this effort to improve climate reporting be evidence-based. To name but one example, Graham Dixon and colleagues at the Ohio State University published a study in Environmental Communication in which they found “backfiring effects” among climate change skeptics when exposed to media coverage emphasizing the role of climate change in extreme weather events.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication (of which I’m a contributor), edited by Matthew Nisbet of Northeastern University, should be the go-to resource for journalists looking for the state of the field. It includes multiple articles addressing journalism, as well as television and cable news, social media and TV meteorologists as climate change educators.
Telling Compelling Climate Change Stories
On a morning panel, New York Times’ international climate reporter Somini Sengupta provided advice on climate reporting: tell stories that are rich, compelling and surprising. Make it relatable. "We try to make personal connections. We try to move people," said Sengupta at the panel.
She further commented on the importance of diversity in climate reporting. “It's our job as reporters to not rely on a small sliver of humanity,” said Sengupta. “Do not rely on white male experts, because the story will be incomplete.”
The challenges the next generation of environmental and climate journalists face were summed up by an audience question from a graduating student journalist, “Is it only journalists of a certain stature that are allowed to speak plainly about climate change or can journalists like me just entering the job market also do that?”
This is a challenge we need to take up as educators tasked with training the next generation of environmental and climate journalists, as well as those entering the profession, regardless of their area of specialization. On Twitter, I shared a thread of resources that can help, including Climate Outreach, Climate Central and the Climate Advocacy Lab.
A Call for Dialogue with Journalists
Crisis terminology was peppered throughout the #CoveringClimateNow conversation with mentions of “climate emergency” and “climate crisis.” We run the risk of becoming numb to yet another crisis. What climate change communication researchers and educators can, and should, do is contribute insights from our research to this ongoing dialogue. We share a goal with concerned journalists and editors: to improve the quality and depth of journalism about climate impacts and solutions, not just climate journalism as a siloed beat.
The structural constraints hindering better climate reporting aren’t going to diminish without unprecedented cooperation between stakeholders–journalists, editors, funders, concerned citizens, climate activists, political leaders willing to look beyond the next election cycle, students, and scholars, among others. In short, all of us together.
Environmental communication is a “crisis discipline.” We have an ethical obligation to share our expertise and research findings with journalists, such as those at the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation leading this new effort. Let’s hope they’ll listen and act upon best practices suggested by climate change communication research.