Climate Change: Journalism’s Greatest Challenge
This lecture is the summary of my research on climate journalism and climate communication which has led me to co-found the new Oxford Climate Journalism Network together with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Find out more: about the new Oxford Climate Journalism Network, about our first and second cohort of 100 Journalists from more than 60 countries and on where to apply.
When you read books or listen to speeches about climate change, they tend to begin with a seemingly mandatory first chapter on just how grim our future will look like if we do not take much more decisive climate actions now.
And while I fully agree with that sentiment and reality, I want to spare you that chapter today.
The fact that you are here today or are watching our live stream means that you know about the situation we are in and its urgency.
And you will also know where to find the most important overview of peer-reviewed climate science, the reports by the International Panel on Climate Change, also known as IPCC.
The IPCC publishes its major reports only in six to seven-year cycles. And just this month, in three weeks from now, we expect the IPCC’s long-anticipated report on the impacts of climate change and then in March their report on possible mitigation measures and, finally, in September the IPCC’s big summary report.
Now again, this happens only every six to seven years and so 2022 is a big year in climate science and hence should be a big year in climate journalism.
Add to this, just from a newsroom’s planning perspective, that we’ll also have the US midterm elections in November. The US is not only the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases per year in total tonnage after China, but also features many prominent politicians who are still in outright denial of peer-reviewed climate science and whose views keep getting amplified more than usual during such an election cycle. Having said that, the US also spends more on research on development than any other government on the planet which, again, makes this election so consequential for climate change.
The third of our foreseeable and globally relevant climate-news events year is the next COP Climate Summit in November 2022, which — oddly — starts just a day before the US elections take place and will then have to compete for attention, especially with US-based audiences.
You can see: Even without any extreme weather events of this coming year, climate change is certain to play a prominent role in the public sphere and — at least hopefully — in the sphere of journalism. Which is the topic of my lecture today, the news media’s role and current challenges in covering climate change adequately.
I am speaking to you today, not as an academic but as a manager with a long, international career in journalism and in managing newsrooms and then one of the world’s largest publishing companies.
My research during this last year was driven by the search for practical solutions to current challenges in today’s newsrooms.
During this year, I have been invited to several closed-door workshops by the leadership teams of national news organisations in different countries.
I am saying this jokingly, but here is a tendency amongst journalists — and this applies to me as well -, there is a tendency amongst journalists to believe the answer to every problem that has ever existed is to produce more journalism about it.
And it is this reflex from which many newsroom managers then turned to me and asked: ‘So, Wolfgang, which types of content should we produce on climate change? What works best? Are there any formats from competitors elsewhere in the world we should look at?’
Of course, these are valid questions. But they are also skipping a more fundamental issue which is that there is a growing number of news organisations that have set up climate desks in their newsrooms, have increased their amount of content on climate change and who are now, a year or two later, wondering why some of these teams did not have the transformative effect on the rest of their newsrooms or did not find the success with their audiences that they had hoped for.
This is why the emphasis of my lecture today is not on content types and formats, but on the many systemic issues and levers that newsroom managers should be aware of when assessing and developing how their newsroom covers or doesn’t cover climate change.
My lecture has three chapters:
In chapter 1, I will establish some context. In chapter 2, I will become very operational and go into many practical details of newsroom management, newsroom culture and newsroom ethics.
And then in a short closing chapter, I will attempt to give a few recommendations on the sequencing of certain steps towards strengthening a newsroom’s coverage of climate change.
By now, some of the journalists who are with us today will have noticed how — thus far — I’ve only been using the words ‘climate change’ but not ‘climate crisis’, as my dear former colleagues at The Guardian are suggesting in their up-dated style-guide since two years.
The word ‘crisis’ describes a temporary phenomenon with a beginning and end. But if we magically stopped all greenhouse gas emissions at midnight tonight, no person alive — not even today’s children — would have the privilege of seeing the end of the climate challenges we have already triggered with the greenhouse gas emissions made until today. This is why ‘climate crisis’ is not a very precise term.
As so often in journalism, a dilemma of terminology like this one is best solved through what is called lexical variation — by alternating between any of the terms above and others, including global warming, global heating, global weirding, the climate situation, climate emergency or simply: ‘the climate question’.
The point here is that climate change is so vast as a phenomenon, so systemic, so unprecedented in its scale and speed that we struggle even with deciding what to call it.
A year ago, when I mustered the courage to pause my career as a manager to educate myself about climate change, I somehow still thought — back then — of climate change as a topic or as an issue but not as this broad systemic challenge that would truly change everything.
In the most abstract terms, I did not understand that we are looking at two simultaneous systemic challenges: On one hand, we have the twin challenge of climate change and a rapid deadline in biodiversity, on the other hand, we have the challenge of needing to shift our global energy regime of the last roughly 150 years from fossil fuels to a mix of renewables as quickly as any possible.
I did not see that a shift in energy regimes alone would already lead to all kinds of social, economic and geopolitical tensions or outright conflicts even if there were no ecological crises to accompany them.
In hindsight, I am genuinely intrigued by the degree to which I either avoided or was simply unable to comprehend the systemic nature of these two shifts: That there is no region, no industry, no profession that is not already or will not be challenged by climate change.
So, yes, it would be easy to point fingers at me or to ridicule me. Because the information was always there. Just one click away.
It would also be easy to point fingers at journalists or entire news organisations who are now increasingly being accused of ‘just not getting it’. That majority of news organisations who are in full acknowledgement of peer-reviewed climate science when you ask them but who still do not give climate change the prominent treatment across all their desks that is needed now.
I have also seen the reverse: I have seen journalists pointing fingers at their own readers or viewers after they did not engage with their climate journalism as much these journalists thought their audience should have.
And, on a personal note, it would also be too easy for me to be at least mildly annoyed by some of my colleagues and friends when they now conveniently describe climate change as ‘Wolfgang’s topic’, or — worse — as ‘Wolfgang’s passion’. It isn’t, actually. But I am passionate about addressing climate change being the necessity of our time.
So, over the course of my fellowship with the Reuters Institute, I became very interested in the nature of this human denial and of human biases in our perception of the world around us and the role they may play in newsrooms.
The science Publisher Springer Nature and UNSDN, a UN organisation under the leadership of Jeffrey Sachs, then asked me to co-chair an international panel of scientists who study how to best communicate climate science or covid-science in the context of rampant misinformation and how to factor in obstacles such as our human biases.
For starters: this is a map of just 188 known biases, with the ‘status quo’ bias being an important factor in disregarding the systemic nature of climate change.
What this part of my work has helped me appreciate is how denial and avoidance are subtle mental and emotional constructs and coping mechanisms that newsroom managers need to be aware of when it comes to climate change.
Typically, denial cannot be undone or overcome in one go or — in the world of journalism — with one big tell-all fact-heavy documentary for an audience or one big tell-all heroic climate memo from a chief editor to all staff.
Denial has many layers. Denial needs to be addressed with empathy, precision and a degree of patience.
Two questions drove me then in my studies this last year:
First: How was it possible that despite my own numerous climate-related initiatives over the past 15 years — from launching global carbon audits at Conde Nast to launching the world’s first climate content syndication network back together with Alan Rusbridger at the Guardian, that I still managed to close my eyes to the immediacy of the climate crisis and treated it as a future problem instead.
Second: Why is it that not all but many of the world’s political, business and religious leaders as well as the world’s young people are sounding so much more concerned about climate change than most newsroom leaders do that I spoke with?
To illustrate this:
An international landmark study by researchers from seven universities and colleges interviewed more than 10.000 young people in ten countries last year on their feelings about climate change and about their governments’ responses to it. Here is a visualisation of the results by Nature Magazine:
When asked ‘how worried are you about climate change?’, 59% said they were either ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried’.
Imagine that you were one of these 18–24-year olds here and then go back in your mind to the news site or news programme you are using most regularly. Would you — as an 18–24-year old — with all that lifetime ahead of you — would you think your news organisation was giving climate change the attention it should?
A related sentiment of despair or disenfranchisement of younger people also came through in the ‘European Moments’ study by Professor Timothy Garton Ash, who is here with us today. In this representative study, 53% of young Europeans across 27 EU nations and the UK between the ages of 16 and 29 agree or somewhat agree with the idea that authoritarian states are better equipped than democracies to tackle the climate crisis, a finding that should worry any news organisation that defines its role as informing a democratic public sphere.
And as for the world’s leaders, many really stark quotes stand out:
Take UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres. Quote: ‘We are on the verge of the abyss’. For the leader of this highly consensus-driven intergovernmental organisation, this is a radical statement.
President Biden frequently says ‘climate change is now the number one issue facing humanity’. Pope Francis as the spiritual leader of 1.3 billion Catholics regularly makes stark comments and asks for ‘radical responses’ to the climate crisis.
And the probably best summary of the sentiment amongst the world’s largest corporations — in parallel to a lot of greenwashing — is this newest risk register of the World Economic Forum which for the first time lists ‘lack of climate action failure’ as their number one risk.
In fact, the first of the more traditional macro-economic risks that you would expect on such a risk register only appears on position number 8 here: the risk of credit crises.
And so you have to wonder — most especially, though, in light of the IPCC’s findings — what more it will take for the news media to realise that in the next few years, climate change is likely to require a degree of upskilling, re-training, re-hiring and also of re-thinking journalism itself that is equal to the digital shift of the last two decades?
Based on these initial questions, I spoke with and surveyed news organisations — climate journalists as well as newsroom managers — around the world for several months last year and typically asked them the following questions:
Is your organisation planning to expand its coverage of climate change?
Which organisational model have you chosen in your newsroom?
What do you perceive as the greatest untapped opportunity for your climate journalism?
What are your typical obstacles and challenges in this endeavour?
Do you think your news organisation is sufficiently equipped to cover climate change?
How difficult is it for you to get access to relevant scientists or relevant data for your work?
Are you or your line managers ever worried about being perceived as activists if you cover the climate crisis?
How much do you know about your readers’ interests in climate change?
And, crucially, I also asked the simple question: ‘and how are you doing today?’ and it was often that question that revealed the most useful additional information.
After having these conversations for several months and taking notes, your pattern recognition kicks in and you begin to form hypotheses of what the most important recurring issues are in these conversations across countries and cultures, but also of what the blind spots may be of the people you are speaking with.
As an example for a potential blind spot: not a single one of my interview partners mentioned or at least raised the question of whether their audience even has the necessary basic knowledge of climate change to make sense of the journalism they are producing for them.
Think about how often you see journalists refer to the ‘the Paris agreement’ or the ‘1.5-degree goal’ or ‘the IPCC’. How many per cent of a news audience know what these words mean? This can get even more of an issue when US news media speak of the 1.5-degree goal — in a country that reports temperatures and weather up-dates — in Fahrenheit.
So, let’s begin our chapter two tonight and look at the systemic issues I think I was able to identify that apply to a large number of news organisations.
I have grouped these findings into operational, cultural and ethical issues.
Operational issues usually require management attention and/or financial investments to be overcome. But they can be overcome.
Cultural issues usually are much harder to overcome or transform. Some of them, can’t be overcome but it is still very useful for newsroom leaders to factor them in, a bit like you would factor in a compass deviation.
Ethical issues can be overcome comparatively quickly and don’t necessarily require financial investments, but they do require newsroom leaders, typically the chief editor, to make normative decisions, that can be controversial.
The good news: most of the issues identified are operational issues.
First and foremost: climate literacy inside the newsroom.
It is extremely difficult for climate reporters to succeed in a news organisation, let alone for an entire newsroom to integrate climate journalism across all desks if that newsroom staff has no basic knowledge of the science of climate change.
In broad terms climate literacy should include:
-Basic knowledge of the fragile natural greenhouse effect. Start with the science, not the politics.
- Basic climate literacy for journalists also means to know where you can look up reliable, peer-reviewed information about climate change.
- It should also include knowing the dramatic difference between the effects of a global warming of 1.5 degree versus 2 degrees over pre-industrial times, let alone the effects of a global warming to 2.4 degrees which is the mid-range of what we are currently headed to.
- Lastly, journalists should know where to look up reliable figures on greenhouse gas emissions by country and sector and how they stack up against our remaining emission budgets globally — or by country, where such national budgets have been formulated. Because without these two goal posts -the current emissions of a country or sector and the remaining emission budgets — most news stories about new climate-relevant technologies, policies or reduction commitments are really missing their necessary context and can leave a sense of confusion behind.
These are the very basics.
And when you compare these climate literacy basics with the knowledge we usually expect from general news journalists about how their countries’ election systems work or what the rules are of their country’s most popular sports, these few items on climate change are not too much to ask or to train for. These can be taught fairly quickly, within a matter of days. In fact, several large broadcasters in Europe have already offered this kind of basic training to their staff.
The second operational issue is the climate literacy of a news organisation’s audience.
For journalism to reach its full potential and to do its work, its audience needs to have a basic understanding of the concepts and terms that are needed to make sense of a story.
As a starting point, news organisations should at least survey their audiences about their current knowledge of climate change. A less intrusive but also statistically less indicative approach is to offer quizzes on climate change as a way of gathering information and conveying basic climate knowledge.
The Financial Times has taken this further with a brilliant interactive where you can first guess and draw your own temperature or emissions growth curves and then see whether you guessed them right.
Other news organisations, such as Bloomberg and Sky News are experimenting with embedding climate data dashboards into their content.
A related operational issue is that news organisations tend to know very little about their audiences more general attitudes towards climate change, meaning how concerned they are.
A true pioneer in this research is the survey called ‘Global Warming’s Six Americas’ by Yale University and George Mason University.
This regular survey maps the US population in categories from those being ‘dismissive’ of Global Warming being an issue to those who are ‘highly alarmed’ by it.
Other countries have run their own segmentation studies since then, each with different methodologies.
Here is an overview of international examples assembled by Professor David Holmes at Australia’s Monash University who has been wonderfully supportive of my work this last year.
The operational value of such national segmentations for a newsroom materialises when you can then measure which ones of these segments in your country’s general population are even present amongst your own audience.
This chart here which Professor Holmes at Monash kindly provided me with shows the audience composition of Australia’s main news organisations matched against the five Australian general population segments of being alarmed, concerned, uncertain, doubtful or dismissive regarding climate change:
And once you know that more than half of your audience is either concerned or even alarmed, you may want to shift to producing more journalism that focuses on mitigation and adaptation measures to climate change than to still focus your newsroom’s resources on just establishing or defending the very fact of climate change itself.
To our next operational issue:
A currently prominent operational question in many newsrooms is which organisational structure they should pick to expand their coverage of climate change. (I have written about this in more detail here for the World Editors Forum.)
The three most typical organisational structures to expand a newsroom’s climate coverage are to either expand your current science and environment desk and to give them more staff and budget, a second and equally popular approach is to set up a separate climate desk in addition to an existing science desk or team.
A third approach that is especially valuable for smaller news organisations that may have no science team at all is to create virtual climate teams. This means to ensure that all interested editors across all your desks or topical verticals meet regularly to coordinate the stories that may have a climate dimension to them and then support each other in producing them.
I think there is no ideal structure, but all of them greatly depend on the personal engagement of a newsroom’s chief editor in order to succeed.
Online Trolling: I have spoken with a few climate journalists who told me there were considering leaving climate journalism again as they felt worn down or left alone by their newsroom in defending themselves against climate trolls.
For newsroom managers and social media editors, it is important to not view all trolling or outright hate speech against their journalists across all topics as one and the same phenomenon. To discredit climate journalism is a key part of orchestrated climate disinformation campaigns that oftentimes are very well funded.
A good starting point for editors is to look up the research on this topic is the work by Professor Stefan Lewandowsky at the University of Bristol, as well as the book ‘The New Climate Wars’ by Professor Michael Mann at Pennsylvania State University.
There is also this useful study here jointly conducted by researchers at the Universities George Mason, Monash, Trinity College Dublin and Exter where they created a taxonomy of typical claims by climate science denialists or other types of contrarians, ‘the ice isn’t melting’ to ‘renewable energy can’t work’.
Such a map (above) is also a helpful tool for a newsroom’s audience and social media editors to assist them in their pattern recognition.
Content performance metrics are an issue that came up frequently not only in the interviews I conducted but also in some of the workshops I have run with several large news organisations discussing these findings.
One climate journalist said to me: “I have the full support from my chief editor. I have even been given a budget increase. My problem is now the foreign editor who doesn’t give me access to our foreign bureaus when I need them because my stories — supposedly are never as urgent as other breaking news stories — and my other and bigger problem are the news desk editors who don’t give my story a prime time slot or never quite promote it on social media at the right time of day because they think it won’t perform well”.
This latter issue, of course, raises questions about the metrics by which especially digital news organisations typically measure the success of their content. Pageviews, click-through rates, social share rates, session time and scroll-depth — as some of the most common metrics — can tell us quite a lot, but they are not the same as the so-called impact metrics (or ‘now what?’-metrics) which are just much more expensive to measure at a decent scale.
Impact metrics look at what happened after you have read or watched a piece of journalistic content: you have read the text yesterday, now what?
Did you mention it in your family or at work? Did you buy a book on the topic or watch a documentary? Are you considering a change in behaviour or consumption or your voting preference?
With the current digital content performance metrics alone, climate journalism often is at risk of not getting sufficient placement or promotion by the news desk.
In the most extreme of this behaviour, news organisations need to ask themselves whether this doesn’t amount to a form of editorial greenwashing itself: To produce climate journalism so you can say you are doing it and so you can point to the URL’s of each published story while never really throwing the full authority and distribution power of your news organisation’s brand behind it.
A very common operational challenge for newsdesks is how to find good photos or other video visuals to illustrate climate stories. Especially on websites and social media, the photos of a story can have a greater effect on its click-through rates than its headline does.
If you go to the climate section’s landing pages of a major news organisation, you often find these repetitive picture choices for the more abstract stories on climate change: pictures of melting ice, forest fires, windmills or the ever same solar panels.
Sometimes, this limited choice of picture material is not only harmful to audience engagement but can be misleading: You will have seen stories about potentially deadly inner-city heatwaves that were illustrated with people in the streets enjoying ice cream and children playing under water fountains, as if this was a ‘summer in the city’ type of story and not an event that frequently costs many people their lives, especially older people who can’t afford air conditioning.
The Oxford-based initiative ClimateVisuals.org is trying to address this challenge. The key players in this, though, are the picture agencies — such as Getty Images — and we hope to engage them in this conversation through our newly launched Oxford Climate Journalism Network.
An operational issue that did surprise me initially and which the Reuters Institute’s Meera Selva then helped me understand better is that a few journalists told me they found it difficult to get a hold of scientists relevant to climate stories they’re working on.
Firstly, there is a difference for a scientist between receiving an interview request from a major national news organisation versus from a regional or local publication they may have never heard of before.
Secondly, scientists have also told us about their experience of journalists so often hoping for stories about scientific breakthroughs while most scientific progress happens only in small increments, meaning scientists — especially climate scientists — can be wary of being misrepresented in the media.
There was also one science editor, Sven Stockrahm, a former colleague of mine from Germany’s Zeit Online where I was the chief editor for many years. I called Sven to ask him about the effects of covering Covid19 on his newsrooms overall collaboration with their science desk which had increased significantly. When I asked Sven which other changes he would now hope for as the newsroom’s science editor, he said:
“I would hope for a greater appreciation of the fact that questioning science is a core part of science. It is a misunderstanding of science when journalists primarily demand definitive answers from scientists or from us science journalists”
Obviously, this appreciation of scientific disagreements should not be confused with a dismissal of science itself. If you read some of the IPCC reports’ summaries for policymakers, you will see how methodically these scientists are using a specific terminology to assign different ranges or percentages of certainty to different topics.
I would add that covering climate change successfully does not only require knowing how to work with scientists. Increasingly, I think it also requires a much greater number of scientists in newsrooms and that more journalists learn to use the tools and methods of science journalists and of scientists in their own research and reporting.
The last of our operational issues, called ‘attribution’, is about attributing or not attributing extreme weather events to climate change as one of several causes.
A typical mistake many news organisations are currently making in reporting about extreme weather events — such as extreme wildfires, floods, heatwaves or droughts — is to ask the binary question of whether the extreme event was caused by climate change or not.
While this seems like a perfectly plausible question, it ignores the fact that extreme weather events by and large always have multiple causes. Climate change can make extreme weather events more likely and more intense, which is bad enough but is hardly ever their sole cause.
Two other common mistakes by news media are to not consider climate change as a cause at all in cases where that question really should be raised or to preemptively mention climate change as the main cause of an extreme weather event when there is no data available yet whatsoever.
Thankfully, this science of extreme weather event attribution as a branch of climate science is developing quickly now, thanks to scientists such as Dr. Fredi Otto and others who have also set up the website worldweatherattribution.org, a great resource for journalists.
As you can see again on this summary slide, all these issues here are operational because they are either questions of training, workflows, staffing or budgets.
The following cultural issues or levers, that came up regularly in my conversations are far fewer but also trickier:
With climate change being a systemic issue, it affects every area of a general news organisation, not only its science, politics and business journalism but equally all its other branches: real estate journalism, food, lifestyle and health journalism, sports and technology journalism and increasingly — slowly, but increasingly — its culture journalism.
What this requires from newsrooms then is a very high degree of interdisciplinary collaboration. The good news is: many news organisations have already seen an increase of such collaboration during their coverage of Covid19 when it became more necessary and also more common for, let’s say, a business editor to double-check with the science desk before running a story about a promising new vaccine manufacturer.
A cultural difference, though, between reporting on Covid19 versus on climate change is that climate journalists have been around for decades and often felt marginalised in their newsrooms. And so I spoke to a couple of well-respected science, environment or climate journalists who told me in no uncertain terms that they really did not like the idea of their colleagues at the travel desk now suddenly writing about tourism and climate change or their colleagues in the sports team about the foreseeable impact of climate change on football or alpine sports.
One colleague said, quote: “Why would I want our lifestyle desk to cover climate change? Most likely their stories would contain scientific errors but probably perform better than mine”
Of course, a newsroom needs both, the climate experts as well as an increase of its general climate literacy across all desks. To manage this co-existence and to nurture a culture of collaboration mostly comes down to the quality of a chief editor or their managing editor.
You could think of ensuring the mental health of staff as a rather operational issue, as this mostly comes down to training team leaders in their recognition of early warning signals and of colleagues in need of support as well as a question of making sure there are different kinds of counselling available.
When it comes to the mental health of climate journalists, though, there is a cultural element to consider: In general, the news industry has quite a lot of institutional knowledge about how to protect the mental health of its war and crisis reporters who are about to or have already witnessed horrible events. Not as much is known, though, about the health effects it can have on journalists to work on climate change full-time or also to feel marginalised or simply not understood in their own newsrooms, regarding the seriousness of the climate situation.
I had the privilege of getting invited into the meetings of various newly-founded self-help networks of climate journalists in different European countries. In all of these meetings, I was surprised by the degree to which these journalists expressed their need for a peer group that would also provide them with the emotional support their own news organisations were not giving them, even if this meant sharing knowledge with your direct competitors.
This cultural issue around so-called solutions journalism has to do with the question of whether journalists have a responsibility to not demoralise or frighten their readers or viewers with their journalism but to also present stories about plausible solutions to the climate crisis as a way of giving hope.
Such solutions could be the positive effects of new laws, just as much as reports about new technologies or about the positive effects of personal behavioural changes.
About 80 per cent of the climate journalists that I asked about their views on solutions or constructive journalism principles indicated that they thought it meant to somehow sugarcoat the harsh realities of climate change or to not ‘tell it as it is’ as one journalist put it.
But when you consider some of the known reasons for news avoidance, I find this a questionable position to take.
In a small structured survey amongst news organisations, I asked this question:
Quote: “Several editors told us that many of their stories about climate change struggle to reach larger audiences due to their often frightening or demoralising content. Have you observed this challenge as well?”
Of the 58 journalists who replied to this question, more than two thirds (69%) said yes.
One journalist explained to me that it still shouldn’t be his job to worry about whether his story has many readers or not but only whether his report was accurate or not.
In theory, I do agree with him in that many of journalism’s greatest investigative achievements were not great audience successes but still of great value for a country’s integrity.
What seems to make this question more loaded when it comes to climate journalism is the fact that we are running out of time. We are running out of time if we still want to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius. And the gargantuan efforts needed for us to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius requires a much greater public awareness and a more detailed understanding of climate change.
And I would think then that this emergency does require a kind of climate journalism that readers, viewers or listeners want to engage with and — crucially — want to frequently come back to, as their knowledge and contextual understanding only builds over time.
Of course, this public education is not solely the responsibility of journalism. Journalism can’t possibly do it all. But journalism plays a crucial role here. From the Reuters Digital News Report 2020, we know that the most used sources for news on climate change are not specialised outlets but it is television content — live and on-demand — and the news sites of major news organisations.
So, whether the news media want this or not, they tend to be their country’s primary destination for people who would like to learn more about the climate crisis.
Here is a more fundamental question that has never been articulated to me in my interviews but that manifests itself as a consequence of what has been said to me:
Is journalism’s focus on the present even compatible with the time horizon of the climate crisis?
Journalism is not exclusively but predominantly a retrospective activity.
Most of a news organisation’s competitive energy and resource goes into reporting what just happen and then, in a second step, into analysing, interpreting or opining on what just happened or what is just about to happen.
Albert Camus described journalists as ‘the historians of the moment’.
The former owners of the Washington Post, the Graham family, used to describe journalism as ‘the first draft of history’.
The French word ‘journalisme’ itself goes back to the latin adjective ‘diuarnalis’ which means ‘of the day’ or ‘that which takes place during the day’.
I don’t know of any other profession that is named after a time frame: a day.
With climate change, journalism is now forced to discuss negative climate impacts as well as the hopefully positive effects of mitigation measures and actions that reach decades into the future: Whether we can achieve net-zero emission reduction by 2050 in the case of the United States and the EU, by 2060 for China or by 2070 in the case of India.
Covering the climate crisis vastly stretches journalism’s familiar time axis and thus introduces a degree of uncertainty and speculation into journalism that goes counter to what journalism is built on and prides itself on.
You could argue then that journalism should just stay away from the business of discussing predictions into the future, given journalism’s overall rather poor track record with predictions.
One problem with that argument is that governments — especially the US and the EU — are already in the process of making decisions today — spending our taxes and future liquidity today — with the aim of reaching decades into the future, with their so-called ‘green deals’ — which require being scrutinised by journalists.
And if that is any consolation, the world’s climate scientists are facing a similar dilemma. Most of them had not. signed up to become futurologists either. As they are being asked by the world’s governments to make the best possible predictions and recommendations in their IPCC reports, they have developed new methods and terminologies to adjust to this unpleasant degree of uncertainty.
Journalism — for lack of other societal actors to step in in time — should try to do the same.
These were the main cultural issues and levers.
In completing this second chapter of my talk, let’s look at the few ethical issues for newsroom managers to be aware of when developing their climate journalism. Again, ethical issues are different from cultural issues as they can often be put to rest fairly quickly through a clearly communicated decision by a newsroom’s leadership.
In one of my workshops with a very large national news organisation outside of the UK where I showed them my findings for them to challenge and scrutinise them further, one news desk editor told me this story later, and only on our way to the elevator:
She/he (I need to keep this anonymised) had just published a story on the climate damage caused by Sport Utility Vehicles, SUVs. A day later, one of their bosses in the newsroom came over and suggested that in the interest of the news organisation’s impartiality or political equidistance, they should now follow up with a story about how many jobs the SUV manufacturers are providing that country with.
This incident illustrates what is considered false balance. Of course, the question of how to create new jobs for employees of potentially disappearing industries is an important topic, it just isn’t the obvious twin or balancer or opposite to a discussion about the climate impact of SUV’s. Nor is there a need to be apologetic for reporting on the proven climate impact of that type of vehicle.
An even more poignant example of false balance is the phenomenon of TV talk shows you may have seen where epidemiologists had to battle with outright covid deniers. And again, the causes of covid denial do require and deserve journalistic attention but that is not the same as giving a covid denier equal status to an epidemiologist.
A correctly framed and more informative balance would have been, to have two epidemiologists argue over their conflicting approaches for how to fight a pandemic, as there is a wide range of scientific opinions — but within the realms of science.
This issue of false balance is not just a theoretical problem but does measurable damage in journalism when it comes to climate change: In 2019, a large-scale academic analysis of roughly 100,000 English-language digital and print media articles on climate change has shown how journalists often understate just how much scientific agreement there is on the human-made causes of climate change.
Newsroom managers need to catch that.
Fear of being accused of activism is a theme that has been mentioned to me especially by younger climate reporters, one time also by a very senior manager of a national public broadcaster.
What struck me here was how this challenge of delineating between journalism and activism was a recurring theme in my conversations with journalists where I had promised them confidentiality. Later on, though, in the written survey to which about 70 international journalists replied, many of them in very senior leadership positions, this challenge of not wanting to be accused of activism was only rated as a minor issue by them.
There is recent anecdotal evidence, though, that reporting on climate change is still widely assumed to be the domain of more left or liberal publications and that, in consequence, covering climate change more frequently is somehow a partisan position.
To give two examples: When the UK’s conservative dailies ‘The Sun’ and ‘The Daily Express’ both launched climate-themed campaigns in 2021, the British trade publication ‘Press Gazette’ still called that ‘surprising’. The editors of both dailies equally felt a need to explain their change of mind.
And when two German TV meteorologists started mentioning climate change in their weather updates, something that is common practice in Australian television, the conservative daily ‘BILD’ promptly accused them of activism in support of Germany’s Green party, simply by mentioning climate change.
Today’s editorial codes of ethics of leading news organisations, such as the Financial Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, The Guardian or the one I initiated myself, years back as editor-in-chief of ZEIT ONLINE, are not very clear on that question of how to delineate between activism and journalism.
Their various statements on impartiality, transparency, accuracy or the protection of sources are fairly instructive for the production of individual stories that a news organisation has already decided to pursue but not as much on the question of why a topic gets covered or not. One of the most effective and least provable forms of editorial activism, of course, does not manifest itself in the topics and events a news organisations reports on but in those it chooses to ignore.
In the early 2010s, when bloggers became more effective in highlighting editorial conflicts of interest and in holding professional journalists to account, many news organisations responded by clarifying their definitions of what constitutes a conflict of interest for their journalists.
Naturally, different publications ended up with different definitions. Financial publications, for instance, often apply stricter criteria on reporting about a publicly-listed company of which a journalist’s relative owns shares than many general interest news publications do. Across the industry, though, leading news organisations have mostly dealt with defining what constitutes a conflict of interest, sometimes against the resistance of their staff.
Given the foreseeable vehement conflicts over climate policy in many countries, newsroom managers would do their staff and their journalism a favour if they now reviewed or updated their editorial codes of conduct to make sure there is at least a shared understanding in their newsroom, a shared language on what they think the typical indicators of editorial activism are and — more importantly — of what clearly isn’t activism in covering the accelerating climate crisis.
So, we have now covered a lot of ground tonight: How these operational, cultural and ethical issues can shape a news organisation’s ways of covering or not covering climate change adequately and how newsroom leaders can untangle and also utilise some of these levers I have mentioned.
But imagine there was a news organisation that has successfully addressed all of these issues, one question would still remain: How do they decide what is newsworthy and how does climate journalism make it into the news?
This discussion over news value criteria is a constant in journalism research, but it remains surprisingly foggy inside every news organisation I have ever worked with.
If you get the chance, ask a news desk editor about the abstract criteria by which she or he has chosen the current set of stories for today’s news update.
Many times you will only hear them paraphrase your own question back to you when they reply by saying their main criterion was ‘relevance’.
If they have the time, though, to really reflect on what makes for a topic to be news relevant, you will typically hear at least a few of these criteria here being mentioned, while there are many more:
As criteria for the selection of newsworthy stories, you will typically hear a combination of these filters:
The recency or newness of a topic. The geographic vicinity of the topic or event to a news organisation’s audience. The non-ambiguity or simplicity of a topic and whether a lot of explanations are needed to even make sense of it.
The question of whether there is a personalisation or event angle on the topic. The question of whether the topic is an exclusive story. The question of what else is newsworthy today. The question of what competing news organisations deem newsworthy today. The question of whether a topic is in the public interest.
Having been a news editor myself for many years, you are typically looking at a vast number of potential stories and topics to pick from every hour as an editor. And so, on most days, these criteria are not meant to help you find relevant news, but to filter out news and to pick the very few that still make it into your news list.
Imagine now that you are a climate journalist and have just completed a story, hoping that your news desk will give your story as much visibility as possible.
Let’s see if your climate story can pass at least some of these typical news value criteria:
Recency: Climate change is not new. And the topic will be even more relevant next week, so why run it today if there are many other seemingly more pressing stories to include.
Geographic vicinity: Apart from the more recent extreme weather events in Northern Europe, the impacts of climate change have mostly been perceived as being worse and more of a news event in other parts of the world, as absurd as that may sound now.
Non-ambiguity: By all means, climate change is a highly complex, poly-causal phenomenon and not simple.
Personalisation: Compared to many other big issues, the number of celebrities or athletes who speak publicly about climate change or of climate experts who are widely known is still surprisingly small.
Event angle: Climate change mostly is a process, not an event. It is not a volcano eruption or an earthquake. It is a far bigger disaster but moving more slowly.
The news media’s preference for event angles and visuals can lead to odd phenomena, for instance, that the breaking off of a big antarctic ice sheet makes into the news, while the far bigger news of the Western Antarctic possibly reaching a tipping of melting — a point of no return — mostly doesn’t.
Exclusivity: There are scoops possible in climate journalism. But for that for a large number of important climate science, climate finance, policy or climate technology news, it’s very hard to get exclusivity. I would assume, though, that with better satellite tracking of emissions, we will soon see some more journalistic scoops on emissions fraud.
The day’s context: If there are other seemingly more pressing issues or issues that just tick more of these boxes, the climate change story will struggle to get through, for instance, next to a daily stream of already frightening news on the Covid-19 pandemic.
The competition’s news agenda: this criterion includes an element of conformity. If enough competitors run a specific story, newsdesks sometimes begin wondering whether they called it right in not running that story and then they course-correct. In reverse, if no other news organisation runs a specific news story prominently but only you do and that story is not an exclusive scoop either, it requires a confident news editor to stand behind this choice long enough for the story to gain visibility.
This is where an organisation such as CoveringClimateNow can make a significant difference as they try to build alliances of news organisations jointly covering key climate topics while taking many different stances on that same topic.
Maybe I have spent too much time in newsrooms to think these news value criteria could or should be changed. Making these criteria more conscious across a newsroom would already be a big step.
At Agence France Press, one of the world’s largest news agencies, their Global Chief Editor Sophie Huet is in the process of making sure that their bureaus around the world include possible climate aspects in every story as naturally as they would already include possible financial angles of a story, which — in its effect on their news production -then defines climate change journalism as being in the public interest to a much greater degree than before.
This leaves us with a short chapter 3 tonight:
Let’s say you are a newsroom leader who is aware of these operational, cultural and ethical issues that we have looked at today and knows how to overcome or utilise them.
What do you do next? Where do you start?
I mentioned this tendency earlier of many chief editors to frame most every problem into a question of what type of content they should produce then.
And so I saw quite a lot of news organisations in the last years who responded to that criticism of not covering climate change sufficiently by then producing ‘special climate issues’, ‘a green issue’, ‘a climate week’, ‘a sustainability supplement’, a ‘climate podcast series’ or by launching a small ‘climate desks’.
All of this is good. These initiatives at least start conversations and help you identify talent in your teams you may not have been aware of.
But in some ways, these kinds of ring-fenced initiatives can also make you lose time as they are eerily similar to how legacy news organisations have first responded to the rise of the internet: with special issues about ‘the internet’ (that was reported on as if it was a place), with topical weeks and then with the launch of separate ‘digital teams’ of which they often had a very ambivalent view, sometimes to the point of questioning whether these news colleagues were even journalists and not just ‘content managers’. Today’s tendency of some newsrooms to question the non-partisanship of their newly hired climate reporters sometimes reminds me of those days.
From this perspective, I would advise interested newsroom leaders to not just start with new content and format development right away but first with establishing basic climate literacy for the largest possible number of their staff and then to see what happens.
See who in your newsroom will take such an internal climate literacy initiative as permission to suggest ideas on covering climate change in new ways that they may have had on their mind for a long time already but didn’t quite dare to mention.
And, if at all possible, frame climate literacy in the newsroom not as a chore or duty, but as a career opportunity.
One last personal remark: I very much believe we — humanity — can manage this transition, but I think it will be a very bumpy journey and not as orderly as we hope.
Journalism will be needed to help us navigate this journey and to hold our societies together.
I have met so many inspiring, competent and hopeful climate journalists this last year — young and old — that I am now more optimistic than I was before starting this project.
I want to thank these journalists and I thank you all for your attention tonight.
(To find out more about the Oxford Climate Journalism Network which I have founded together with the Reuters Institutes’s Meera Selva, see here:
https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/oxford-climate-journalism-networkSee also this list of our first 100 members from more than 60 countries: