Screenshot La Repubblica

Climate change will drive journalism's next transformation

This is the English version of an interview which La Repubblica’s Raffaella Menichini has conducted with me in November 2021. (Italian original)

La Repubblica: You’ve been working on the intersection between journalism and the climate change crisis this entire last year. What changes do you think are needed in the newsrooms around the world to best tackle this issue?

The climate crisis challenges every sector of our economies, our societies and our lives. Globally, we have to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by the year 2030, compared to the levels of 2010, and then get them down further to net-zero by 2050 so that we can still limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

These numbers may sound banal but were are less than 3,000 days away from the year 2030. We will have to re-think and re-engineer how we generate energy and how we satisfy our four basic human needs for food, shelter, clothes and tools in ways that don’t heat our earth’s atmosphere. For newsrooms, this means that journalists of any beat (or ‘desk’, or ‘vertical’) need to have what you could call ‘basic climate literacy’.

For most news organisations around the world, climate change is still a story that mostly appears in their science section or as a story about politics or economics. In reality, though, climate change is equally a story about food, health, travel, fashion, architecture, technology, mobility, sports or culture. This is why news organisations as well as lifestyle publishers need to make sure their journalists are being supported in learning more about climate change and how it already affects the topics they cover every day.

La Repubblica: What are the main mistakes you think media (especially mainstream media) make in the coverage of climate changes?

We have seen some really good climate journalism across Europe this last year and I want to acknowledge that. A change that I hope to see, though, is that general news media, as well as lifestyle publishers, should no longer treat the climate crisis as just one topic of many but rather as a systemic question that affects almost every topic they cover. The climate crisis and the necessary decarbonisation of our economies will define our next decades similarly to how digitisation has defined our last two decades and had triggered a large-scale re-organisation of our economies.

La Repubblica: Especially in Europe, we have seen an increase of the news stories that mention climate change which also has to do with the terrible heatwaves and floodings we witnessed this last Summer.

That is true. The term ‘climate change’ has been mentioned much more often on the news these last six months, due to the terrible heatwaves, fires and floods we saw in Europe. But these extreme weather events are only the most visible surface of climate change. Good climate reporting should also include information on these three other areas: How to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, how to strengthen the ability of forests, peatlands and oceans to naturally store carbon and how to prepare our countries for the already inevitable effects of climate change.

We also need to report more on the climate crisis as humanity’s greatest health challenge. Another important angle is that the climate crisis is a question of social justice. So many poor countries that are already suffering the most from the impact of climate change have only played very minor roles in causing climate change.

La Repubblica: How do we build long-term, solution-oriented journalism on climate change? Is there a parallel between the Covid19 pandemia coverage and the climate crisis one? What did the pandemia thought journalists that can be transferred in the coverage of the climate crisis?

From my conversations and interviews with numerous journalists around the world, I think many newsrooms have learned important lessons from covering covid. Just like we have seen Prime Ministers give press conferences about the pandemic together with virologists or epidemiologists, many science journalists have also taken on more central roles now within their newsrooms to make sure their journalistic coverage of Covid19 was accurate. This greater collaboration of news editors with their science journalists should also prove valuable for their climate reporting.

I also think that the journalistic reporting on covid relied heavily on a small set of commonly agreed metrics, such as a country’s vaccination rate, infection rate and hospitalisation rate. Having these numbers and covid-dashboards in news reports helped readers, viewers and listeners see the context and development of the covid story over time. We are still missing a similarly useful set of metrics for climate journalism. And you are right to mention the need for more reports about climate change that include news about possible solutions, either at a personal or corporate or regulatory level. We know from various studies that readers are more likely to engage with climate journalism if it can point to solutions, which does not mean that journalists should somehow ‘sugar-coat’ the dramatic reality of this crisis.

La Repubblica: Would you recommend a young journalist specializing in the climate change beat?

Yes, definitely. My working assumption is that we will always need climate science experts in newsrooms but that each vertical or section of a typical news organisation — such as politics, business, finance, lifestyle, culture or sport — will soon develop their own relevant climate expertise. Having solid knowledge in climate science, climate policy or, for instance, energy policy are all qualifications that news organisations are very much in need of. In today’s world, newly appointed editors-in-chief are required to have significant experience in digital journalism. Tomorrow’s editors-in-chief will need to prove their solid understanding of the climate crisis.

La Repubblica: Can you talk about the project you’re working on, the Oxford Climate Journalism Network (OCJN)?

I have launched the Oxford Climate Journalism Network together with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University after having studied the current state of climate journalism this last year. There is a need for such a support network. This new organisation will be run by my co-founder Meera Selva, who is the Reuters Institute’s Deputy Director. Thankfully we have received generous funding from the European Climate Foundation. The Oxford Journalism Network not only supports climate journalists but journalists of all topical backgrounds, including travel, food, culture, fashion and sports journalists, who want to add the climate dimension to their current reporting. We also have a separate program specifically for newsroom leaders and newsroom managers since there are various operational, cultural and ethical issues involved when a news organisation tries to increase its reporting on the climate crisis. The Oxford Climate Journalism Network will also facilitate an exchange of best practices across countries and make sure journalists from the so-called ‘Global South’ will be present.

The Oxford Climate Journalism Network is international and open to journalists from Italy. Membership is free but requires an application and letter of support. For more information please see: https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/oxford-climate-journalism-network

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Wolfgang Blau

Co-Founder Oxford Climate Journalism Network / Trustee Director, Internews Europe and Bonn Institute. Prior: Global Chief Operating Officer Condé Nast.