Getting climate journalism right means getting journalism right

Many newsroom look at expanding climate journalism as a duty, but not as an opportunity. This might be one reason why just a few media houses have a climate strategy. At the Constructive Journalism Day 2022 organized by NDR Info and Hamburg Media School, I talked about why climate journalism holds great potential for bringing journalism as a whole into the future. 

In November 2022, many people took in another big dose of climate journalism. For some, it may have felt like an overdose. The climate summit in Sharm-El-Sheik dominated the headlines for days. And we learned from the media: it was a disaster. “Less than nothing” had been achieved, was the title of a commentary in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. In addition, there were the protests of young people who, in their rage, stuck themselves to streets or destroyed works of art. This, too, has been reported on in all its facets. Is that good?

It’s important, yes. But the debates about the protests, or even the big splash at events like COP27, obscure the fact that there are many reasons to be confident about the climate issue, too.

  • Researchers say the energy transition is no longer a technical problem, nor is it a price problem. It is a political problem – tricky enough.
  • New solutions are being invented practically every day, and a vibrant start-up scene has sprung up around green technologies, products, and services.
  • Most industries are intensely engaged in climate innovations, funds are shifting their portfolios, polluters are switching to climate-friendly technologies, even aircraft engine manufacturers have a climate strategy.

Only journalism does not. For the EBU News Report of the European Broadcasting Union – the world’s largest association of public service media organisations – we have been researching for months, interviewing editors-in-chief, researchers and other experts. We found that up to now, just a handful of newsrooms have strategically addressed the issue.

When you argue this way, you hear critics saying: What other industries are doing is often just greenwashing. That may be true in some cases. But if you want to be nasty, you could say that journalism often doesn’t even get greenwashing right.

When it comes to the climate, journalism lags other industries. Why is that?

  • Journalism is afraid of being perceived as partisan, activist. A small, vocal minority of skeptics sets the tone. Editors underestimate their audience. The majority has long since moved on, as surveys show. Most people know the problem – at least intuitively – and would like to see something happen.
  • There is little pressure. Many publishers are medium-sized, broadcasters are structured under public law. Newsrooms are not listed on the stock exchange, pension funds cannot withdraw money if the media botches on sustainability. Other things take priority, and cost pressure adds to the problem.
  • Climate journalism is misunderstood as one topic among many. Yet the protection of our planet’s livelihoods must be the frame under which journalism operates – just as it is with democracy or human rights. The climate must not only be an object to be observed and described. It must be the backdrop against which life plays out. It should define all storytelling.

The topic of climate is an opportunity for journalism because it exposes its major shortcomings:

  • Climate is about the future. Journalism is stuck in the now. The focus is on the quick news, the daily business. Surveys show: Too much is reported, too little explained.
  • Climate protection needs hope. Today’s journalism focuses on drama, omissions, failures. This is also expressed in language. Journalism warns, threatens, scares.
  • In climate protection, what counts is what is done. Today’s journalism focuses on what is said. The overproduction in “he said, she said” journalism often leaves people confused, empty, bored.
  • Journalism that works approaches people at eye level in a language they understand. Today’s journalism often arrogates itself above them in a know-it-all manner – especially when it calls itself quality journalism.
  • Journalism that wants to be effective respects its counterpart and relies on diversity, also in addressing the audience. Most of today’s journalism is still grounded in the age of mass media, where one size had to fit all.
  • Journalism that wants to have an impact reflects on its own practices and makes use of research. Today, many newsrooms almost pride themselves on ignoring academic knowledge. Yet there is a lot of knowledge about how communication affects people.

But can journalism that doesn’t have an impact be strong journalism?

To have an impact, you need to engage with your audience. What’s interesting is that the formats that win journalism awards don’t necessarily resonate with audiences – and vice versa. The impactful formats don’t win awards.

So, what is effective climate journalism, what do we know from research?

  • Effective climate journalism focuses on the here and now rather than the distant future when describing the problem. It anchors the issue where people live.
  • Effective climate journalism paints the possibilities of a good future, shows: What will be gained, instead of always emphasizing what will be lost, what will have to be sacrificed. It’s about developing a sustainable economic system. Climate journalism expert Wolfgang Blau calls it the biggest transformation since World War II.
  • Climate journalism works when it is constructive and solutions-oriented, instead of always painting the apocalypse on the wall. If you want to engage people instead of making them run away, even humor works better than constant alarm. Scientists are already looking at the effects of comedy in climate communication.
  • Climate journalism can work if it gives people agency instead of making them victims, or at least “those affected”, as is almost universally done in the news.
  • Effective climate journalism serves different audiences in a way that makes them listen. It takes note that the messenger is often more important than the message itself. At best, the ambassador is a person with high trust and credibility ratings. It also takes into account that an abundance of facts does not replace empathy.
  • Effective climate journalism is powerful journalism. Editors should not be too preoccupied with incidental details. A corset of language is not needed. What is important: depth, research, factual accuracy, strong images – especially strong images of solutions. What never works: Images of “men in suits,” as one Norwegian editor-in-chief put it.
  • Effective climate journalism needs a credible foundation. Media organisations should do their homework, work on their carbon neutrality. And that is possibly the biggest challenge. But anyone who writes flaming commentaries but does not live climate protection in a credible way is quickly exposed as a hypocrite.

Mark Hertsgaard, co-founder of the Covering Climate Now platform at New York’s Columbia University, said, “If we don’t transform the media industry, no other industry will be transformed.” You might hear some hubris in that. But the truth is that only constant public pressure will spur everyone involved to finally tackle the issue.

Climate journalism has what it takes to push journalism into its best future. It is high time to seize this opportunity – for journalism and for the climate.

I gave this keynote on 29th November 2022 at the Constructive Journalism Day in Hamburg, organized by Hamburg Media School and NDR Info. The research for this project has been funded by the news committee of the European Broadcasting Union. 

Don’t mind the gap: Automated translation could revolutionize journalism – but how?

Newsrooms can fight “fake news” by identifying it, warning about it and correcting it. But they can also fight it with so much trustworthy, factual and well researched journalism that it drowns out the lies. For most of them it’s not an either/or decision, of course; they try to do both. The European Broadcasting Union has recently unveiled a project that caters to the latter: It wants to deliver class en masse and will do so by scaling content across countries and languages using automated translation.

The project promises quite a bit: starting in July, ten public broadcasters from Europe will feed in particularly good pieces on globally important topics such as Covid-19, climate change and migration, which will then be translated by artificial intelligence and made available across Europe. In an eight-month pilot phase, 14 institutions had shared more than 120,000 articles this way. This worked so well that the EU is now helping with a grant. So in the future, citizens could benefit not only from more reliable information, but also from more diversity, if things go well.

In fact, automated translations could revolutionize journalism. If you haven’t struggled with texts translated by software into other languages for a while because you found the results rather unsatisfactory, you might want to try it again. Artificial intelligence, which works on the principle of deep learning, now translates texts like this one into English within seconds. With a little editing, they read – this needs to be said – much better than what one used to get back from translators who knew a foreign language but not necessarily the journalistic form. The AI products are, in the truest sense of the word, frighteningly good.

Admittedly, robots work reliably in a few languages only, but they are learning as we read. And the result will shape journalism – but in different directions. On the one hand, the tools open up new possibilities for publishers. Whereas until now only newsrooms from English-speaking countries were able to offer their journalism worldwide, in the future everyone will be able to do so for whom it makes sense commercially or qua mission. Not every media company will be able to turn itself into a New York Times or a Guardian, but the options for Europe-wide news portals are growing rapidly. At the start-up Forum.eu, for example, AI now handles 60 percent of the total translation work, according to co-founder Paul Ostwald’s estimate. The platfom makes quality journalism from different countries accessible all over Europe. 

Editors could also reach people with other native languages more easily in their own countries via automated translation, for example hard to connect with migrant communities. And international research should become much easier if reporters have better access to original documents this way. The whole thing does not only work for written but also for spoken material (which stillmakes for funny subtitles on TV).

However, newsrooms have already realized that there is not only a huge potential for expansion, but also for savings. Reuters news agency has long been redeploying resources, for example from its German-language service to parts of the world where citizens are in greater need for journalistic scrutiny. And of course this makes sense: Instead of sending a German- and an English-speaking colleague to the same press conference in Berlin, an additional colleague in, for example, the Philippines can create real added value.

However, it is precisely at this point that things become critical. After all, language is only ever a packaging for content that arises in the context of a culture. The exact same fact can read completely differently depending on who is describing it. When, for example, star conductor Simon Rattle recently announced that he would be joining the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra as chief conductor in 2023, German culture reporters were thrilled. Reading the British Guardian on the same day, one learned that Rattle had extended his contract with the London Symphony Orchestra until 2022, oh, and at some point he would go to Munich. One event, two reporters, two worlds, a translation would not have helped in this case.

A translation tool will not replace a foreign correspondent – but it will make his or her work easier. This is bad news for all those fixers and local journalists around the globe who make sure that journalists get the right information, contacts and access without which they would often be lost on foreign territory. If they are not needed as translators any longer, they might soon be out of their jobs. Already, only a few newsrooms can afford a network of reporters far from home. Easier access to all the world’s languages is likely to accelerate this development – but it has not caused it. 

As with many things that new technology offers, there is one temptation, and it has to be resisted: That you have to do what you can do. Translating content via AI just because it works is not a strategy. What audience do you want to reach with what content, and what do you want it to achieve? Do you have a mission, a business model, or just fun with it? There they are again, these questions that no AI can answer. Meanwhile, beware: AI is increasingly used to translate “fake news” as well. 

This column was published on 4th February 2021 with Hamburg Media School in German, then translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) and edited.