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.
The British public can’t get enough news about Brexit – at least, that’s what news platforms’ data analytics say. But, according to the Reuters Institute’s latest Digital News Report, 71% of the British public tries to avoid media coverage of the United Kingdom’s impending departure from the European Union. This disparity, which can be seen in a wide range of areas, raises serious questions about news organizations’ increasingly data-driven approach to reporting.
The rise of data analytics has made journalists and their editors confident that they know what people want. And for good reason: with a large share of news consumed on the Internet, media platforms know exactly which stories readers open, how much they read before getting bored, what they share with their friends, and the type of content that entices them to sign up for a subscription.
Such data indicate, for example, that audiences are interested in extraordinary investigative journalism, diet and personal-finance advice, and essays about relationships and family. They prefer stories with a personal angle – say, detailing an affected individual’s fate – rather than reports on ongoing conflicts in the Middle East or city hall coverage. And they are drawn to sensational stories – such as about US President Donald Trump’s scandals and antics – under “clickbait” headlines.
But if newsrooms were really giving audiences what they wanted, it seems unlikely that almost one-third (32%) of respondents in the Digital News Report, the world’s largest ongoing survey of online news consumption, would report that they regularly avoid news altogether. But they did, and that figure is up three percentage points from two years ago.
The most common explanation for avoiding the news media, given by 58% of those who do, is that following it has a negative effect on their mood. Many respondents also cited a sense of powerlessness.
Moreover, only 16% of participants approve of the tone used in news coverage, while 39% disapprove. Young people, in particular, seem fed up with the negativity bias that has long been regarded as a sure-fire way to attract audiences. For many, that bias feels disempowering. Conversations indicate that the problem is compounded for young parents, who want to believe that the world will be good to their children. Younger generations also feel consuming news should be more entertaining and less of a chore.
One reason for the disconnect between the data and people’s self-reported relationship with the news media may be the “guilty pleasure” effect: people have an appetite for voyeurism, but would prefer not to admit it, sometimes even to themselves. So, even as they click on articles about grisly crimes or celebrity divorces, they may say that they want more “quality news.”
When newsrooms indulge readers’ worst impulses, the consequences are far-reaching. Media are integral to support accountability by anyone wielding power or influence, and to mobilize civic engagement. Democracies, in particular, depend on voters being well informed about pressing issues. News organizations thus have a responsibility to report on serious topics, from political corruption to climate change, even if they are unpleasant.
That does not mean that readers’ complaints about media’s negativity bias should be disregarded. On the contrary, if people are to be motivated to confront challenges that are shaping their lives, they should not be made to feel powerless.
This is where so-called solutions journalism comes in. By balancing information about what needs changing with true stories about positive change, news organizations can fulfill their responsibility both to inform and to spur progress. This means occasionally recognizing that over the long term, living standards have improved globally.
Reconnecting with audiences will also require media organizations to broaden their perspectives. In much of the West, it is largely white, male, middle-class journalists who decide what to cover and how. This limits news media’s ability to represent diverse societies fairly and accurately.
In fact, only 29% of Digital News Report respondents agreed that the topics the news media choose “feel relevant” to them. A joint study by the Reuters Institute and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, indicates that the key to increasing this share is to increase diversity in newsrooms.
At the same time, news media need to do a better job of contextualizing and otherwise explaining the news. While 62% of Digital News Report respondents feel that media keep them apprised of events, only half believe news outlets are doing enough to help them understand what is happening. At a time when nearly one-third of people think that there is simply too much news being reported, the solution seems clear: do less, better.
This means listening to readers, not just studying the data analytics. It means balancing good news with bad news, and offering clarifying information when needed. It also means representing diverse perspectives. Media organizations that do not make these changes will continue to lose trust and relevance. That is hardly a sound strategy for convincing consumers that their work is worth paying for.