Scenes like this are probably familiar to many: At a preparatory meeting for an event later in the year one participant suggests that it could revolve entirely around climate change reporting. One of the participants, an editor-in-chief, is skeptical: “Won’t this be a little old by then?” The reflexes work, the man has done his job. Be fresh, be surprising, don’t ride anything to death – everyone who is trained in the daily business of news has internalized this way of thinking. It is called news for a reason after all. But how does that fit with an earth-altering development that manifests itself mostly in slow motion and only at times with the force of catastrophes? Newsrooms have not yet had to cover anything like that, a for the most part unpredictable process which challenges our way of living and doing business right down to the smallest personal habit.
Wolfgang Blau knows all about these reflexes. Few media managers are currently dealing as intensively with the demands and difficulties of climate reporting as he is. The former editor-in-chief of Zeit Online, who pursued his career at the Guardian and the publishing house Condé Nast, is currently focusing on the demands and difficulties of climate reporting. Being the co-founder of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, he pinpointed the hurdles to overcome for those who want to report on climate change seriously and effectively in a lecture. The list is long.
In conversations with media people around the world, Blau identified operational but also cultural and ethical challenges. The compulsion to highlight the latest news, the fixation on disasters, the lack of expertise among reporters are the best known. Nic Newman’s media leaders’ survey “Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions,” also reflected on some of these. In the 2022 edition, the nearly 250 editors-in-chief and top managers from around the world complained about two things in particular: First: There is a lot of good climate journalism, but the readership does not take to it to the extent they always claim in surveys. Second, there are too few experts in newsrooms, and the scientific culture is weak.
One of the biggest difficulties, however, that few are aware of who now dutifully identify topics, commission stories, develop explanatory formats, hire climate reporters, or set up special desks, is: Excellent climate journalism requires an entirely different mindset, explicitely a commitment to the very subject itself. It does not regard sustainability as just another topic to be dissected from an observer’s perspective alone, but as a goal. The preservation of the natural foundations of life would then be equivalent to the preservation of democracy and human rights to which independent journalism is committed.
Only, the problem is: At a time when some declare impartiality to be a religion and confuse pluralism with relativism, those who take climate journalism seriously tend to come under general suspicion. Those who openly strive for sustainability are accused to follow a green political agenda. Many owners, business managers, funders, and even quite a few editors who are committed to the journalistic principle of objectivity are therefore reluctant to follow suit. In addition, a corresponding attitude deeply interferes with personal lifestyle. It is comparatively easy to behave as a good democrat. Living as a responsible citizen of the earth places considerable demands on everyone and also raises many unanswered questions.
Blau argues that climate change requires a similar rethinking in the industry as digitization. There’s something to that, because it’s also down to the nitty-gritty: digital journalism requires a different attitude than classic print or broadcast journalism. Instead of assuming the position of the head teacher, as in the past, modern journalists are concerned with the needs of the users. Editors study and know their audiences, and ideally serve them so precisely that even demanding material is gratefully accepted – not just the clickbait scolded by digital skeptics. The goal is to build trusting relationships between senders and recipients. In climate journalism, it becomes something like a triangle: Users are supposed to engage with often uncomfortable facts and ideally derive consequences for their own actions: behave differently as consumers and/or get politically involved in preserving the planet.
This is where problem number two arises: Journalism that deliberately aims to change behavior comes under suspicion of activism. And yes, journalists who care about strong, independent reporting should be suspicious of the campaigning nature of activism. But can climate reporting that accomplishes nothing be good climate journalism at all? When it comes to the big issues like democracy, equality or even sustainability, something that could be called activating journalism is necessary. It is precisely in this balancing act that constructive journalism finds itself, which is sometimes accused of being activist. Constructive journalism works primarily against the audiences’ feelings of powerlessness. According to surveys, one in three people regularly avoids the news, mainly on the grounds that it leaves them behind helpless and/or in a bad mood.
What could climate journalism look like that doesn’t do that? The French news agency AFP, for example, has reorganized its entire newsroom into “hubs,” including one that deals with the future of the planet in all its facets. Every story needs a climate dimension, says AFP editor-in-chief Phil Chetwynd. Ritu Kapur, founder of Indian news platform The Quint, also believes looking ahead is crucial. Doomsday scenarios don’t go down very well with audiences, she says, but anything that involves people and the impact of climate change and strategies against it on employment, growth, mobility, and lifestyle. A big hit with the Quint-audiences was: How can the ecological footprint of a big traditional wedding be minimized?
Good climate journalism definitely needs to become a cross-cutting issue. Every reporter, every commentator should critically examine in all assignments what impact events, new products, projects, or political steps have on sustainability and climate protection – whether that’s the Olympics, new car models or transport projects. Correspondents must address was digitization does to energy consumption, they still do this far too rarely.
Problem number three arises from all of this: the contradiction between commentators’ demands and the media’s own role model function. Media companies, which are often medium-sized and financially strapped, seldom excel in practicing sustainability. While it has become increasingly common in many other industries to calculate and document the ecological footprint of products and processes, this is rarely seen with publishers and their newsrooms. This mirrors a common trait, witnessed also in other areas, for example gender equality or diversity: There is a gap between flaming commentary on the one hand and corresponding, transparent action on the other. Only a few companies have understood that this puts nothing less than their very credibility at stake.
So, what would help climate preservation is an activating journalism, supported by a commitment and mindset that is reflected in the entire organization, its products and practices. So much for the ideal. If you want or need to start a little smaller, start with a qualified, energetic, and outspoken climate correspondent. But he or she should have a seat at the table every day, not just in case of floods, storms, or fires.
This column was first published in German on 16th February 2022 by Medieninsider.