“No matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.”
This is one of many frank and cautionary sentences in a piece by David Wallace-Wells, published by the New York magazine on July 9, 2017. Writing on the intensity of climate change, Wallace-Wells uses one of the available tactics for those deemed “environmental reporters”: fear.
Reporters face a challenge delivering fresh stories on the constant climate threat. How do they frame it— as a shock story about exotic animals dying at an unprecedented rate? As an anecdote about a cattle farmer taking up climate activism? Logistical and legal reporting on unpassed environmental legislation? Unsure of what their role is in galvanizing readers in reaction to the climate crisis, reporters face a conundrum about climate journalism: it’s all been done.
“People are going to yell at me for saying this, but: it’s a niche, and a relatively small one,” said climate journalist David Roberts. “‘Creature/area threatened by pollutant/industry’ is a story everyone’s seen before a million times.”
While Wallace-Wells uses fear to engage readers, the popular climate website Grist uses humor. After receiving an article full of legal jargon and scientific language, an editor told Grist editorial assistant Zoya Teirstein, “You got to write it as if someone was at a party and they’re holding a beer and you have thirty seconds to get their attention.” Teirstein re-wrote the article with this in mind.
Part of the problem is that environmental reporting cannot easily fit into the categories newspapers use to divide themselves up—World, U.S., Business, Tech—it spans any and all.
“National borders are an important category for journalistic coverage, yet they are completely irrelevant for climate change impacts,” said Michael Brüggemann, writer of the article on climate journalism for the Oxford Research Encyclopedias.
As such, news organizations are struggling with how to section climate news. The New York Times has Climate denoted as a subsection of Science (the Climate branch was founded only in 2017). It is one of many online news sources, where the reader must search for Climate news to read it. The Wall Street Journal does not have a Science or Climate section.
“It’s the stuff that gets clicks (and draws advertisers) that survives,” added David Roberts.
“The reason The New York Times has a half-dozen blogs about cars and one about the environment is that lots of people love reading about cars and not that many love reading about the horrible stuff human beings are doing to ecosystems.”
In order to combat the sensationalism of reporters trying to get clicks, website Climate Feedbacks provides readers with scientists’ analysis of climate news stories. Viewers can find a summary of the article, alongside an analysis of what was reported truthfully. One such commentary was titled “Washington Post accurately covers permafrost study, albeit under a somewhat sensational headline.”
And for those extra motivated to find factual climate news—they can turn to news sources dedicated solely to climate. Two of the most prominent are InsideClimate News, founded in 2007, and Climate Central, founded in 2008. Both sites have twelve full-time reporters. The journalism is sound; in 2013, InsideClimate won a Pulitzer Prize.
While Trump’s political decisions are detrimental to the environment, they are providing it with more coverage than before. In 2017, Trump and his decisions surrounding climate change—and in particular the Paris Climate Agreement—brought the amount of reporting on climate change from a total by all US corporate news networks of fifty minutes to, in 2017, a total of 260. However, 79% of that climate coverage—205 out of 260 minutes—was centered on Trump.
The good news? 2019 is bringing changes. Climate activists over the globe have dedicated themselves to non-violent protests, pulling the climate narrative away from Donald Trump and back to the problem itself.
The global Climate Week protest, from September 20th to 27th, brought in headlines such as: “Climate Strike: Young Crowds Demand Action” [The New York Times], “The climate issue: A warming world” [The Economist], and the snarky “Leaders Detail Efforts on Climate, But Get Earful From Young Activist” from the Wall Street Journal.
In 2019, climate activists are not waiting for reporters to catch up; now, they’re giving them the story.