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In Short, How Do We All Report On Climate Change Better?

Jem Collins

Founding Director & Editor-In-Chief

Climate change is, put simply, the biggest issue affecting every one of us on the planet. Years of in action (and some questionable reporting) have left us in an even more precarious position than we were.

However, for a variety of reasons, the climate emergency is at last trickling into the daily news agenda – and the public consciousness. In fact, according to Google Trends data, the peak of google searches this year was more than three times the number of searches five years ago.

It’s clear that reporting on the climate need to be done responsibly and engagingly – but just how do reporters achieve that, especially when working in a busy newsroom?

‘It’s A Serious Topic We Can Talk About In A Silly Way’

Adam asks a key question – where do you first hear of Greta Thunberg? (Image Credit: European Journalism Centre)

For decades, reporting on the climate emergency has been plagued by the idea of balance, with outlets like the BBC often giving equal airtime to climate change deniers. This aside though, for some climate reporters, there have been even more fundamental problems with our reporting, with few outlets moving beyond dry, unengaging reportage.

It’s a problem which led Dr Adam Levy, better known as Climate Adam, to try something different. Speaking at the European Journalism Centre’s News Impact Summit earlier this month (October 2019), he made a compelling case for making sure climate change coverage speaks to as many audiences as possible – and crucially, on as many platforms.

“Where did you first hear of Greta Thunberg?” he asked the conference. “Was it an article on climate change or on social media?” For most of us the answer was the same – seeing the same striking picture of a 15-year-old school girl sat along outside the Swedish Parliament buildings on Twitter. “Climate change affects everyone.” he added, “so we need to discuss it in every way that we can, and that includes every medium that we can and every tone that we can.”

Especially in an age where fake news can spread incredibly fast on social media, Adam says it’s even more important to be in the right places giving the right information. “We have to be on social media and putting out information which is true. If we’re not doing that all the videos will be that climate change is fake. Social media is inundated with these things, which is why we have to make amazing content which is faithful to what we really understand.”

It was the ethos behind his own YouTube Channel, which now boasts thousands of subscribers, talks about climate change in an approachable, humorous manner, tied up with excellent editing and filming. Similarly, the BBC’s Climate Change Bot, also presented at the summit, takes users on a six-session climate change crash course, complete with gifs of seals, chatty language and actual science. During its original run it got more than 100,000 interactions, with the team behind it adding these numbers also showed a “depth of engagement rather than reach”.

Video Credit: Dr Adam Levy

In short, if you’re looking at ways to reach the most people with your climate reporting, think about where those people are. Take your reporting to the platforms they’re on, allow them to consume your reporting fully on the platform without directing them elsewhere, and finally, make sure it fits the medium you’re using.

For the BBC team using Facebook Messenger this meant “jokes, short responses that fit on the screen, and the feel of an actual conversation”. For Adam, it means jump cuts, gin and tonics, and hot sweaters. “Climate change, for me, is one of the most serious issues there are. I never make light of climate change – it’s a serious topic that we can talk about in a silly way. It also makes the videos seem like less of a lecture.” Basically, it’s time move behind the mere article.

‘Every Time I Would Pitch It, People Would Go “Ahh Boring”‘

Elisabetta Tola, David Gregory-Kumar, and Leo Hickman (Image Credit: European Journalism Centre)

However, even for more traditional reporting, the notion of just thinking about your audience can go a long way. Climate change science has exploded during the past decade, with Google Scholar showing that more than 100 new papers are published every day – so just how do you make important updates desirable to read? For Elisabetta Tola, a data, science, and tech journalist at Facta and Formicablu, the most important thing to do is to put real people at the heart of the story.

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“For many years we went on saying ‘there’s a new report, let’s talk about that,'” she told the conference. “We always ended up doing the same programme – trying to get a scientist to explain what’s going on, and that didn’t work at all. Every time I would pitch it, people would go ‘ahh, it’s so boring’.”

“One thing I’m trying to do [now],” she continued, “is focus more on the solutions that are tried around the world to actually do something. The action side of things. {It’s] the idea of looking for solutions – not to be falsely optimistic, but there is a huge amount we can do aside from explaining the science, looking at what we can practically do.”

Solutions journalism was a strong theme throughout the conference. Essentially, it’s a  type of reporting which looks rigorously a proposed solutions to social problems. Crucially, it’s not about false positivity or ‘happy journalism’ but painstakingly dissecting ideas put to the table.

And it’s something audiences are interested in too – of the almost 3,000 questions asked to the BBC’s Climate Change Bot by the public, the most frequently asked question was ‘what can I do?’. It’s also something Climate Adam addresses in his opening trailer to the channel, acknowledging that many people find climate change and overwhelming topic to think about.

Want to find out more about this kind of stuff? You can see more about Solutions Journalism on their website, which offers free training and a story bank. You can also visit the European Journalism Centre’s dedicated News Summit website for more details on their latest events.

But, it’s not just about putting solutions into the story, it’s also putting people and the effects on them centre stage. “Climate change perspectives has to be a local story,” explained Viktorija Mickute, a producer for Al Jazeera’s Contrast VR. “People who struggle with its effects every single day. We need to not only learn about them, but from them.”

Explaining the process behind the 360° films she worked on, The Disappearing Oasis, she added: “I wanted it to be an intimate exploration of the people, the town, the community, what is happening. I don’t call an expert a scientist who researches, an expert is the local community who took matters into their own hands.”

 

And, when pulling in people, you finally start to get the nub of a truly engaging story – emotion. “Facts don’t really have the same effect as emotion,” Viktorija added. “Emotion is what actually drives action. As journalists we have such a huge power to give a platform to people. We need to make sure we’re giving the platform to the right people on the ground.”

‘It Isn’t An Issue, It Actually Affects Everything’

Viktorija Mickute talks delegates through her project. (Image Credit: European Journalism Centre)

But, big projects aside, are there any practical tips which reporters can use day to day in the newsroom? “It’s important not to make sweeping generalisations,” said David Gregory-Kumar, a correspondent for the BBC, referencing the backlash from a UN report about plant-based diets. He also advised moving on from the climate emergency being presenting as having “two sides” to the argument, but adds that “the more people out there who can be approached, the better the overall conversation.”

Our Top Five Tips For Engaging and Responsible Climate Change Journalism

• Focus on the people – look for the real life effects, impacts, solutions, and emotions.
• Think about the format – how would this story work on Instagram, for example? What would the tone be?
• Steer clear from making broad generalisations about a topic – it will come back to bite you.
• Don’t make climate change about politics – focus on the policies, not the parties.
• Think of climate change as a topic which touches everything – not just a single issue.

Equally important, according to Jon Allsop of Columbia Journalism Review, which helped spearhead the Covering Climate Now movement, is to move away from politics. “Don’t make it about politics – it’s about the policy, not if the democrats win.” But, finally, the most important thing, is not to see the climate emergency as a single issue.

“Climate change is not a story which should be siloed,” he told the conference. “It is the story of our time – it intersects with every single area and every single beat. Saying you work in a small town newspaper or a entertainment publication? That’s not a good enough reason to not be doing climate change. It does not begin and end with the weather. It does not begin and end with floods. There are so many angles to it.”

Featured Image: Ben White / Unsplash