Trainee Journalist

November 30, 2021 (Updated )

Front page splashes and wrap-around broadcasts from COP26 confirmed that, even amongst traditionally skeptical newspapers, the climate emergency is no longer just the remit of specialist reporters. Instead, it’s the lens every journalist should approach their beat with.

The urgent action needed to reduce the devastating impact of climate change requires a media that’s able to effectively communicate the issues we face – and the solutions at our disposal.

But as the delegates left Glasgow, the real work begins – we all need to take action on both an individual and structural level, including in our reporting. So, we spoke to communications experts, reporters and environmental scientists about how journalists can report on the climate emergency responsibly and ethically.

Climate Reporting Is No Longer An Afterthought

Nimra Shahid is an investigative journalist at Global Witness, covering deforestation and subsequent human rights abuses in Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Papua New Guinea. Before that, she worked in news and data journalism, something she says helps her understand the big picture.

“The climate crisis feeds into every aspect of our lives,” Nimra says. “It can relate to why all the swans in my local lake have died after a water company spent 138 hours pumping sewage nearby, or why recycling rates are lower in poorer areas. Or, why there were over 5,000 fossil fuel lobbyists attending a UN climate summit about how we should save our planet.”

Nimra believes that the media’s coverage of climate change has come a long way in recent years, with newspapers now dedicating entire sections to the beat. Before, it was seen as too niche or an afterthought. “We’re now seeing a whole climate podcast from Sky News and a host of brilliant specialist outlets making waves with original and insightful journalism, such as Unearthed by Greenpeace and Carbon Brief,” she says.

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Nimra Shahid (L) and Kate Llewellyn (R)

Angela Terry has also witnessed this development. She is an environmental scientist and the founder of One Home, an organisation which encourages climate action by providing independent advice to journalists.

“Sometimes, I literally had to become a reporter for a day because people didn’t want to mention the word climate change themselves because they’d have all these deniers. I think everyone now realises deniers are just a niche group, mainly funded by the oil and gas industry,” she says.

One Home works with journalists covering lots of different beats, including those which don’t immediately seem linked to climate change. “If you care about tourism or food or interior decorating, the green lifestyle touches on all of it,” she says. “We did an article recently in the Metro about how many trainers are produced every year – it’s 50 billion a year. It’s 1.4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions so it’s almost as bad as flying.”

But, whilst reporting has come a long way in recent years, it can still fall back into scare tactics and stereotypes.

The Impacts Of Climate Change

• Average global temperatures have risen by more than 1°C since the 1850s, caused by greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere.

• A warming planet makes extreme weather events more likely such as heatwaves, droughts and heavy rainfall.

• Rising sea levels means greater risk of flooding which can destroy homes and livelihoods.

• The absorption of carbon dioxide makes oceans more acidic which can have negative effects on marine life such as coral.

• Changes in temperature can make it harder to grow crops and extreme weather events can disrupt access to food.

You can read more about the impacts of climate change on the Met Office’s website.

Make Sure Your Reporting Is Easy To Understand

On Road Media is a charity which works with media professionals to better inform their reporting on a range of topics including climate change. Their recently published guidance document sets out how to “change hearts and minds about climate change”.

“There are six things we recommend journalists to think about when they’re talking about climate change,” senior project officer Kate Llewellyn says. The most important, she underlines, is to make sure your reporting is easily understandable and doesn’t rely on specialist knowledge. “Research shows that jargon doesn’t just make people think ‘I don’t understand’, it actively pushes people away [and] makes people not want to be part of the conversation.”

They also advise framing stories carefully – make sure change feels do-able, that you’re not only looking at individual choices but the bigger picture, and that we don’t just tell stories about in-action. Instead, we want to normalise the narrative of change actually happening.

For Nimra, willingness to draw on the expertise of others is key to good climate journalism. “One of the best things about my team and Global Witness in general is that people come together from a range of expertise including policy, journalism and law,” she says. “A number of my colleagues speak French, Spanish, Portuguese and have a native knowledge of particular regions or financial specialisms.”

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"It's frustrating when journalists talk about 'record-breaking' temperatures and rainfall with a jubilant tone."
Angela Terry, One Home

The Importance Of Language

The language journalists use when reporting about climate change is important and even minor shifts in emphasis can have a big effect on the actions people take.

For Angela, it’s frustrating when journalists talk about “record-breaking” temperatures and rainfall with a jubilant tone as if it’s something to be proud of. Instead, the media should be talking about how these extreme weather events are symptoms of man-made climate destruction and using it as a starting point to talk about solutions.

Kate explains that, whilst On Road are aware each outlet will have its own house style, research has shown that using language like ‘us’, ‘we’ and ‘our’ is much more effective than saying ‘you’, ‘they’ or ‘them’ because it emphasises collective responsibility rather than shifting the blame onto other people.

How To Spot Greenwashing

Greenwashing is a term used to describe the practice of companies and organisations making it seem like they are doing more to protect the environment than their track record indicates. Nimra offers this advice:

• Do companies use vague language with no detail or are there concrete, practical steps which they are taking?

• Look at the climate record of a company, are they trying to cover up malpractice elsewhere?

• Talk to a wide range of sources, including those who are critical of the company.

• Look out for jargon and strategies companies often use to mislead the media, public and policymakers.

You can learn more about greenwashing in this video from Global Witness.

Finding Balance Between Structural & Individual Solutions

The most impactful climate journalism finds a balance between addressing structural issues such as government policy and corporate abuses and reflecting on what people can do as individuals.

“Any one of us can make small changes on an individual level and there’s certainly space for a range of perspectives in climate reporting,” Nimra says. “However, it’s important for journalists to be wary of disproportionately focusing on our personal habits in the news, which can distract from holding the biggest polluters and drivers of deforestation to account.”

Even on an individual level, some actions can have much more impact than others. “It’s not enough anymore to just say ‘we can fix climate change by driving less, or washing our clothes on 30’”, Kate says. “A, because people don’t like to be told what to do, [and], B because we’ve missed that opportunity, all we’ve done is keep the conversation on whether or not you should wash your clothes on 30 or 40 degrees.”

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"It's not enough anymore to just say 'we can fix climate change by driving less or washing our clothes on 30' [...] We've missed that opportunity."
Kate Llewellyn

Journalists should go beyond reporting on trends and look critically at what they’re telling people to do. For example, it’s more effective to talk about how switching to an electric car, installing heat pumps, eating less meat and insulating your house will not only help the environment, but also save you money in the long term.

It’s also important to put decisions into context. If you’re recommending that people use public transport more, also discuss how governments need to spend more improving and subsidising public transport to make it a more attractive option.

Striking The Right Tone

There is also a balance to be found between ‘colourful’ human-interest stories and more systematic data-based reporting. At a recent Women in Journalism panel event, freelance environmental journalist Fatima Arkin spoke about how journalists reporting about the effects of climate change in the Global South can sometimes lose nuance and focus too heavily on the colour of the piece.

“When I talk to people back in Canada or back in the West, sometimes you’d be forgiven for thinking that the entire country is just made up of farmers who struggle with the typhoon, when there is a lot of complexity here and nuance and you’re not getting those fresh perspectives and different lived experiences which I wish people would dig into more,” she says. Looking at “people on the ground” as experts and the ones driving solutions is also a key part of a solutions journalism approach.

Going forward, there are small changes that reporters covering climate change can make to increase the impact of their reporting. Kate talks about moving away from trying to shock or sadden people and instead show that change is possible and there are doable actions that people can take.”

Acknowledge that we are in a tricky situation right now, but we have never cared about climate more than we do now,” she says. “We have public support for pretty radical policy action on climate change.”

Nimra says that there is “still scope for areas of climate reporting to improve, such as focusing more on the voices of indigenous activists and those from the Global South or further scrutinizing the lines politicians from the Global North give on where progress is being made.”

It is clear that, regardless of your beat or whether you have a scientific background, climate change affects all areas of reporting and for the sake of the planet, it’s important that journalists get their reporting right.

Tom Taylor
Tom Taylor

Tom joined the Journo Resources team in mid-2021 as a trainee, and will focus on writing original features and content during his time at Journo Resources. Tom also takes the lead on our Twitter account, as well as keeping our resources and jobs board up to date.

Based in Manchester, Tom is also the editor of Salt Magazine, and independent magazine sharing arts, music, and culture across Greater Manchester.