What we’ve learned from our week of climate coverage
by Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope
Today marks the beginning of a global climate strike and Monday will bring the UN Climate Action Summit, so we’re dedicating this installment of our newsletter to media coverage of climate, and whether it’s getting any better.
This spring, CJR and The Nation co-founded Covering Climate Now, an unprecedented journalistic collaboration aimed at strengthening news coverage of the defining story of our time. The project was embraced immediately by The Guardian, which became our lead media partner, and has since grown enormously: more than 300 news outlets from around the world—with a combined audience of more than 1 billion people—are now part of Covering Climate Now. More are joining by the day. Each of these outlets—big and small, TV and radio, print and digital—committed to running a week of strong coverage in the lead-up to the UN climate summit, and they have delivered.
A highlight was an exclusive on-camera interview with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres—conducted by Mark Hertsgaard of The Nation, Mark Phillips of CBS News, and Amanda Mars of El Pais and shared with all 300+ Covering Climate Now outlets—that reported for the first time the pre-conditions that countries had to meet for their leaders to address the summit on Monday. In the spirit of collaboration central to the Covering Climate Now project, Hertsgaard wrote a news story in English, Mars wrote one in Spanish, and CBS shared video and audio of the interview with all participating outlets.
Hundreds of additional stories have been run by Covering Climate Now outlets, with many more still to come. You can read many of them at www.coveringclimatenow.org.
This coverage has ranged widely in ambition, depth, and perspective. PBS NewsHour was the first out of the box with an insightful interview of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who sparked the School Strike for Climate movement. Asahi Shimbun, the biggest newspaper in Japan and one of the first outlets to join Covering Climate Now, published a harrowing story, available in English, about how drought and other climate disruptions are slashing rice production in southeast Asia. Teen Vogue ran an essay by a young woman from the US Virgin Islands, describing how her home is already being destroyed by the climate crisis. Nature, the world’s leading climate science journal, published perhaps the most provocative headline of the week, “Why I welcome a climate emergency.” And The Guardian has published article after article illuminating the climate story—on subjects ranging from the US government climate scientists who have been silenced by Trump to the new ways in which the climate is damaging our health.
All of this has been so impressive, it makes us wonder, perhaps optimistically, whether the press may finally have turned a corner on climate coverage. In a piece we co-wrote at the start of the week, we noted that the newfound media attention, while late, could at last be a pivot away from denial or avoidance to energy and creativity in climate reporting. “We had a hunch that there was a critical mass of reporters and news outlets that wanted to do more climate coverage, and hoped that by highlighting that critical mass, we could also help to grow it. That’s exactly what has happened,” we wrote. “Their response has been amazing, and gratifying.”
At CJR, we have used the week to deepen and broaden our own climate coverage. Michael Mann, a climate scientist, spoke with Brendan Fitzgerald about the new climate communication challenges facing journalists, and looked back on coverage of "Climategate." Cinnamon Janzer profiled Eric Holthaus, a reporter for The Correspondent whose climate coverage manifesto called for news outlets to “lift up diverse voices to tell the stories of a better future.” Wudan Yan reported on newsrooms' reluctance to cover population as a contributing factor to climate change. And Jill Geisler spoke with Pope about the obstacles that may prevent collaborative climate coverage. CJR also shared a slideshow of images from its “Flooding the News” exhibit, for which artists used newspapers to reflect urgent climate threats.
On Galley, CJR’s app, Mathew Ingram interviewed David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, which was published in February. In the exchange, Wallace-Wells talks about how he wasn't really an environmentalist before he started researching the subject—he's never been hiking or camping before, and doesn't own a pet. But, he says, he knew that the climate crisis was being under-reported and distorted by the mainstream media, and that it was “an enormous story-telling opportunity.” In a similar interview on Galley, Emily Atkin talks about why she quit her job at The New Republic to start a subscription newsletter about climate change, called “Heated.” One of her motivating principles, she says, is to make people angry about what's happening to the environment. "I strongly believe that anger, carefully directed, is essential to effective journalism and effective action," she says.
The press, especially the US press, has much lost ground to recover, and much to improve on, when it comes to reporting the climate story. It’s still not being told on the scale that the science demands. But this week, there’s been progress.