This column is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
The climate crisis is reformulating what we thought of as laws of nature: Wildfires and hurricanes no longer have off seasons, Texas freezes while Siberia burns. It used to be considered hysterical to think twice about having children because of climate change. Now, it’s a normal conversation.
We see this all around us, but it is rarely reflected in the news media. Climate change is seldom the first thing you see on an outlet’s website. Even if you search for it, climate coverage can be hard to find, often buried somewhere under “science and technology” or in the even more obscure “energy and environment” section. Of the major US newspapers, only one—the Los Angeles Times—has its climate reporting easily accessible at the top of its home page. And TV news is far worse, typically failing to connect even the most extreme weather events back to climate change.
We talk about climate change a lot—on our podcast, in our newsletter, on other people’s podcasts, on panels, at keynotes, or even just texting between the two of us. One of the most persistent questions we hear is some version of “What do scientists need to do to convince politicians to take action?” But it’s not the scientists’ job to tell politicians what to do. That’s the public’s job, and it’s the media’s role to make sure the public has the knowledge to do that. This isn’t about whom the scientists need to convince, it’s about the media doing its job.
The failure of the media to communicate the dangers of climate change isn’t a new problem. The fossil fuel industry has invested billions in manipulating the media for more than a century. Long before climate change emerged as a key environmental issue, the industry had been pushing journalists to equate CEOs’ opinions with scientific studies. So when “global warming” had its first media moment in the late 1980s, false equivalence was already baked in.
“Global Warming Is Expected to Be the Hot Issue of the 1990s,” a Los Angeles Times headline proclaimed in 1989, followed by: “Some scientists studying the greenhouse effect say the sky is falling. Others believe the best advice is to stay cool.” Never mind the fact that “some” scientists represented an overwhelming global majority while “others” represented a small handful of industry-backed shills. By the late ’90s, when it was clear that there would not be a binding global emissions treaty—at least not one the United States would be party to—all those outlets who had committed to covering the “hot” story dropped it.
By the mid-2000s, climate change was once again headline news, thanks in part to former vice president Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth. This time, the media tackled the story with a consumer-friendly approach. Coverage fell into one of three buckets: political stories focused on legislation that would incentivize emissions reductions, clean-tech or business approaches that would solve the problem through innovation, and, of course, the perennial consumer action stories about how our only power is purchasing power. Media companies created climate sections, hired climate editors, and teams of climate reporters—only to shut them all down a decade later.
Then, in 2018, when climate scientists put out their most urgent warning to date, the US media again committed to go big on climate. And for a brief moment, it did. Media coverage exploded, not just in quantity but in quality and diversity. There was long-form narrative and excellent investigative journalism, data journalism and multimedia packages. Time magazine’s Person of the Year was Greta Thunberg. There were stories connecting the dots on climate and health and climate and race, think pieces on ecofascism, and personal essays about every aspect of experiencing the climate crisis. It seemed like the issue had finally made it beyond the science and technology section.
But it all vanished when Covid-19 hit. If you wanted to pitch a climate story in 2020, it was tough going. We know; we tried! The pendulum has swung back and forth since the 1990s, with the country’s top media companies committing resources only to yank them back a few years later.
To be clear, and fair, we are seeing some improvements. In the first-ever Covering Climate Now awards, more than 600 journalists from around the world submitted a range of truly remarkable coverage. And it’s becoming more common these days for climate to be the front-page story in The New York Times or The Washington Post. The Guardian booted fossil fuel ads to the curb in 2020. Even TV, which has always lagged behind print on climate coverage, is starting to shift as high-profile presenters like Al Roker and Bill Weir routinely refer to the climate crisis.
But given the state and stakes of the crisis, there’s still a lot to be desired in the media coverage. Allow us to propose a five-point plan to fix climate reporting.
1. It’s the Planet, Stupid
In the past few decades, every time media companies have backed off their commitments to covering climate, it’s been with the promise that they’re not going to ignore the story, just integrate it into the rest of their coverage. And then, somehow, that just never happens. Well, it’s time to follow through on that promise. The climate crisis should be a lens on everything in the same way the economy is. It intersects with the economy, gender, labor, health, food, sports, education, and every manner of social justice. There is no story on earth that isn’t affected by climate change or affects climate change, or both. We don’t need reporters of all specialties to necessarily become climate reporters themselves, but they should at least check in with their climate-reporter colleagues. Climate editors need to weigh in on stories of all kinds, not just those about energy policy and emissions. We already do this with the economy—why not do it with the planet?
2. Um, Do Your Own Research
The media still needs to get better at not accepting industry talking points at face value. The framing of “the economy vs. the environment” is a classic example. Reporters need to push back on the conventional notion that it is always just too expensive to act on climate—compared to what? And according to whom? Basically, any talking point or press release from the fossil fuel industry should be treated with the same skepticism as a statement from the police. Similarly, regurgitating the claims of every new clean-tech startup with a “climate solution” is not responsible reporting. The onus is on the mainstream media to not overly hype any proposed “solution” before it has been vetted by someone other than the company trying to sell it.
3. Put the “Pro” Back in Protester
Somehow, climate protesters are always remembered for what they are against and never for what they’re for. Climate protesters don’t want to take things away. They want to give people things—most notably, a livable future. That’s a story worth telling!
4. Climate Science Is Not Hearsay
There is no reason to frame the latest climate data with “Scientists say.” Scientists aren’t saying it. Science is saying it. You don’t need to qualify the truth; you can just say it.
5. Switch it Up
For the love of all things sacred, please stop giving the same platforms to the same white guys to say the same thing. We heard it the first time! And it’s part of the reason why so many people think climate change snuck up on them: They took up all the room while voices from the Global South and frontline communities within the United States were never heard. Please, diversify your newsrooms. And your freelance pools. And, come to think of it, your mastheads!
Today, there’s momentum to get climate coverage right. Media companies are again committed to the climate story. Headlines proclaiming it “the story of our time” abound, as do posts about how everyone’s a climate reporter now. In September 2021, climate coverage hit its highest point ever. The media is full of climate stories: Extreme weather events are pummeling the world; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is making increasingly dire predictions; the United States is toying with its significant first step toward climate policy; and we are heading toward another major global climate conference.But if the history of climate coverage tells us anything, it’s that it’s easy to cover this story when extreme weather or chaotic politics are top of mind, but the media lets it go whenever a new D.C. scandal—or global pandemic—hits. Now is the time to make sure that climate coverage is—dare we say it—sustainable. Doing so might finally unlock that pesky last ingredient necessary for genuine climate action: political will.