The Climate Beat,” the weekly newsletter of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative strengthening coverage of the climate story. The author is Covering Climate Now’s deputy director.
This Friday, March 19, thousands of young activists around the world will march and strike for climate action as part of Fridays for Future, a movement launched by Greta Thunberg and other organizers. Events are planned on five continents. The theme: #NoMoreEmptyPromises. “Those in power continue to only deliver vague and empty promises for far off dates that are much too late,” reads a statement by Fridays For Future. “What we need are not meaningless goals for 2050 or net-zero targets full of loopholes, but concrete and immediate action in-line with science.”
For some journalists, covering activism presents an uncomfortable dilemma. Too much coverage might come across as cheerleading or make journalists look like they are activists themselves, contradicting institutional notions of neutrality. A reporter’s job is to cover the news, the argument goes, not boost one side or the other.
Fair enough. But activists are newsmakers—just like the politicians, scientists, and corporate officials we cover all the time.
Youth-dominated groups have upended global climate politics over the last two years and injected a much-needed emphasis on environmental justice into the public conversation. Whether by scolding jet-setting elites at Davos for their obliviousness, as Thunberg did, or occupying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol office, as Sunrise Movement activists did to demand that Democrats walk their talk on climate change, youth activists have forced the climate issue onto government and, yes, media agendas around the world.
During the 2020 US presidential race, youth activists’ grassroots pressure pushed then-candidate Joe Biden to dramatically strengthen his climate proposals even as it helped raise climate change to a top-tier campaign issue. For the general election in November, Sunrise and other youth-led groups mobilized large numbers of new voters, including in Georgia and other swing states, that helped elect Biden president and gain Democrats a razor-thin majority in the US Senate. Now, with Biden in the White House, activists are continuing to push him to make good on his promise to treat climate change as the “existential crisis” he rightly says it is.
In short, climate activists are a potent political force. Covering them is no act of favoritism but simply a matter of accurately telling the climate story.
Indeed, one could argue that activists, as a whole, have been ahead of journalists on this story. Media coverage of the climate crisis has long lagged behind warnings from scientists and other experts—especially in the United States, where coverage was sporadic at best, and often descended into a scientifically indefensible bothsidesism that portrayed corporate flaks and real scientists as equally credible. Improved news coverage overlaps with the emergence of the youth climate movement: According to a 2020 analysis by the watchdog outfit Media Matters for America, the outpouring of climate activism in 2019—especially a global youth strike in September of that year, led by Thunberg and involving some 6 million people—was largely what finally shocked the media out of their collective climate silence. In other words, despite a wealth of evidence establishing climate change as a story of massive, global importance, many news organizations still needed to be led out of the darkness.
With a climate realist now in the White House, a new era of possibility in the climate story has arrived. It’s more important than ever for journalists to cover activist groups and their activities accurately and fairly, showing them no more fear or favor than we show any other type of newsmaker.
That task begins with doing a better job of portraying who the climate movement actually is. Even after news organizations finally recognized that young climate activists were making news, too many stories fixated on the celebrity of Thunberg and a small handful of others, while giving short shrift to the substance of their message. “Instead of focusing on the climate and listening to the scientific message, people are instead listening to and talking about me,” Thunberg remarked in September 2020. Such coverage gives the impression that Thunberg was the only young activist worth hearing, a grievous misrepresentation. “Dear media, I see you are writing about the international climate crisis lawsuit @GretaThunberg and I launched today with 15 other child plaintiffs,” Alexandria Villaseñor, a prominent activist from New York, wrote on Twitter in 2019. “The other plaintiffs have names, experiences and stories. Make sure you write about them, too.”
Some outlets have done well on that front, featuring a range of activists in their stories and even profiling them or publishing their op-eds. For example, both CNN and PBS NewsHour recently ran extensive stories about the Indigenous activists in Minnesota fighting the Line 3 tar sands pipeline overseen by Enbridge, a Canadian multinational company. PBS correspondent Ivette Feliciano interviewed Winona LaDuke of the Indigenous climate justice organization Honor the Earth, who said the greenhouse gas emissions of the Line 3 pipeline are “the equivalent to 50 new coal-fired power plants. So, you know, if you’re trying to save the planet, this is not the way to do it.”
Other times, outlets have struggled to show the diversity and breadth of the climate movement. In an emblematic incident from January 2020, the Associated Press cut Vanessa Nakate, a 23-year-old climate activist in Uganda, out of a photo depicting four other influential young activists, including Thunberg, all of whom are white. (Reuters, at the same time, misidentified Nakate as Zambian activist Natasha Mwansa.) At first, the AP said the crop was a deadline decision made to improve the photo’s composition; the agency later apologized for the error. Nakate responded that the AP’s action was evidence of how Africans and others from poor countries are often excluded from the climate conversation. “It showed how we are valued,” Nakate said.
The modern climate and environmental movements are diverse and enormous. Rather than select, elevate, and revisit a handful of celebrities, journalists should seek out a range of voices, especially activists at the local level representing Indigenous groups or people of color whose communities are often disproportionately affected by climate change.
That said, thoughtful reporting on climate activism should not preclude journalists from asking probing questions about the activists’ platforms, tactics, and operations. For example, many young activists engage the climate crisis as an intersectional issue, in which individual and overlapping identities—including those of race, class, and gender—shape their platforms and their work, including dealings with older activist organizations and policymakers. Some of the best-funded climate-advocacy groups have long been far from diverse in their staffing and leadership, despite repeated promises to improve. News coverage should engage the full substance of activist groups’ agendas in an ongoing way, with attention to their complexities and efficacy—and not only when they’re marching in the streets.
As many activists would say, ultimately the climate story is not about them; it’s about whether humanity can defuse the climate emergency in time to preserve a livable planet. By telling that story, journalists can get themselves, and their audiences, up to speed on the defining challenge of our time.