In October 2021, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism launched The Oxford Climate Journalism Network to come up with a programme that systematically allows newsrooms to rethink how they approach climate journalism.
“The reason we decided to do this at this time is because we felt that climate change is becoming what digital journalism was in many ways to the newsroom – something that needs to fundamentally influence every aspect of the newsroom and not just be a beat,” said Meera Selva, Deputy Director, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism & Director of RISJ Fellowship Programmes, UK.
Collaboration is key
Speaking at the recent WAN-IFRA World News Media Congress, Selva said most news organisations these days are setting up climate desks. This shows there is recognition or growing acceptance of the importance of the topic.
Cross-border collaboration would be vital for many of the climate stories in the future, she noted, listing out a few factors that are important for effective climate reporting.
- Narrative storytelling: Telling the stories of individuals, pulling out the visuals and showing people what really is happening would be crucial in creating the desired impact.
- Data visualisation and infographics
- Stories should be mobile friendly and easily shareable on social media
“This is something all new streams have been looking at in all areas. But in climate journalism, it’s really needed and you are not going to do effective journalism without this,” Selva said.
According to Selva one of the main learnings from COP26 for the media was the importance of holding policy makers to account on targets and the IPCC reports while highlighting the impact that climate change has had on people and their daily lives.
“When we talk about this we need to be crystal clear about attribution. I think this is a growing science and something journalism needs to get its head around very quickly. We need to know when it is reasonable to attribute extreme weather events and other events to climate change and when it is caused by other factors,” she said.
Attributing everything to climate change could make people feel overwhelmed, cause distrust and affect people’s sense of agency. Ultimately this would result in people just switching off.
Then there is the challenge of how to report uncertainty accurately.
“We need to address how to convey the uncertainty scientists have in a rapidly changing environment. Basically, if you report something this week and something slightly different next week, how to convey that you weren’t wrong in week-one, that you were just reporting what you knew at the time and now you are reporting what you know now… It sounds obvious, but it’s not something we do very well,” Selva said.
It is also important to allow space for discussion on policy outcomes and not to shut down dissenting voices.
“Because if you do (shut down dissent) you end up pushing them to parts of the world, to online private messaging apps or to other websites where journalists are not often part of the conversations, but conversations are being had,” she said.
Individual behaviours vs Power structures
Journalists also need to be honest and realistic while reporting on how individual behaviours matter, Selva added.
On one side reporters could talk a great deal about the effects of individual behaviours on climate – how often we fly, if we should move to a diet that’s less based on meat, should individuals recycle more, and so on. While this is important, focusing on such conversations without challenging the existing power structures and energy choices will have two effects –
- It would make people feel powerless and cause them to switch off
- It would fail to address the underlying problems
“People want the agency to make ethical choices in their life. They want a sense that policy makers and governments are being held to account. They want explanations that they feel they trust on what’s going on. This is the space where journalism has a huge role to play,” Selva said.
Takeaways from COP26
“What I felt after COP26 or what I think was really interesting was the conversation around coal and the future of fossil fuels – that we will at least consider a future without these or phase them down rather than phasing them out. I think this needs to reflect in journalism and the way stories are framed,” she noted.
One other thing that came out of COP26 – rather from the criticisms to it – is that how important are indigenous voices and diversity in the conversation, added Selva.
Given that climate change directly affects the lives of people, it is crucial that activists, journalists, people affected by climate change and those who campaign and come up with policy solutions are given seats at the tables during such conferences.
“The kind of journalism we hope to achieve through the climate change network is very much about this. It’s about the idea that knowledge sharing is a global process and the arrows go in all directions,” she said.