The new report, commissioned by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), is rich with case studies and practical advice on how to improve climate journalism. Alexandra Borchardt is the lead author of the report, with input from Katherine Dunn and Felix M. Simon.
“If you are a newsroom manager or have ever been in a leadership role, you will know that it is not possible to change the culture of a team, of an organisation, or let alone of a country, by saying something once, or by running one investigation, one training scheme, one programme or one thread of content. If climate change journalism is to work, it will need to permeate everything we do. Like any transformation, it is not something you do once and move on, this requires a change in mindset.” – Liz Corbin, EBU Deputy Media Director/Head of News
One case study shows how news agency AFP responded to climate coverage constantly being pushed out of the news agenda, and the newsroom constantly using a siloed approach when dealing with the topic.
Knowledge sharing is key: AFP’s ‘future of the planet’ hub
The tomorrow story started to be a today story
The issue of climate change wasn’t exactly new to Phil Chetwynd, Head of Global News at French News Agency AFP. In fact, he had discussed it quite a bit around the dinner table with his wife who is an expert on environmental investing. But as with relationships, sometimes it takes a while until things are made official. “We formally made the future of the planet an editorial priority in 2019,” he says.
Back then France was thrown into a summer that broke all temperature records, the data about the speed of change was alarming. “This really changed our thinking. The tomorrow story started to be a today story,” Chetwynd recalls. AFP’s ‘Future of the Planet’ hub was born.
In addition to the digital world, which was also awarded priority status, everything around creating a sustainable future for humankind was to be given utmost attention. “There was a need to take a much wider view of the story. Climate journalism, that was often very dry science or politics stories,” Chetwynd says. It used to be much driven by traditional environment correspondents, many of whom had long been on the beat. AFP leadership found that the social impact and the business sides were neglected. “Now it is about how the world is changing and what are the needs in response to these changes,” Chetwynd describes, “a huge amount of this is the changing of business practices, the finding of solutions. The ecological transformation of the economy is at the core.”
This was not just a repackaging under a new label: In 2022 AFP merged the business and environment desks. At the beginning of 2023 more than 20 journalists with specialist knowledge on climate change were working at the ‘Future of the Planet’ hub in Paris alone. Additionally, the AFP team includes fact-checkers who look at greenwashing and photo editors who do their best to capture the story visually.
Ivan Couronne, Deputy Head of the ‘Future of the Planet’ hub, says that two changes made a big difference: The sharing of sources between business and environment specialists, and that all the stories are now edited by the same people. “This is not trivial, it is central to bringing coherence to our stories.”
In the beginning it was hard to make business reporters talk to scientists and environment reporters to look into what businesses were doing, Couronne says. “Reporters are so used to their little beats.” But given that it has only been a year, they got used to it fast, is his observation.
In addition to the Paris team, AFP can draw on reporters in local bureaus on all continents. “It has been a great motivating factor that the climate beat opens up opportunities to cover interesting stories around the world.” The news agency created new jobs for specialists in places that are or will be relevant for climate change. One reporter will open shop in Manaus on the edge of the Amazon later this year; another one starts soon in Bangkok. This strategy of decentralisation helps with holding the travel and emissions budget at bay.
In contrast to many news organisations that approach journalism from a text perspective, AFP has been trying to drive their climate coverage with visuals. “We don’t do things unless we have great images. That is how the story is going to attract people’s attention,” Chetwynd says. A story from northern Canada was timed around the migration of beluga whales, for example. AFP has also made it a priority to send photographers to certain locations without any imminent news agenda, just to shoot compelling stock images that can be used later. “We sent a team on a month-long trip to Antarctica for this, another one on a similar journey to West Africa to document desertification and the corresponding migration of herdsman. It is hard work, sometimes it is boring work. But you can’t do just another polar bear eating a trash can.”
Another core activity of the ‘Future of the Planet’ hub is the emphasis on training. Editors and reporters need to understand the basic science behind climate change, and to be able to better identify greenwashing. Couronne alone trained more than 200 journalists on greenwashing internally. “I have trained reporters on every continent, in Bangladesh, Nairobi, Europe, the US,” he says. He shows them what to check, which questions to ask, were the red flags are, “for example, when a company has a climate target for 2050 but no interim targets.” His advice to others would be, to make the trainings short, frequent, mandatory, incentivise them – and to start from leadership. “You have to evangelise.”
In contrast to most newsrooms, AFP developed a style-guide for reporting on climate change – some of which can be found in Chapter 2. It is informed by an important principle: “We want to ensure that we are not injecting too much emotion into it. We want to be fact-based,” Chetwynd says.
Even though AFP has professionalized its approach to climate journalism quite a bit, getting engagement is still a challenge. “Audiences are tired,” Chetwynd says. “Climate coverage is something they want, because they know it is important, but they don’t want to read it.” This is why the agency puts a lot of emphasis on reporting the topic in a constructive way. “We needed a much more 360-degree practical way to tell the story. Our clients demanded that, too.” Couronne confirms that: “Every time we meet clients, they want more solutions.”
The hub covers climate impacts and solutions for all kinds of sectors, including transport, infrastructure, agriculture, and energy. Nevertheless, Editor-in-Chief Sophie Huet-Trupheme made clear at the 2022 Arab Media Forum in Dubai that just focusing on the stories that create hope was not an option for the news agency, which is heavily invested in fact-checking all over the world. “The facts are terrible. But this is our job, and we are not here just to, as one of our climate reporters wrote … create hope. That is not our business,” she said in an interview. Reporting the dire facts and holding power to account was essential to her newsroom’s climate strategy, she said.
Chetwynd admits that the biggest challenge for the climate hub is the competing news agenda. “We launched the hub two months before the pandemic hit.
Then, two years later, we had Ukraine. It dies when huge news stories come up like that.” One reporter in the ‘Planet’ team happened to be a Russian speaker; suddenly she was needed for other tasks. “One thing we realised with reporting stories is that it is better to work these things around news events. We piggyback great content. Evergreen content doesn’t work so well.”
From Couronne’s perspective the slowness of it all is the biggest challenge: “We are basically covering the industrial revolution. Now we have to electrify the economy. How do we publish stories every day for something that takes decades?” What has surprised him most: “How central climate is in most sectors of the economy now. Even if you cover airlines, climate is central to your industry.”
Problems to solve
- Climate coverage was constantly pushed out of the news agenda
- The topic was dealt with in a silo
What was done
- Business and environment desks were merged to ‘Future of the Planet’
- Investment in climate training for editors and reporters, particularly on greenwashing
- Investment in visual strategy
- Focus on solutions journalism
- Clients didn’t appreciate climate coverage sufficiently; it was perceived to be too dry and too much politics
- Growing customer satisfaction
- High uptake on stories with powerful visuals
- Strong visuals are key
- High customer demand of stories on solutions
- Journalists adapted fast to new desk structure
- Trainings need to be short and frequent
Download the report here.