The Crisis in Climate-Change Coverage

Climate activist Bill McKibben speaking at the San Francisco Bay Area's Moving Planet rally. (Photo: <a href= / flickr)” src=”” height=”388″ width=”306″ />Climate activist Bill McKibben speaking at the San Francisco Bay Area’s Moving Planet rally. (Photo: / flickr) Fifty-thousand people recently marched in Washington, D.C., calling on President Obama to fulfill his recent promises to take immediate and meaningful action to address the looming climate crisis.

And just days before, a group of environmental journalists, scientists and activists came together in a Web chat to discuss the state of climate-change coverage in America.

The event, organized by Free Press and Orion Magazine, featured Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones; Bill McKibben, author and founder; Wen Stephenson, writer and climate activist; M. Sanjayan, CBS News contributor and Nature Conservancy scientist; Thomas Lovejoy, chief biologist at the Heinz Center and creator of the PBS show Nature; and reporter Susie Cagle of

Here’s what they had to say. (You can listen to the entire discussion here.)

Structure Versus Culture

A complex mix of structural and cultural factors has affected climate-change coverage in the U.S. The forces that shape U.S. media have not been kind to environmental reporting. Years of media consolidation have led to dramatic layoffs in commercial newsrooms, and environment and science desks are often the first to go. In addition, M. Sanjayan noted that media consolidation has had an echo-chamber effect: All climate stories sound the same and they lack depth, specificity and connection to place.

The U.S. also under-funds noncommercial alternatives, like public media, where climate-change reporting should thrive. The best environmental writing is happening at the margins of our media at longtime nonprofit magazines and new online startups. In contrast, mainstream outlets have tended to legitimize climate-change deniers in the face of widespread scientific consensus about the effects of global warming.

Wen Stephenson argued that journalists have been reticent to raise the alarm about climate change. “The mainstream media has failed to cover the climate crisis as a crisis,” he said.

Empathy Versus Objectivity

A repeated theme of the conversation was the line between advocacy and journalism. There was disagreement about where the line should fall. Kate Sheppard said she was disappointed that coverage of the BP oil spill didn’t inspire more sustained activism on climate change, but noted that it wasn’t her job to organize, only to inform.

Stephenson, on the other hand, argued that when it comes to climate change, journalists need to find their moral bearings. Acknowledging the limits of objectivity, Stephenson discussed the value of empathy and the need to understand the true human and natural stakes of this debate.

Telling a More Human Story

The panelists agreed that climate-change reporting needs to get personal. Journalists need to better connect climate change to people’s lives, their homes, their families and their everyday concerns. Susie Cagle said that when she reports on climate change she does so through the lens of cities, rivers and food.

Bill McKibben pointed to the way activists have shifted the narrative — literally putting their bodies on the line by holding protests and other events around the globe. McKibben also noted the importance of people making their own media — with photos, videos and blogs —especially when there are fewer and fewer local media outlets willing to take on the work.

Sanjayan said we need a better way to frame climate-change reporting. The Keystone XL Pipeline story has gained so much traction in part because there is a clear bad guy, a clear target and clear actions people can take. Those elements aren’t always present, so journalists need to find different ways to reach their audiences. We need to be aware of who is telling the story. Sanjayan noted that all too often, climate-change reporting is too U.S.-centric and doesn’t tell the full global story.

Quality and Quantity Versus Reach and Impact

Thirty-two years ago television offered nothing of substance about the natural world or the threats it faced. This was the inspiration for Thomas Lovejoy, the scientist who coined the term “biodiversity,” to pitch a new kind of show to New York public TV station WNET.

Since PBS’ Nature first aired, a lot has changed. Now, Sheppard said, there is a ton of great environmental reporting, but it’s not always easy to find and it’s not always seen by the people who need to see it. One way to foster better coverage, Sheppard said, is to support what’s already out there by sharing it, funding it and subscribing to those doing it.

Panelists acknowledged that many publications — like this Web chat itself — end up speaking to the choir when we desperately need to get beyond it. For Sheppard, one way of doing that is through journalism collaborations that help get content out to new audiences and on different platforms.

For Cagle, the platform piece is key. She talked about the need to get beyond the “wall of text” and tell more immersive stories about climate. For her, the use of audio and illustrations helps bring readers into the story. “Art can make stories more accessible and personal,” said Cagle.

Sanjayan discussed the potential for cable TV to be a powerful messenger. For example, he is working on an in-depth series for Showtime on climate change.

Next Steps

The discussion offered few cut-and-dry prescriptions for concrete changes that need to happen to embolden and expand climate coverage. Panelists agreed that we need a journalism of solutions, not just a journalism of problems. For newsrooms and journalists, the first step is to begin to understand the scope and scale of this crisis, and write as if your life depended on it.