Communicating About Climate Change with Journalists and Media Producers
- John WihbeyJohn WihbeySchool of Journalism, Northeastern University
- and Bud WardBud WardYale Climate Connections
The relationship between scientific experts and news media producers around issues of climate change has been a complicated and often contentious one, as the slow-moving and complex story has frequently challenged, and clashed with, journalistic norms of newsworthiness, speed, and narrative compression. Even as climate scientists have become more concerned by their evidence-based findings involving projected risks, doubts and confusion over communications addressing those risks have increased. Scientists increasingly have been called upon to speak more clearly and forcefully to the public through news media about evidence and risks—and to do so in the face of rapidly changing news media norms that only complicate those communications. Professional science and environment journalists—whose ranks have been thinned steadily by media industry financial pressures—have meanwhile come under more scrutiny in terms of their understanding; accuracy; and, at times, perceived bias.
A number of important organizations have recognized the need to educate and empower a broad range of scientists and journalists to be more effective at communicating about the complexities of climate science and about the societal and economic impacts of a warming climate. For example, organizations such as Climate Communication have been launched to support scientists in their dealings with media, while the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself has continued to focus on the communication of climate science. The Earth Journalism Network, Society of Environmental Journalists, Poynter Institute, and the International Center for Journalists have worked to build media capacity globally to cover climate change stories. Efforts at Stanford University, the University of Oxford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the University of Rhode Island sponsor programming and fellowships that in part help bolster journalism in this area. Through face-to-face workshops and online efforts, The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has sought to link the media and science communities. Meanwhile, powerful, widely read sites and blogs such as “Dot Earth,” hosted by the New York Times, Climate Central, Real Climate, The Conversation, and Climate Progress have fostered professional dialogue, greater awareness of science, and called attention to reporting and communications issues.
Journalists and scientists have had ongoing conversations as part of the regular publication and reporting processes, and professional conferences and events bring the two communities together. Issues that continue to animate these discussions include conveying the degree to which climate science can be said to be “settled” and how to address uncertainty.
Through some of these capacity-building efforts, news media have become increasingly aware of audience dynamics including how citizens respond to pessimistic reports, or “doom and gloom,” versus solutions-oriented reports. Professional dialogue has also revolved around the ethical dimensions of conveying a story at the level of global importance. Still, with issues of climate change communication on display for more than two decades now, certain tensions and dynamics persist. Notably, journalists seek clarity from scientists, while climate change experts and advocates for and against taking climate action often continue to demand that journalists resist the temptation to oversimplify or hype the latest empirical findings, while at the same time urging that journalists do not underestimate potential climate risks.
News media stories about climate change might usefully be separated into two groups: those about physical science, or data; and those about policy “solutions,” or values. In reality, the two are often intertwined. News media serve to “stitch together” spaces of both science and policy and connect it to everyday life (Boykoff, 2009). However, for journalists and other media producers, the scientific component of climate change has traditionally been the greater area of challenge, as it has required a deeper level of technical knowledge than do most areas of coverage.
For journalists, the policy aspects of climate change constitute more familiar reporting terrain, and professional incentives often point reporters toward the political conflicts related to the issue (Revkin, 2016). The ways in which greenhouse gas emissions should be curbed, or mitigated, is an inherently political story. It conforms to norms of conflict and opposing sides; policy proposals are advanced and actions taken, giving journalists the key criteria, or news “peg,” which justify the decision to cover the issue. Even if the stakes are much higher than those found in the average story, for reporters, climate change policy has many of the same dimensions as do other political issues that involve economic- and resource-based calculations, values-based choices about the future, and community organizing and political decision-making.
Some have argued that journalists have failed to bring together the collective findings of economics to make better sense of policy options and engage the public (Pooley, 2009), and some styles of coverage of climate change politics have the potential of creating further public cynicism (Cross et al., 2015). Nevertheless, compared to the science dimensions, the policy story lends itself more easily to traditional reporting expectations, norms, routines, and, ultimately, skills.
By contrast, the “hard science story” is characterized by cutting-edge observational techniques and mathematical models; its primary measures are complex statistics, with degrees of uncertainty built into every estimate. There are many facets of climate change that make the issue novel for journalists. In principle, there are no “sides” to the story, in the traditional sense, just data and scientifically vetted evidence. The timeliness of the issue—what is called in the newsroom a “hook,” or news peg—is often ambiguous. Aside from periodic global summits conducted under the auspices of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is typically no large event that catalyzes interest and justifies worldwide media attention, making it difficult to justify coverage on an ongoing basis, given prevailing commercial newsroom norms and values.
In order to engage audiences in an increasingly 24/7 competitive news environment, journalists have found that they must be both creative and attentive to nuance in order to make the story relevant. This is a difficult task, as it often requires showing how science, which deals in probabilities, connects to concrete human stories. In a place such as California or across the American West, this might entail looking at how climate change may be exacerbating historic droughts and affecting farmers’ livelihoods. In the Middle East, it might require looking at connections with food production levels and links to human conflict. On the African continent, journalists might examine connections between climate change and migration of people into forests in Zimbabwe; in Zambia, how children may be out of school more often as they have farther to travel to fetch water; or how diminished fisheries in Lake Victoria are impacting local families (Tshikalanke, 2016).
While there are many tangible impacts to report, it remains the case that large-scale effects and implications of global warming are only now becoming visible to the public, and infrequently at that. Yet the potential long-term consequences are profound. It is therefore where climate science and public communication intersect that makes this issue distinctive in a media context—where the conventions and practices of media face their most stringent test, and where the greatest unresolved questions for communicators remain.
Compounding the inherent complexities and difficulties of producing quality climate change reporting, media outlets across many societies in recent decades have faced grave economic challenges, as changing news consumption patterns and in particular the rise of the Internet have substantially eroded core revenue streams from advertising, classified listings, and other traditional sources of media financing. Beginning even prior to the global recession in 2008, many major “mainstream” news outlets had begun to see dramatic declines in revenue and declining audiences (both viewers and readers/subscribers). Many major metropolitan news outlets were slashing staff and specialty beats accordingly. As will be discussed later in this article, in what some describe as this ongoing journalism “revolution,” these institutional cutbacks have led to a pronounced decline in the number of environmental reporting jobs and the amount of air time and space in print publications dedicated to coverage, inevitably affecting climate change coverage and public understanding. These trends of decline have continued for more than a decade now and show no sign of an imminent end. Even digital-only outlets have struggled to find ways to generate sufficient capital, as new challenges, such as ad-blocking technologies, have arisen (Mitchell et al., 2016; Newman et al., 2016). These industry patterns, many experts have concluded, have “proven detrimental to effective communication of climate change” (Boykoff et al., 2013). The combination of industrial and technological change, which have led to a restructuring of the traditional media workplace, has produced a professional news environment that is “in many ways hostile to the production of high-quality climate news” (See “Economic, Technological, and Organizational Factors Influencing News Coverage of Climate Change”).
For climate change journalism, the cumulative impacts of this foundational revolution affecting daily news reporting might be summarized as: (1) substantial cutbacks in dedicated (often weekly) science sections in major metropolitan daily newspapers; (2) reductions in newsroom staffing of specialized beats, including science and environment; (3) newsroom and reporting budget cutbacks, further scaling-back already limited funds for things like of out-of-town reporting travel assignments and enrollments in journalism training programs; and (4) forced transition for many individuals from full-time news reporting employment status to freelancing.
Still, digitally native news outlets such as the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Vice, and VOX, along with online media platforms such as Reddit and Tumblr, have also provided new venues for reporting and discussion of climate change-related issues, although research remains scarce on the content, quality, and relative distinctiveness of these new media outlets. (See Journalistic Depictions of Uncertainty about Climate Change) Even in this challenging news climate, it’s notable that a variety of increasingly accessible technical tools for digital storytelling—from data visualization and interactive applications to video editing software—have opened new possibilities for dynamically conveying information about climate change.
Prior to and in the midst of these transformative, industry-wide shocks, the relationship between scientists and journalists around issues of climate change has remained complicated and often contentious, as the slow-moving and complex story has frequently challenged, and clashed with, journalistic norms of newsworthiness, immediacy and speed, and narrative compression. At the same time, however, the two communities interact regularly and in fact are dependent on each other; in many cases they have become deeply professionally networked through the journalistic process of interviewing and information-gathering, and mutual attendance at a wide range of professional venues—conferences, panels, briefings, workshops, and policy and scientific summits. These shared meetings have sometimes served to “humanize” the two communities to one another, and to create a venue for meta-communication, or dialogue about how to communicate (Schneider, 2010).
To address many of these challenges, a variety of capacity-building and training initiatives for journalists have been initiated over the past decade to lessen some of the pressures and tensions inherent to climate change coverage. Ranging from in-person workshops and webinars to online resource-based outlets and global networks of media members and scientists, these capacity-building attempts have taken myriad approaches to complex problems, with varying degrees of success.
Differing Roles, Shared Values
While scientists and professional journalists each nominally pursue “truth” and have somewhat similar codes of ethics, the inherent tensions between these groups might properly be seen as a clash of deeper institutional norms and incentives: In order to inform a lay public that is unsophisticated about scientific issues, reporters seek maximum clarity of message from scientists; at the same time, climate change experts demand that journalists resist the temptation to oversimplify or hype the latest research, while also urging that journalists not underestimate potential climate risks. Journalists are generally rewarded for building public audiences around compelling stories. By contrast, academic scientists are incentivized to produce new, peer-reviewed findings that advance knowledge in their field and push research into areas characterized by unknowns and uncertainties. As some journalists have pointed out, this incentive for pursuing the scientifically novel “breakthrough” report—new research funding can depend on it—is also a professional danger for scientists, just as an obsession with the “new” is for reporters (Cohn, 2009). This reality also increases the potential that tensions can arise with news media representatives, who may seek to condense the novel research and findings and articulate meaning for a general audience.
In any case, given the free press traditions in many countries—where journalists see themselves as a check on powerful institutions—the tensions between the scientific community and journalists around climate change issues might also be characterized as a healthy, and natural, dynamic. In the United Kingdom, there has been substantial discussion of whether or not journalists have perhaps deferred too much to the scientific establishment generally and produced insufficiently challenging stories based on press releases and other promotional materials (Murcott et al., 2013).
Much of the public work to build bridges between these two communities over the past decade has focused on the issue of mutual understanding, and not assimilation, of one another’s different professional cultures and goals (Ward, 2008). Despite the many differences between the science and media communities, there are frequently shared aspirations. Many, but by no means all, climate scientists see public education as part of their duty as scholars and recognize that responsible journalists are an integral part of increasing public knowledge about an issue of surpassing global importance. Similarly, many journalists have a deep appreciation for the complexity inherent in the science of climate change, as well as a desire to produce news stories that are as accurate as possible, faithful to the available facts and commensurate with the seriousness of the issue.
Even as climate scientists have become more concerned by their evidence-based findings involving projected risks, doubts and confusion over the communications addressing those risks have increased in some regions of the world. Scientists have been called upon to speak more clearly and forcefully to the public through news media about evidence and risks—and to do so in the face of rapidly changing news media norms that only complicate those communications. However, certain kinds of attempts to simplify research for the public, which often involves minimizing uncertainty, can be counterproductive, reducing the credibility of scientists and leading to confusion among journalists and, as a result, among the public (Hollin et al., 2005).
The concept of uncertainty about aspects of climate science as portrayed in news media, and as a framework within which news media report stories, has been studied extensively for more than a decade. The scholarship in this regard typically follows one of two methodological tracks: It has either endeavored to perform content analyses of news articles to establish how frames and rhetorical patterns serve to convey uncertainty to audiences; or the research strategy has sought to identify the presence and relative prevalence of “expert” sources quoted in the news who are skeptical of the consensus on climate science. In the latter case, the problem, such as it is, does not have an even geographical distribution globally. Research has demonstrated that reporters and editors are more likely to feature skeptical voices in U.S., U.K. and Australian media—Anglophone countries—while diverse countries ranging from China and Japan to Brazil, Germany, Spain, and Norway, see little skepticism in their news media ecosystems. Why exactly these variations exist, and why Anglophone countries have elevated skeptical voices more readily as compared to other countries, remains unclear. (See Journalistic Depictions of Uncertainty about Climate Change)
Some scientists have also chosen to communicate directly through blogs, videos, and social media, a circumventing of media gatekeepers and filters that can at times cause tension among legacy media interests. Professional science and environment journalists, whose ranks have been thinned steadily by financial pressures in the media industry, have meanwhile come under more scrutiny in terms of their understanding, accuracy, and at times, perceived bias.
If there are shared personal and professional experiences uniting the two communities around climate change, they are likely around the high-stakes and often-difficult role of communicating with the public about highly sensitive and seemingly overwhelming issues. Both communities have been communicating science amid what some describe as a “culture war” (Hoffman, 2012), and it has often meant experiencing “science as a contact sport,” as the late climate scientist Stephen Schneider described it (Schneider, 2009). The IPCC has hosted events and convened groups around these issues of science communication (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2016).
Journalists who publish stories on climate change regularly encounter strong personal criticism, and many have described the beat as psychologically taxing and stressful (Wihbey, 2008). There are of course numerous instances of scientists facing sharp political criticism, a pattern only exacerbated in the wake of the unauthorized release of scientists emails connected to the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. This event led to a global controversy over scientific conduct, and despite the fact that multiple inquiries found that no misconduct was in evidence (Fischer, 2010), the so-called Climategate likely influenced public opinion and lowered trust in scientists at least temporarily (Leiserowitz et al., 2013). The subsequent reporting on the issue drew scrutiny from major news outlets, such as the BBC, about their own journalistic practices and handling of the situation (Mellor et al., 2011).
The controversy, fanned by news media reporting and by climate activists opposing action on the issue, prompted a long and difficult period of reflection among news reporters and scientists about issues of proportionality, fairness, and communication practices (Russell, 2010). It also left unsettled questions about the degree to which scientists might reasonably expect privacy in their personal and professional communications about publicly funded research, with some news media continuing to demand maximum transparency and disclosure around scientific research efforts (Abel, 2016).
Blurred Media Roles
Perhaps more so than with communities involved in other contemporary issues, those in the broad community focused on climate change have occasionally blurred the lines between objective analysis and advocacy. Many observers have long argued that not taking a stance on an issue involving global peril is itself a kind of political position, and advocating for mitigation policies is therefore part of responsible citizenship.
In some cases, the lines among journalist, policymaker, scientist, and activist have blurred, as some of the most prominent individuals in the scientific and journalism communities have stepped out into the public advocacy space. Indeed, two of most prominent climate change activists and climate-media figures globally are a career scientist, James Hansen; and a longtime journalist, Bill McKibben. By the same token, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, a journalist before he became a politician, has served as an environmental policymaker, activist, and media maker, winning a share of the Nobel Peace Prize for his activism and sharing an Academy Award for his documentary An Inconvenient Truth.
Activist organizations such as 350.org, led by McKibben, are prolific newsmakers themselves, staging events and protests and using peer-to-peer platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to reach audiences directly with media messages. Global celebrities have become para-journalists to help publicize the issue, and news outlets such as The Guardian have launched advocacy campaigns that blend journalism and activism.
Professional science journalists may also fulfill their roles as communicators in a variety of creative and flexible ways, from explaining patterns to a lay audience to providing context to inviting public participation (Secko et al., 2013). The rise of digital and mobile storytelling tools has put greater power and possibilities in the hands of reporters and editors. In an online environment, science journalists typically have a more “collaborative” relationship with audiences and sources, and the era of the social Web has meant new norms for some journalists (Fahy et al., 2011).
Behind the current debates over the appropriate professional values and approach of contemporary climate change and environment journalists is an extensive history of discourse and controversy relating to the notion of journalistic “objectivity”—what it means in practice for journalists, how it might be achieved, and whether or not it is valid or fair standard at all. In the environmental journalism and climate change reporting world, it has often proven difficult to grapple with the challenge of condensing sometimes-conflicting scientific information, which is often marked by uncertainty and probabilistic models, while also accurately reflecting the frequently wide range of public policy arguments. To cope with these challenges, journalists have begun to adopt new models for how to situate and synthesize information, from a focus on “deep consensus” among scientists and “weight of evidence” reporting techniques to ideas about the importance of knowledge in reporting (Dunwoody, 2005; Revkin, 2007). The very notion of objectivity in journalism has been continually redefined and reshaped, with newer theories propounding that it might be seen variously as “trained judgment” by reporters, an emphasis on a “transparent method,” or a “synthesis and curation of multiple points of view.” (See Objectivity, False Balance, and Advocacy in News Coverage of Climate Change) All of these newer ideas come against a backdrop of long-standing media criticism by scholars, commentators, and advocates, as well as persistent internal self-reflection by members of the environmental journalism community.
Media Challenges and Current Landscape
Particularly in the North American media context and in other Anglophone countries, a specific critique of early news reporting on climate change began to gather momentum in the mid-2000s: Journalists at times regularly and disproportionately gave voice to observers who do not share the “consensus” view among scientists that climate change is being driven by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, studies have shown how an equivalency was drawn in journalistic stories between consensus science and what is variously called climate skepticism, doubt, denialism or other related terms (Boykoff et al., 2004). This problem of “balance as bias,” “false balance,” of “false equivalency”—first registered in the early 2000s by scholars—ultimately became a major point of conversation within the journalism community, and it substantially prompted foundations, universities, and other organizations to create a number of capacity-building institutions and initiatives to help improve reporting on climate change.
While there is evidence that this pattern receded among mainstream news outlets to some extent (Boykoff, 2009), news media continue to face criticisms and challenges, particularly as a result of political fragmentation and polarization (Roberts, 2015). In the United Kingdom, the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons published findings in 2014 that expressed disappointment with some national newspapers’ coverage of climate change and criticized in particular the BBC for not understanding the “information needs of its audience” (House of Commons, 2014). Some researchers and analysts have suggested that reporters in the United States struggle with clarity of language in the face of increasing scientific certainty (Mooney, 2014). The quality and accuracy of reporting on major new scientific studies can vary widely (Wihbey, 2012). Climate change coverage has been spotty and inconsistent throughout much of the developing world (Shanahan, 2011). As critics point out, not a single question about climate change was asked of the 2012 U.S. presidential candidates by journalists moderating the general election campaign season debates (Elver, 2012). Some analysts continue to argue that journalists are not articulating the concept of risk fully or sufficiently, and more training is required to help reporters and editors better convey probabilities and quantitative information (Painter, 2015).
It should be noted that the roots of problems inherent to news media reporting may have their origins well prior to when journalists begin publishing professionally. Journalistic training at the post-secondary level has long faced criticism that it focuses too much on tradecraft and does not sufficiently prepare would-be media members to grapple with complex information and perform deeper analytical tasks. There continue to be calls to improve curricula to give journalists more sophisticated skills (Folkerts et al., 2013; Zachary, 2014). In the United States, about half of all journalists majored in communications and journalism in college (Willnat et al., 2014) and therefore are unlikely to receive systematic training in scientific methods and practices.
Other cultural, economic, and technological trends have continued to complicate this relationship between fundamental science and media dissemination, not least the decline of traditional media, the fragmentation of mass media audiences, and the increasingly personalized nature of news consumption (Bennett et al., 2006). This has meant that even as news media attention has spiked around major reports and global conferences of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the capacity of traditional media to reach broad audiences about the consensus findings has been reduced. The rise of social media platforms for the distribution of news is also changing the traditional dynamics of the news industry, as for the first time news organization do not necessarily control the means of distribution (Bell, 2016). Further, even as reporters and editors at mainstream news outlets have improved reporting and devoted more coverage to the consensus science and the dangers for humanity, the rise of partisan news sources and polarization in the United States has meant that public opinion remains volatile (Mayer, 2012).
As climate science has burgeoned as a field over the past three or more decades, the traditional sources of mainstream, general-audience journalism dedicated to scientific issues have contracted. For example, in 1989 there were 95 American newspapers that had weekly science sections, but by 2006 only 24 did, and many had begun to focus more on issues of human health and not the physical sciences. Many of the journalists who covered specialized science beats lost their jobs, often leaving general assignment reporters to cover issues such as climate change (Russell, 2006). Further, the overall number of editorial workers at U.S. newspapers—where the vast majority of original news is produced—was dramatically reduced by more than one-third over the past decade, from 55,000 in 2007 to 32,900 in 2015 (ASNE, 2014). In the United Kingdom, there have been similar patterns and corresponding concerns about the declining quality of science news (Murcott et al., 2013; Williams et al., 2009).
Indeed, a number of reports and analyses have documented similar cutbacks, acutely affecting specialist beats such as environment and science, in the media ecosystems of countries such as Australia, Canada, and EU countries (European Federation of Journalists & EURO-MEI, 2012). Meanwhile, news media in the developing world, where many of the impacts of human-induced climate change may be most acute, leading to drought, heatwaves, and sea-level rise, have not been equipped to deal with the extent of the challenge, a problem that has long been identified (Boykoff et al., 2007; Dung, 2007). Some African media watchers continue to report that it remains difficult to generate serious public attention to the problem (Tshikalanke, 2016). As will be discussed later in this article, capacity-building efforts such as those through UNESCO; International Institute for Environment and Development; and Internews, a global nonprofit organization dedicated to building media capacity, and its Earth Journalism Network have attempted to remedy this imbalance, but a lack of media resources and capacity stands a long-term problem (Fahn, 2008).
However, it remains the case that when global or national interest reaches a threshold level, news organizations are willing to send correspondents in droves and devote significant attention to the issue. Some 6,000 journalists applied for credentials at the United Nations climate change talks in Paris, with an estimated 3,000 in attendance (Howard, 2015).
Overview of Solutions and Initiatives
Over the past decade, a number of organizations have recognized the need to educate and empower a broad range of scientists and science, environmental, and public affairs journalists, in an effort to boost what some social scientists have called greater “content knowledge” (Donsbach, 2014; Nisbet et al., 2015; Patterson, 2013). There has been a community focus on developing a better understanding of how audiences find, use, and interpret news about climate change and what this means for storytelling, reporting, and delivery and promotion of news. Additionally, there has been a need for journalists to become more aware of the biases that they might bring to their work—what is sometimes referred to as “process knowledge” (Donsbach, 2014; Nisbet et al., 2015).
For example, collaborations such as Climate Communication have been launched to support scientists in their dealings with media. The Earth Journalism Network, Society of Environmental Journalists, Poynter Institute, and the International Center for Journalists have worked to build media capacity globally to cover climate change stories. Efforts at Stanford University, Oxford University, MIT, Harvard University, and the University of Rhode Island continue to sponsor programming and fellowship programs that help in part to bolster journalism in this area. Through face-to-face workshops and online efforts, The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has sought to link the media and science communities. As mentioned, many of these efforts and initiatives have focused on the vital necessity of mutual education between scientists and journalists of one another’s professional cultures, codes, and standards. Further, institutions such as the Science Media Centre in the United Kingdom, and similar centers in other countries, provide real-time briefings to journalists on science news issues, while the Web-based project Journalist’s Resource, based at Harvard, seeks to make access to relevant research more efficient for reporters and to help foster more literacy around research.
Meanwhile, powerful, widely read sites and blogs such as Dot Earth, hosted by the New York Times, Climate Central, Real Climate, The Conversation, Skeptical Science, and Climate Progress and Grist—which, as with many websites about climate change, blend both advocacy and analysis—have fostered professional dialogue and greater awareness of science and relevant reporting and communications issues.
Using funds from national donor agencies, the United Nations has meanwhile sponsored a variety of media trainings for journalists across developing nations, with UNESCO conducting workshops and producing materials that aim to assist journalists living in places where environmental reporting is still evolving as a tradition, such as in many African nations (Shanahan et al., 2013). Further, the Climate Change Media Partnership has facilitated trainings for journalists from throughout the Global South. In many countries where news media have not traditionally focused on climate change, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are often the main conduit for communications around global warming issues. For example, the Centre for Science and Environment, a public interest advocacy and research group based in India, has become an influential communications outlet and publishes a widely read magazine.
As mentioned, journalists and scientists have had ongoing conversations as part of the regular publication and reporting processes, and through professional conferences and events bringing the two communities together. Issues that continue to animate these discussions include conveying the degree to which climate science can be said to be “settled” and how to address uncertainty. Through some of these capacity-building efforts, news media have become increasingly aware of audience dynamics—for example, how citizens respond to pessimistic reports, or “doom and gloom,” versus solutions-oriented reports—and professional dialogue has revolved around the ethical dimensions of conveying a story of this level of global importance and how best to grapple with the political dynamics and perceived “issue fatigue” among the public (Svoboda, 2013; Woodside, 2012).
Professional journalists and scientists have also in many cases been engaged in deep dialogue over how far the science is predictive of disaster and calamity, and the danger of undue “alarmism” in media stories has remained an issue within the community of scholars and journalists (Revkin, 2011). In more recent years, debate within science-journalism circles has focused on the degree to which specific extreme weather events might be attributable to human-induced global warming (Brainard, 2011; McKibben, 2011).
Capacity-Building Projects: Case Study Introduction
Efforts to inform and educate the news media to better communicate with broad general audiences on complex and often controversial public policy issues of course pre-date any such efforts aimed specifically at climate change. Such efforts find their roots at least as far back as the early 1920s, extending from the work of the “father of public relations,” Austrian-American Edward Bernays, and his launch of professional public relations.
Even in the context of environmental and science issues, organized efforts to “educate” and sometimes otherwise influence news reporting came long before global warming/climate change became a frequent fixture of mainstream news organizations’ news desks and beat assignments. Looking back over the past five decades, it may, more than anything else, be the dawn of the modern environmental movement that fueled increased news media attention to “green” issues in the United States: On January 1, 1970, then-President Richard M. Nixon declared the 1970s the “environmental decade” as he signed into law the landmark National Environmental Policy Act, giving birth to environmental impact statements as critical components of federally assisted projects.
Particularly important was the timing of passage in 1986 of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, SARA, and inclusion with those amendments of the “Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act,” and its Title III/Section 313 “Toxics Release Inventory, TRI” provisions, inspired by the Union Carbide Corporation’s Bhopal, India, chemical-leak tragedy of 1984.
That annual “Right to Know” reporting requirement, coming as it did concurrently with a rise in newsroom interests in computer-assisted reporting, “CAR,” gave media and local activists a powerful new tool for reporting, albeit imperfectly, on citizens’ potential exposures to and risks from hazardous substances in their communities and their own real and perceived “back yards.” Combined with the burgeoning interest in and mystique of computer-assisted reporting, it led to opportunities for face-to-face “reporters workshops” held in a number of newsrooms and university lecture halls across the country.
Among the entities early in conducting such workshops from a reporters-helping-reporters perspective was the Environmental Health Center, EHC, a division of the nonprofit National Safety Council, an organization that long had focused on traditional safety and workplace issues, and only recently involved in pollution and environmental health issues. (EHC at that point was publishing a monthly “Environment Writer” newsletter distributed free to environmental reporters and offering input on how to responsibly strengthen their coverage. The group, along with roughly a dozen other cofounders, played a key role in the early days in the establishment of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ). During its roughly 12-year existence, ending in early 2002, the group wrote and distributed to news media individual reporter’s guides addressing issues ranging from municipal solid waste management to radon and from radioactive waste disposal to health effects of radon, all of which were part of its “reporters helping reporters” branding effort.)
Those EHC efforts were by no means the only national programs aiming to boot-strap, in one way or another, general-circulation media’s coverage of environmental issues. A Pasadena, California, based organization, the Foundation for American Communications, FACS, headed by a former top assistant to Arizona Republican senator and unsuccessful presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, had cut its teeth on journalism continuing education programs with a focus on economics reporting, and what many reporters came to see as having a distinct free-market emphasis.
Continuing education programs focusing on climate change science and aimed at journalists began to take hold in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. As climate change/global warming and related energy production and use issues moved center stage in the late 1980s, the issues increasingly were recognized as a preeminent concern not only of the professional environmental community but also of the environmental science research community and, at various times and levels of commitment, of regional, domestic, and international policy leaders. It was at this time that news media reporters also became interested in the issue.
An early initiative with respect to reporter training was EHC’s publication in October 1995 of the first edition of its “Reporting on Climate Change: Understanding the Science,” a 134-page spiral bound booklet distributed free to news media interests. With a technical advisory committee consisting of leading U.S. atmospheric scientists, the booklet from the start acknowledged the following:
There is of course no ‘final word’ in science, certainly not in a field as dynamic as atmospheric chemistry and as sweeping as climate change. The 1990 and 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports which proved so invaluable in writing this guide are not the “final word.” They are just the single most comprehensive and most authoritative body of work done yet on this subject, and reporters will do well to use them as a primary source for their own research.
That first edition was funded by the U.S. Office of Global Programs, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce. Later editions and extensions of that guide book were underwritten by grants from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science and, later still, by the Paleoclimate Program of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences.
Case Study: Metcalf Institute: Bringing Journalists and Scientists Together
Beginning in the early 2000s, NSF funding provided to the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, in the Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island, also supported a series of five climate scientist/journalist workshops. Those were held in cooperation with and at leading universities and journalism, atmospheric sciences, and oceanography schools across the country—the University of Rhode Island; the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego; the University of Washington; Columbia University; and the University of California, Berkeley.
Those workshops brought together leading environmental reporters and editors and widely acknowledged and respected climate scientists. They met and learned from each other in a series of exchanges designed to help each field better understand and work more effectively with the distinct cultures, the accepted protocols, and the “modus operandi” of their distinctly different, but interdependent, disciplines. A sixth wrap-up program in that years-long series, designed to share the results of those earlier sessions with Washington, D.C., policy makers, was held in August 2006 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Several critical factors contributed to what was widely judged to be the success of those NSF-funded workshops and of the book—Communicating on Climate Change: An Essential Resource for Journalists, Scientists, and Educators—that came out of it.
The program at that point was jointly overseen and administered by a longtime Washington, D.C., environmental journalist and journalism educator, Bud Ward, and by a veteran Washington, D.C., science communicator, Anthony Socci, PhD. The breadth of their personal contacts and relationships with, respectively, the environmental journalism and climate science research communities led to their having “pillars” from each field participate in their workshops.
In addition, the program managers in effect used the universal prestige and reputations of key individuals from the journalism and climate science communities as an enticement for their professional colleagues to also attend and participate. For instance, the regular involvement of then New York Times science journalist Andrew Revkin, widely admired at the time both by his journalism colleagues and by many climate scientists, helped attract and legitimize the attendance by other leading, but less well-known national journalists reporting regularly on climate change science, energy, and related issues.
From the standpoint of the scientists, having nationally and internationally respected climate scientists participate in the workshops had a similar effect: Among those participating in the workshops were Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University; Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Stephen H. Schneider of Stanford University; Paul J. Crutzen of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, (one of three 1985 Nobel Prize winners in chemistry for work on the ozone hole); Gavin Schmidt of NASA; Ken Caldeira of Stanford University; Michael Mann of Penn State University; Malcolm Hughes of the University of Arizona; Richard Somerville of Scripps; Mike Wallace of the University of Washington; Jeff Severinghaus of the University of California, San Diego; and many others. Their presence and participation helped put the workshops among the veritable “places to be” for climate scientists determined to improve media and public understanding of their climate science research.
The synergism worked both ways too: Having top environmental reporters participating in the workshops was a “draw” not only for other environmental journalists, but also for top scientists seeking an audience—and often for the first time finding an ability to meet face to face with a telephone voice they had not previously met in person. So top journalists were attracted to the workshops because fellow top journalists were active in them, and also because top climate scientists were; and top climate scientists were incentivized not only because their peer scientists were, but also because so too were top reporters.
A capstone of that particular run of journalists/scientists workshops came in September 2007 at the annual meeting of the independent Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. In an unprecedented gathering of top news media editors and leading climate scientists, sponsors brought together nine top climate scientists (Thompson, Santer, Schneider, Caldeira, Amory B. Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and others) with 18 top news executives, many of them the executive editors of their large metropolitan daily newspapers. News executives for that “Covering Climate Change” full-day immersion included top news representatives. For that particular top-level meeting, a key to attracting high-level news executives was the program organizer’s ability to have the invitations and outreach extended by their own highly respected peers—Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, and Seattle Times executive editor David Boardman, who at the time was the president of the independent journalism group Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE).
Case Study: Yale University Climate Journalism Initiative
In the fall of 2007, the newly established Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, directed by social scientist researcher Anthony Leiserowitz, PhD, launched an online site aimed at trying to improve popular media coverage and analysis of climate change science and policy issues.
Under the name “Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media,” the open website, featuring original reporting by a team of editors and writers across the United States, set out to provide newsmakers and news editors and reporters, among other things, practical guidance on how to more responsibly cover the exceptionally complex and wide-ranging climate change field. It highlighted examples of high-quality coverage, offered reporting tips and “best practices,” pointed to common reportorial pitfalls to avoid, and profiled leading journalists including their techniques for covering leading climate scientists and policymakers.
One of the particular challenges confronting that effort was that it was launched at the very time that much of traditional journalism and newswriting were undergoing revolutionary and fundamental changes brought about by the digital information era and audiences’ quickly changing preferences for how they procure and process their news and information, as described earlier in this article in recanting findings by Painter and Gibson.
The changing nature of journalism in the context of the “digital revolution” contributed also to a decision in 2014 by the Yale project team to shift in its focus from educational journalism training activities to an emphasis on directly reaching a broad general audience. In addition to focusing less directly on media coverage of climate change issues, that refocusing led to the launch of a daily weekday 90-second public radio broadcast, “Climate Connections,” with an emphasis on bottom-up grassroots efforts by a wide range of individuals and public and private sector interests to help mitigate adverse impacts of a warming world.
The “solutions”-oriented focus of that radio effort, driven in significant part by social science and opinion research work done by Leiserowitz at Yale and his colleagues at George Mason University and elsewhere, was aimed at sharing “lessons-learned” information on how countless local individuals, local governments, schools, corporations, and other civic interests are taking steps to manage and reduce climate-related adverse risks. Within 18 months of its launch, the newly renamed Yale Climate Connections website was airing its daily “Climate Connections” 90-second broadcasts on more than 200 public, university, community, and alternative radio stations nationwide. Not only do these radio shorts reach the public by way of trusted local radio outlets that have a more diverse reach than traditional national sources of climate change news, but the solutions focus is designed to bolster feelings of efficacy specific to how communities and individuals are working together to address climate change.
The transition to the daily radio programming was not the only refocusing brought about by the new and challenging landscape facing traditional news providers. Importantly, those fundamental developments involving news distribution and consumption led also to the Yale team’s decision to shift its continuing education emphasis from news media science-desk and “beat” reporters and editors to broadcast meteorologists, not generally considered part of the “hard-news” section. (See TV Meteorologists as Local Climate Change Educators)
Case Study: The Earth Journalism Network
One of the most important global efforts to build media capacity in developing countries with regard to climate change-related stories is the Earth Journalism Network, an effort begun in 2004 that now claims 8,000 members across 120 countries. The organization states that it has helped to train some 4,500 journalists since its inception, directly leading to production of more than 5,000 stories in countries such as India, Pakistan, China, and Vietnam (Earth Journalism Network, 2016). Many of these stories are about environmental issues writ large—pollution, biodiversity, energy conservation—but the organization has also shown a keen focus on climate change.
One of the group’s longtime leaders, executive director James Fahn, a journalist who cofounded the Thai Society of Environmental Journalists before running the Earth Journalism Network, has said that targeting younger, more inexperienced journalists is an important part of the capacity-building strategy. Training programs have been conducted in local languages, with more experienced journalists mentoring younger ones (Palmer, 2010).
The Earth Journalism Network has employed a multipronged strategy for building capacity, including the following: creating networks of journalists who might otherwise remain disconnected from a larger professional community—for example, the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists, Third Pole in the Himalayas region, and the Philippine Network; conducting workshops and creating training materials; establishing fellowship programs and awards program; and supporting journalistic work through grants.
One of the more innovative dimensions of the institution, as well, has been the launch of what it calls “GeoJournalism,” the creation and promotion of data-driven and mapping platforms and sites that can assist local and regional reporting. This has led to the creation of, for example, the InfoAmazonia project, which was launched in partnership with a number of NGOs in order to crowdsource and synthesize patterns across the Amazon region in South America (Dorroh, 2014). Earth Journalism Network regularly publishes and disseminates tip sheets and explainers helpful for journalists covering climate change on issues ranging from how to communicate risk to climate change-related financial issues.
Some of EJN’s climate-related reporting activities have been run through the Climate Change Media Partnership, which combined the efforts of various capacity-building groups working in this space, including Internews, Panos, and the International Institute for Environment and Development. Beginning in the mid-2000s, the Climate Change Media Partnership began sponsoring fellowships for hundreds of developing-world journalists to attend United Nations climate change-related conferences.
Case Study: Science Media Centre (U.K.): Promoting Science to Journalists
Another active model for promoting scientific information to journalists and better connecting them with scientists is found in the Science Media Centre (U.K.), an “independent press office” begun in 2002 that seeks to promote scientific information in rapid response to new research and events. The Centre, which provides briefings and publishes research-based articles, states that it is “committed to reflecting the weight of scientific evidence and opinion, and one of our main aims is that the news media should better represent mainstream science.” Research into the dynamics of the Centre’s operations have noted that the institution serves, among other things, as a “public policy instrument to secure science’s licence to practice” (Rödder, 2014).
On controversial and complex issues, the Centre’s staff and network of experts work to help guide coverage and public understanding by synthesizing and consolidating contextual findings for media producers. The organization is founded on the belief that scientists need to interact with news media more robustly and proactively in order to achieve optimal public communications outcomes. News media members participate in their briefings with scientists around daily journalism stories and issues in the news.
Scientists have high praise for the project, and many journalists report appreciating the helpful nature of the Centre’s communications work. This success in the United Kingdom has prompted the creation of similar centers in other countries (Callaway, 2013). Still, the project’s work has at times highlighted the tensions between the science and media communities, as some observers have argued that actively feeding journalists information can diminish their appetite for original enterprise and investigative reporting and can lead to journalists becoming insufficiently attentive to potential bias or weakness in scientific research itself (Fox et al., 2013). Further, there have been accusations that this approach leads to uncritical reporting and media capture by “corporate science” (Tatalović, 2014).
Case Study: UNESCO: Connecting with Developing Nations
Acknowledging that journalism capacity on climate change issues needs to be supported and increased in developing countries, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) first organized an international conference in 2009 on climate change with broadcast media. UNESCO subsequently began encouraging broadcasters and journalism schools to bring climate change issues into their coverage and curricula, respectively.
Although UNESCO does not consider itself a “training” organization, it has incorporated elements of instruction and training as part of its outreach to networks of journalists and journalism instructors and students. The organization sees its contribution to climate change training as normative in approach: It publishes information resources intended for training institutions and for direct use by news media. The focus of its publications and outreach pertain to conveying an understanding the basic science of climate change; the social, political, economic and cultural aspects of climate change; and the ethical dilemmas associated with climate change. Publications and workshops typically also provide journalistic tips for covering the complexities of the issue. The goals of UNESCO’s initiatives have been to improve the climate change-related literacy of journalists; to increase the volume and quality of reporting on climate change, particularly in the wake of the 2015 Paris Agreement; and to provide networking opportunities for climate change reporters, by working with a broad range of actors in this field.
UNESCO’s work in this regard began in earnest in 2009, when it organized an international conference on climate change and broadcast media (UNESCO International Conference, 2009). This energized the organization’s efforts, resulting in collaborative efforts to encourage broadcasting houses to participate in similar conferences/events and working with schools of journalism to incorporate climate change within their curricula. UNESCO has also occasionally undertaken workshops to make some of its publications more visible to teachers and students of journalism. There has been no set frequency to the sponsorships of workshops, however, and they have tended to respond to the availability of funding, ongoing international events on climate change (e.g., COP21), and existing collaborations with others. For example, in 2011 the Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies (JMS), under its Highway Africa project, convened educators from across the African continent to discuss climate change “as it affects countries and regions in the Global South and on the African continent more specifically” (Mtshali, 2011).
In 2013, UNESCO published Climate Change in Africa: A Guidebook for Journalists, a synthesis of scientific information, tips for covering mitigation and adaptation efforts, and suggested frameworks for stories about the issue (Shanahan et al., 2013). The authors write that “across Africa the media can and should do more to tell the story of climate change” and that the book was written to “fill this important gap.” The 90-page guidebook, written in consultation with 44 journalists across 17 African countries, has case studies and detailed information on patterns affecting specific African countries. The guidebook has served as the basis for outreach to groups of African journalists, who as part of outreach efforts have also traveled to report on international science and policy conferences. The guidebook publication and related syllabi and educational materials have also led to trainings in places such as Iran and Turkmenistan. UNESCO’s educational efforts have also found audiences among Russian, Indian, and Chinese media communities.
Case Study: Poynter Institute: A Pilot Course
Not all of the important early climate journalism continuing education was conducted in face-to-face meetings involving scientists and media representatives.
In November 2009, science and environmental writer Tom Yulsman, then the codirector of the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, teamed up with the Poynter Institute’s News University, highly regarded in journalism and journalism education quarters, and with Internews to provide an online “Covering Climate Change” course for reporters.
The six-hour course was aimed at providing “non-expert reporters and citizen journalists a firm grounding” in climate change science and policy. Following the course components, reporters could work their way through science, policy, coverage examples, reporting and writing on climate change stories, and reviewing expert resources.
The course acknowledges that those taking it won’t necessarily suddenly become an “excellent” environmental journalist. But it offered reporters a valuable opportunity to avail themselves, from the comfort and convenience of their own desktops or laptops, a way to freshen up their climate change technical expertise and boost their newsroom “credibility” with their always-challenging editors.
Case Study: Society of Environmental Journalists Conferences
Perhaps the single entity most trusted by many environmental journalists in the United States is, not surprisingly, their own professional membership organization—SEJ, or the Society of Environmental Journalists, headquartered outside of Philadelphia.
Designated a nonprofit educational organization, SEJ was founded in 1990 by a dozen reporters huddled into a small meeting room in downtown Washington, D.C. SEJ since has held annual conferences for its members, nonmember journalists, academics, and others, frequently emphasizing climate change and related issues among a full sampling of environmental and natural resources subjects. Importantly, the group’s annual conferences and its frequently quite active website and list serves helped create a spirit of “we’re all in this together” community among environmental reporters who long had worked largely in isolation from and ignorance of each other’s reporting successes, challenges, disappointments, and “war stories.”
Those SEJ conferences annually have attracted hundreds of registrants, including both media representatives and journalism academics and many non-press interests hoping to get their own perspectives better reflected in the nation’s environmental media. Many among its membership of some 1,250 point to climate change as an area of particular interest. Along with frequent breakout sessions and an ample share of plenaries featuring prominent climate change science and policy newsmakers at its annual meetings, SEJ also offers frequent tips on covering climate change via its “SEJournal” quarterly magazine, and its website provides reporters with access to its “Climate Change: A Guide to the Information and Disinformation.”
Research done on these workshops and conferences bringing together journalists and scientists has suggested these venues can create meaningful opportunities for news media members to learn how to communicate around areas of scientific uncertainty. It can help prepare them for dealing with the “nuances of truth.” However, workshops may prove most effective when there is not “one-way communication,” with the scientist as expert and the journalist as passive student, but rather when there is a genuine dialogue (Schneider, 2010).
Case Study: Grantham Prize: Incentivizing Quality Reporting
Another approach to improving the quality of media connections with climate change science and related environmental issues has been to create incentives for journalists. In 2005, the Boston-based Grantham Foundation for Protection of the Environment established the annual $75,000 Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment, to be administered each year by the Rhode Island-based Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, housed at the university’s Graduate School of Oceanography in Narragansett.
The Grantham Prize instantly became the largest cash award in the world honoring outstanding reporting, and the competition virtually from its start focused primarily on global climate change and related energy and ocean conservation issues, top environmental concerns not only of the funders but also of many environmental journalists and their newsrooms.
From its start, the Grantham Prize jurors were chaired by well-known and highly respected journalism practitioner, academic, and book author Phil Meyer, of the University of North Carolina. Working with the Seattle Times’ David Boardman (who eventually succeeded Meyer as juror chair) and Pulitzer Prize-winning environment editorial writer Robert Semple of the New York Times, the jurors won the journalism community’s attention early on not only because of the dollar value of the prize, but because of their own reputations in journalism circles.
The $75,000 Grantham top-prize was specifically intended by its underwriters to send a signal to news managers across the country concerning the importance and value of providing outstanding environmental coverage, specifically of climate change, a priority of the Grantham Foundation.
Though during the Prize’s seven years in existence (2006–2012), not all of the top or annual second-tier $5,000 “awards of special merit” went to coverage of climate change, the issue was disproportionately represented among “competing” environmental and natural resources coverage.
Over time, and with the quickly shifting sands of journalism in a challenging economic and digital era, the Grantham Prize competition itself drew the interest of all publicly available media, including books, videos, broadcast documentaries and, as time passed, online media. The growing number of winning book and online entries as the prize competition preceded across years is one indication of what was widely seen as the generally downward trend of conventional and mainstream or “legacy” quality journalism—and particularly of large metropolitan daily newspapers.
Case Study: Journalist’s Resource and Knowledge-Based Journalism
Journalists with little experience covering complex topics face particular challenges in terms of understanding the necessary history, context, and nuances of issues in order to make sound judgments, properly select patterns of facts, and create meaningful stories. On issues of climate change—where the scientific literature is vast and evolving, disagreements among experts are often subtle, and the political context is complicated—the challenges for inexperienced journalists are only exacerbated. While in-person trainings and workshops are one method of preparing journalists, another has been to create online resources that can serve as “scaffolding” and tools to facilitate the acquisition of relevant knowledge.
One such project, Journalist’s Resource, run by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Knight Foundation, has sought to foster “knowledge-based journalism” by authoring articles that point to select research on subjects, tip sheets about such topics as interpreting statistics and interviewing experts, and educational materials that can help orient younger journalists and those with little experience in the scientific and social science literature. The project’s theoretical basis is rooted in the idea that journalists’ traditional tools—interviews and observation—are insufficient to produce quality stories on many public policy questions, and therefore journalists must rely on more systematic bodies of information (Patterson, 2013).
This effort initially grew out of a coalition of nearly a dozen leading U.S. journalism schools organized under the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. The Journalist’s Resource website was launched in 2009–2010 to help guide journalists toward reliable sources of knowledge, pointing mostly to peer-reviewed literature. The goal is to help journalists be able to frame topics and stories within broader bodies of research, ultimately fostering “knowledge about how to use knowledge” and supporting the capacity of journalists to perform a literature review, even under substantial time constraints, or on deadline.
While the project focuses on the full menu of issues journalists cover, one specialty area has been sustainability, environment, and climate change. The website has consolidated research literature on topics ranging from the latest atmospheric science and extreme weather events to impacts such as drought and wildfires. It also helps journalists to understand research around a variety of mitigation- and adaptation-based issues, such as cleaner transportation modes, flooding issues, and energy efficiency initiatives. While the Journalist’s Resource database is not meant to be comprehensive, its articles serve as guideposts and as a demonstration to journalists of the extent of knowledge available to them.
The audience for the project’s materials stretches across media-related communities, from thousands of professional journalists and educators to bloggers, citizen scientists, and information professionals of many kinds. In terms of communications with journalists, the project has sought to connect with them through a variety of channels: email and social media, conference attendance, and direct conversations. The materials are free and openly available, with no subscription or registration required to use them. The project’s communications strategy with journalists has relied on several practices and principles:
Provide journalists with short, easy-to-read summaries of relevant research on topics, while also pointing to the abstracts of other related studies and bodies of knowledge.
Empower journalists by showing them other online databases and sources where they might find research and locate experts.
Help educators by furnishing model syllabi and other pedagogical materials so they can more easily teach students to access deeper sources of knowledge on a routine basis.
Encourage journalists to become both statistically literate and knowledgeable enough about the production of research to ask informed questions and identify gaps or potential areas of weakness in research findings.
Journalist’s Resource has been guided by the principle that journalists often seek to engage with primary sources of information, and the best journalism is created through deep engagement with and understanding of primary, not derivative or secondary, information. In that context, the project has sought to be an efficient and impartial intermediary in connecting news media members and journalists in training with the original research itself and its authors. The project team has found that any effort to help build journalistic content knowledge must balance the necessity of depth with the reality of speed.
Synthesis: Key Elements, Evaluations, and Outcomes
A systematic and precise policy evaluation of all such capacity-building programs—their successes and failures, and any apparent common best practices—has not yet been undertaken by researchers. Yet several features stand out when these programs, spanning over a decade of time and reaching across the globe in some cases, are considered together.
One common theme among the various programs appears to be the “reporters-helping-reporters” nature of many of the programs. Most involved extensive interactive presentations and panels not only for reporters, but often by reporters, sharing their valuable lessons learned, “war stories,” and what reporters often refer to as “the back story” that led to their coverage. This approach in many ways contrasts with the traditional corporate “media training” programs in which public relations practitioners teach a class on how to get a specific message across to the public via the media, instead focusing on how reporters in effect can make themselves and their editors “look good” in the journalism culture.
A second common element is that most of the programs have been focused at the level of the individual journalist. Such programs have sought to educate reporters in terms of knowledge and understanding of climate science and related policy. The theory in evidence here is clearly a grassroots one: By building up a number of individual journalists—both reporters and editors—to tell better, richer, and more compelling stories, the public might thereby be better educated, facilitating the possibility of mitigation efforts and making more likely targeted adaptation efforts. As James Fahn of Earth Journalism Network has commented, “one good story rightly placed can have a big impact” (Palmer, 2010).
Notably, however, many of these programs have not sought to engage persons at the news executive or media corporate board level. While of course educating individual journalists is a natural starting point, as the media industry has contracted in many countries it has become ever more vital that news organizations renew or expand their commitment to devoting reporting resources to climate change. Given that there are fewer specialty reporters—and as mentioned, environment and climate change beats have suffered accordingly—it would be inadequate to attempt large-scale capacity building without also trying to educate those who hold the financial power to make climate change reporting happen at scale.
Another observation that might be gleaned from a review of diverse capacity-building programs is that many of them are funded by philanthropic foundations and are, in some sense, dependent on charitable contributions. On an issue such as climate change, where no natural commercial funding sources were readily available at the early stages, this was logical. Yet finding sustainable for-profit models for capacity building and climate change reporting is necessary in the long run in many countries. The amount of funding for scientific research, although always tenuous and variable, remains massive. It is necessary, ultimately, to make the robust policy case that quality communications of science—in collaboration with both scientists and journalists—is also worthy of serious funding along the fundamental research itself.
Across many of these programs, it is apparent that bringing together communities of interest for in-person meetings and workshops has been greeted with widespread approval. From a social science perspective, it is unclear that in-person colloquies between scientists and journalists have necessarily led to tangible, positive public outcomes, but anecdotally there is a sense that this has been important. Likewise, connecting journalists in the developing world with one another has been well received. If there is a final lesson here, it is perhaps that capacity building that focuses on network building is a good long-term return on investment.
Conclusion: Future Capacity Building
Since the dawn of the new millennium, there has been a growing awareness among news media and scientific communities that climate change may be among the great issues of our time. News media members can see the interconnections among politics, science, and economics, as well as religion and culture; the climate challenge potentially pervades all beats and areas of coverage. For scientists who study the issue, the ethical dimensions of communicating the risks associated with human-induced climate change and the dangers of unmitigated greenhouse gas pollution into the future have become more acute. Despite tensions and points of difference between the communities, both are implicated together directly in this issue of surpassing global importance, with serious mutual responsibilities to the public.
However, it should be said that the efforts over the past decade or so to build infrastructure, knowledge and capacity—and ultimately quality—in the media ecosystem have often focused around journalists working for traditional news outlets who cover science. The coming decades will likely be defined by the continuing digitization, fragmentation, and disruption of news media outlets of all kinds. While it is unknowable what the future of climate change reporting will be, it is almost certain that more diverse forms of training and capacity building will need to take place. This may include the systematic training of students to tell their own stories and distribute them through social media channels, and for schools, NGOs, and advocacy groups to be armed with better information and tools for communicating. Of course, powerful organizations such as The Climate Reality Project and 350.org are already doing work along these lines, but news media training will also need to factor in, and preserve, the unique code of independence and impartiality that has characterized journalism in the modern age.
Large news organizations will likely continue to exist far into the future, of course, but increasingly journalists may rely on crowdsourced information and serve as curators of other, more informal media producers (Anderson, Bell, & Shirky, 2014). Streaming video and smartphones have distributed storytelling power to the world’s citizens. Media members must learn to function more robustly in this new ecosystem and to find a vital new role.
Two frontiers of reporting will require more training of journalists and media producers: emerging low-carbon technologies, solutions, and practices, either in terms of efficiency or energy production; and global impact patterns that will potentially harm vulnerable populations in disproportionate ways, whether because of drought, extreme weather or sea-level rise. Journalists of the future will need to learn about energy technologies in order to inform the public of promising mitigation tools; at the same time, they will need to keep their eyes open broadly to new warnings signs around the globe that may indicate further danger and be more attuned to other cultures, in order to tell the story fully and successfully.
If there is a chief lesson from climate change communications capacity-building efforts of the past, it is that there is power in bringing together communities of interest for extended dialogue. While the overall scientific questions are being increasingly settled as more data accumulates and is assessed and vetted, the climate change story may shift substantially to policy questions and difficult moral conundrums involving tradeoffs. Should coastal villages be relocated? Where? Should developing world populations, still largely impoverished, need, or be allowed, to pollute at higher levels to more rapidly increase living standards? What about the question of migration, refugees, and their legal status? Such questions might powerfully be explored with diverse groups coming together to share perspectives.
The first era, so to speak, of climate change science and media was defined in large part by an increasing awareness of the concepts of risk and uncertainty, with news producers challenged by the complexity of data, theory, and prediction, and also often by competing views of vested interests. In the coming era, as the story becomes policy oriented, journalists will need to grapple with the complexity of economic and geospatial modeling, cost-benefit analysis, exploratory planning scenarios, opportunity costs, and multilayered tradeoffs. There will be deep moral and ethical questions embedded in scenarios and models that will need to be carefully unpacked and interpreted for the public and policy makers.
Already some journalists are digging into scenario models and assessing policy options for the public using interactive graphics and cutting-edge storytelling techniques (see, e.g., Satija et al., 2016). This is difficult, complex reporting that will require the help, advice, and support of experts. Indeed, the media and research communities may have many more opportunities to collaborate in the future to inform the public about the impacts of climate change and the menu of adaptation options. Further, the economics and public policy dimensions of mitigation will only grow more complex. Fostering higher-quality communications about these issues, both internally and externally, remains in the highest interest of scientists and journalists alike, and of the public so dependent on both.
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- Journalistic Depictions of Uncertainty about Climate Change
- Source Influence on Journalistic Decisions and News Coverage of Climate Change
- Economic, Technological, and Organizational Factors Influencing News Coverage of Climate Change
- Impact of Journalistic Background, Professional Norms, and Culture on Climate Change Coverage
- Shifting Roles of Science Journalists Covering Climate Change