When Leo Hickman said farewell to his readership at The Guardian, he did it with a declaration: “The era of climate change ‘denial’ is over,” read the headline of his final column on August 28. After covering environmental issues for the last decade, Hickman claimed politicians who previously rejected climate science are evolving into skeptics, influenced by voters. He also believes that the back and forth in the comments sections of blogs (as seen in his EcoAudit blog) has allowed parties from both sides of the debate to discuss issues frankly, making the tone of the conversation more constructive and journalists more accountable. Now the chief adviser on climate change at the World Wildlife Fund-UK, Hickman is still monitoring and spreading climate-science news—but as an activist rather than a journalist. CJR’s Cecilia D’Anastasio spoke to Hickman three days into his new gig.
The Guardian is at the top of the heap in terms of environmental reporting; so why did you leave? I wanted to use the foundations of my experience and what I learned to add to a new chapter in my life. There’s no sense of, ‘I was disillusioned.’ It was a positive step. I was incredibly fortunate and privileged to work for The Guardian, which is now unparalleled in international journalism for its coverage of the environmental issues; but it is acting as an increasingly lonely searchlight.
How so? How do you see environmental journalism changing? Journalism is rapidly changing, and that is inevitably having an impact on environmental journalism. We’ve already seen some dedicated environmental desks being shrunk, merged or simply axed. This means that, inevitably, many environmental issues will not now be picked up by the media radar. Some of these stories will still find a readership via other means, but they will lack the level of reportage, analysis, and commentary that a trained journalist covering that beat would deliver.
Where is the line between environmental activism and environmental reporting? This is complicated by the fact that there are many types of ‘environmental journalists.’ I’ve always been 100 percent clear about my personal views on, say, climate change and changing energy policies. That’s very much been my ‘identity’ or ‘brand’ as a journalist, if you want to view it like that. There have only been a few occasions where I have ‘reported’ on a story in the conventional sense.
How well do traditional journalistic methods apply to climate change reporting? Obviously, one of the big problems with climate-change reporting has been this age-old issue of ‘false balance.’ It’s in a journalist’s nature to want to hear from A, and also to hear from B, and C, and represent a down-the-middle kind of view. The 50/50 ‘he said, she said’ kind of reporting doesn’t work in climate science. It’s just not representative of the facts.
You’re the author of five books. Are you working on a sixth? I’ve been fascinated by this story that occurred in 1853 in California. A sequoia tree, the Mammoth Tree, was felled by gold-rush miners in 1853 in the Sierra Nevada. It’s a key moment in the beginning of the conservation movement. It’s been an ambition of mine to try and work that story into a book. In that day and age, there was arrogance, there was hubris, there were great human emotions about how we view the natural resources around us. It’s a very basic, old story and has been told many times in many different ways, but the story has always touched me. But when I went back and read the original contemporaneous reports in the newspapers, it was interesting to see how much the story has been embellished. It reflects on journalism. Often, you don’t need to bash people over the head with these kind of issues. You can tell the story tangentially.