The IPCC presser was livestreamed, but those present still got the best stories

Digital connection can only get reporters so far

Associated Press environment reporter Seth Borenstein was in Yokohama, Japan, for the release of a blockbuster UN report Monday that warned the world is ill-prepared to deal with growing threats to food, security, and livelihoods that may be exacerbated by climate change. He jumped up to ask the first question at a press conference that was broadcast live on Ustream. Sitting next to him was the UN group’s vice-chair, Belgian climatologist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, who promptly took a picture of Borenstein and tweeted it.

Welcome to a world in which officials report on the reporters, and technology helps news outlets strapped for funds and time cover major events from afar. But reporters from major media organizations that invested in old-fashioned, on-the-spot reporting and sent reporters to Japan—including The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC, and the Economist—still felt they had a big jump by being there to write stories imbued with richer insights, and in-person interviews, because they were able to get beyond the virtual boundaries of reporting remotely.

“It’s the difference between being at a ballpark and watching on TV. You know the score in both, but it’s a whole different experience and you’re really part of the game when you are here,” a sleep-deprived Borenstein said by phone from Yokohama. “I like to think that by my being here, my readers feel part of the game.”

For many news organizations, particularly digital startups strapped by tight budgets and the 24-hour news cycle, sending reporters around the world to report stories in person is a luxury they can’t afford. Aside from local and regional outlets, most of the news organizations represented in Yokohama were major legacy brands with money and reporters to spare. An international dateline is still a cachet, but even some major media mainstays, such as The Washington Post, seem far less willing to send reporters to cover events in expensive locations, particularly on a specialty science or environment beat rather than a major political or diplomatic one.

Borenstein, who took a 14-hour flight and one-hour train ride to get to Yokohama from his Washington DC base, wrote several stories timed to the IPCC report’s release, including a main story with a headline-grabbing quote, “We’re all sitting ducks,” voiced by Princeton University professor Michael Oppenheimer. The men spoke over dinner in Yokohama, as Borenstein gathered embargoed comments before the report’s official public release. Two other local AP reporters were also there reporting business and regional pieces on the report, which was released Monday morning Japanese time by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Borenstein noted that his Yokohama reporting gave him a greater diversity of non-American experts for his stories, as well as a huge temporal advantage given the 13-hour time difference between Japan and the US East Coast. He quoted one of the IPCC study’s authors, Maarten van Aalst, a top official at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as saying, “if we don’t reduce greenhouse gases soon, risks will get out of hand. And the risks have already risen.” Borenstein was sitting with the Guardian’s US environment correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg when van Aalst came out of one of the sessions, and “he spent an hour with us” talking about the report on an embargoed basis.

“It’s always better to be here,” said Goldenberg, after being awakened from a deep sleep. “I gained a lot from being plunged into the middle of the process, surrounded by the world’s best scientists talking about the preparation of the final [IPCC] draft.” She noted that her overall emphasis on damage to food crops resulted from talking to experts in person and getting a better sense of its importance. She also got “leaks and a piece of the final draft” by being onsite for the story and led with the scoop in an advance story Friday. The Guardian had a big package of five IPCC-related stories on its environment vertical yesterday.

The dramatic conclusions of the new UN report did attract widespread news attention around the world, whether or not an outlet sent reporters. BBC environment correspondent Matt McGrath reported on the main story from Yokohama, “Climate inaction to be ‘catastrophe,’” while the BBC website also had a strong science and environment package of analysis, key findings, video, impacts, and viewpoints. The Timesin-depth story—“Panel’s Warning on Climate Risk: The Worst is yet to Come”—by Justin Gillis, who was also sent to Japan, got the paper’s top frontpage billing Monday and led online.

The Washington Post did not send a reporter to Yokohama (and also passed up sending a reporter to Stockholm last fall for another important IPCC report). Instead the Post assigned veteran business reporter Steven Mufson, who does a great job writing on energy and climate, to do a story that put more emphasis on the private sector: “U.N. climate panel: Government, businesses need to take action now against growing risks.” Longtime Post environment reporter Juliet Eilperin moved to the White House beat last year.

The IPCC report did garner a banner frontpage headline in USA Today — “U.N. escalates climate concerns” — that even ran above a Final Four basketball photo spread. The largely perfunctory story by Doyle Rice, who was not in Yokohama, did hit major highlights of the report. Ironically, the Wall Street Journal did have a “Final Four Frenzy” banner across the top of its front page, but the climate story seemed MIA in a print home edition. The Journal did have a short story online from Toyko and posted a longer one midday Monday.

The impacts report is the second part of the IPCC’s fifth major assessment of climate change, with the last assessment out in 2007. The first part, released last September with much less media attention, focused on the physical science of climate change. A third, on mitigation, or reduction, of human emissions of greenhouse gases, is scheduled to be released in Berlin on April 13.

While reporters were not allowed into the Yokohama deliberations, scientist, government, and NGO participants who were participating or observing frequently took breaks from the long and intense deliberations. Borenstein even staked out a nice bench with colorful flowers outside the conference center and sent emails from his iPhone to climate scientists inside, with the subject “Come out and enjoy the sunshine.”

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter. Tags: , ,