COVID-19 and the media’s climate coverage capabilities

The coronavirus is a fierce reminder of just how much we need credible journalism, especially in times of crisis. And there’s been much to admire in the media’s coverage of the coronavirus crisis. Timely, accurate, high-profile reporting has helped Americans understand the danger of the virus and how to contain its spread through measures such as social distancing. To varying degrees, the coverage has also held authorities to account for their handling of the crisis, with President Trump under particular scrutiny after spending weeks dismissing the pandemic as “no big deal” and even a “hoax” before pivoting to claim that he knew it was a pandemic all along.

But the media’s snapping to attention on coronavirus throws its coverage of the climate crisis into sharp relief. The press has never treated the climate story with anywhere near this level of attention or urgency. To be sure, climate coverage has improved in recent years. Flagship outlets including The Washington Post and The New York Times have significantly upped their game. And there was an unmistakable surge of climate coverage last September, amid global youth climate protests, the United Nations Climate Action Summit and the increased ambitions of news outlets affiliated with the Covering Climate Now initiative. At the time, it looked like coverage of the climate story had at last turned a corner. But coverage by most outlets, at least in the US, subsequently waned.

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The contrast between the media’s coverage of the coronavirus and the climate crisis illuminates another core truth about the media. Collectively, the media exercises perhaps the greatest power there is in politics: the power to define reality, to say what is—and what is not—important at any given time. The coronavirus has correctly been treated as supremely important, dominating virtually every homepage and broadcast. Stories on other subjects have all but disappeared, and some newsrooms have halted production on non-coronavirus stories altogether. While this is understandable given the scope of the COVID-19 threat, it is bizarre that the climate crisis has never been accorded comparable importance, even though it too stands to upend, impoverish, and even end the lives of countless people the world over.

This is partly a matter of perception: coronavirus is an immediate and concrete threat—it might sicken any of us today—whereas climate change is often framed as an ever-looming threat that imperils other people, somewhere else. But that perception is faulty: just ask the millions of people who have already lost homes, livelihoods, or loved ones to the bushfires in Australia, the hurricanes that have pounded the Caribbean, or the droughts, floods, and other climate-related disasters that have punished communities from Missouri to Myanmar. Sooner than later, climate change will become less abstract for us all.

But why must newsrooms–especially the lucky few that have sufficient resources–choose between the coronavirus and climate stories? Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis carry enormous stakes, and neither puts the other on pause. With its threats to individuals’ health, national economies, and social life, the coronavirus is “climate change at warp speed,” Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at New York University, put it. A Guardian article explained that, “Delay is deadly,” adding that, globally, “right-wing governments have denied the problem and been slow to act. With coronavirus and climate change, this costs lives.”

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Both scientific reality and journalistic responsibility call upon newsrooms to treat the climate crisis as an emergency no less pressing than the coronavirus. As with the virus, they can start with the necessity of “flattening the curve”—which, thanks to all the media coverage, has become a household phrase. There is now widespread understanding that early and wide ranging intervention is crucial to limiting the virus’s spread. Now journalists should help their audiences understand that flattening the curve of greenhouse gas emissions is just as imperative, and the longer we wait to reduce those emissions, the greater the eventual damages will be. There are dozens of ways to tell that story, which at heart is a story about solutions: which nations or companies or individuals have been most successful at flattening the curves? What are their secrets? What can the rest of us do to help?

Just as the federal government’s abrupt willingness to spend trillions of dollars to keep the US economy aloft demonstrates that a lack of money has never been the main reason for rejecting climate solutions such as a Green New Deal, so the media’s all-hands-on-deck approach to the coronavirus suggests that lack of journalistic resources was not what kept news outlets from prioritizing the climate story. Newsrooms have the skills, smarts, and grit required to rise to both challenges; the question is one of will, more than capacity. No matter how well we cover one of these crises, it won’t matter much if we fumble the other.

Now, here’s your weekly sampling of the latest in climate news, from across the Covering Climate Now collaboration.

  • As wealthy residents of Miami move inland and to higher ground to escape sea level rise, the city’s working class will pay the price, CBS News reports. More frequent flooding along the coast—only an early sign of what’s to come—is driving real estate speculation in historically low-income neighborhoods, putting a climate spin on the all-too-familiar gentrification script. Mobile home parks are already being replaced by multimillion-dollar developments, and poorer city residents are being threatened with eviction or moving voluntarily as they are priced out of their homes.
  • April was to be a major month for climate activism, with strikes and protests planned the world round. Coronavirus, however, has pushed much of that activism online. “Climate groups are pivoting to an array of virtual actions and finding creative ways to keep the climate momentum growing,” HuffPost reports. That includes the first Digital Earth Day, announced last week by the Earth Day Network, and online campaigns urging politicians to take action. Some activists, meanwhile, see the forced interruption as an opportunity to bring more people into the movement.
  • The American Midwest is in for a grueling flood season, BuzzFeed News reports. As communities cope with the coronavirus outbreak, floods will only further test local health care systems and service support networks. Many cities will need to learn on-the-go how to cope with two upending crises at once. “In a warming world, overlapping and compounding disasters will likely be the new normal,” BuzzFeed notes.
  • The same groups that have pushed climate change denial and misinformation are now also spreading falsehoods about COVID-19, Truthout reports. The American Council on Science and Health, in particular, which identifies itself as a champion of “peer-reviewed mainstream science” and takes funding from big oil companies, has dismissed climate activism as “doomsday prophesying.” Now it is downplaying the severity of the coronavirus outbreak and confusing the information space around it. What’s worse, Truthout writes, is that a variety of media outlets seem to be taking the bait.

(Editor’s Note: After this piece ran, CJR received an email from Dr. Alex Berezow of the American Council of Science and Health objecting to the TruthOut article’s claim that he and his group have downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus.  Dr. Berezow wrote that, “ On January 24, a week before the World Health Organization, we declared COVID-19 a global public health crisis. In fact we criticized them for dragging their feet.”)

Finally, a reminder to CCNow partners that from April 19 to 26 we will host a second “week of coverage” focused on Climate Solutions! If you plan to participate but haven’t gotten in touch, please let us know with an email to [email protected]! Not a partner? We hope you’ll consider joining our collaboration.

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Mark Hertsgaard is the executive director of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative committed to more and better coverage of the climate story. He is also the environment correspondent for The Nation and author of books including HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.