The Story of Our Time

Reporters covering the climate crisis must be more than stenographers of tragedy

Journalism has always been good at fast. The home team won. An old woman was shot. A president was elected. The quicker a story moves, the more compressed the drama, the better we are at reporting it.

Slow is harder. Stories that contain subtlety, that evolve, that don’t have an ending—those aren’t our strength. Racism, systemic poverty, the long-term effects of outdated policy—these are subjects that we’ve consistently failed to get our arms around. We chase the immediate, the ephemeral, and ignore the seismic, the fundamental.

The reasons are understandable. Reporting on an event is easier than becoming deeply immersed, over time, in complex characters and bureaucracies. On television, time is tight; in print, space is limited. The gratification in quick hits is shallow but fast. Over the past decade, the encroachment of social media has caused newsroom budgets and attention spans to shrink. Often, clicks replace our consciences as the arbiters of news.

That’s also inexcusable. No longer is the value of news in saying what happened yesterday. (We’ve got Twitter for that.) The task at hand is to examine events carefully and deeply—to think of a moment not in isolation, but as part of a broader context. When, last year, California was overwhelmed by wildfires, only 3 percent of TV news reports mentioned that climate change might have had something to do with the intensity of the damage. For the most part, reporters were mere stenographers of tragedy.

I am convinced that journalism’s failure to properly report the climate story will be recorded as one of its great humiliations. Since 1988, when James Hansen, a scientist at nasa, sat before Congress and warned the United States of the effects of a warming planet, news organizations have dithered and delayed and put off critical reporting on what’s happening to the earth. They have allowed themselves to be spun by oil industry PR campaigns, convinced themselves that the science is complicated and contested (it’s not), and rested on the idea that the subject is too abstract and depressing for their audiences to handle (again, false). The result has been a massive media fail: In 2012, researchers at Media Matters found that US news organizations gave forty times more coverage to the Kardashians than to rising sea levels. During the 2016 campaign, reporters neglected to ask a single climate question in the three presidential debates. In 2018, broadcast news outlets gave more airtime to the royal baby than to the warming earth.

In the fall of 2019, however, we began to see things shift. The climate story seemed to be moving from slow to fast, as the effects of the crisis were becoming impossible for even the most stubborn newsrooms to ignore. Floods in Venice and droughts in India were ready-made for the evening news. Devastating fires in California and Australia led news broadcasts around the world. Mass protests and their student leaders adorned magazine covers. By the time Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate activist, faced the United Nations at its Climate Action Summit, in New York City, and asked “How dare you?” the world, and its news media, were listening.

At this late hour there has, finally, been an awakening in journalism to the grim reality of climate change. The question now is how to tell the story. Can we ensure that the disasters we watch unfold are contextualized and explained? Will we hold the villains of the crisis accountable? Are we able to write about solutions to problems without trivializing them? How can we be fast and slow? The matter of whether or not the climate story should be told is settled: we must. This issue of CJR is focused on ways of doing the job.


A year ago, frustrated by journalism’s persistent silence on the fate of the natural world, CJR teamed up with The Nation to launch Covering Climate Now, an initiative to encourage more and better climate coverage. The Guardian quickly signed up as our first media partner. Together, we set out to understand why news outlets weren’t doing more—and to help them improve.

We tried to keep our initial request modest. We knew that few newsrooms had money in the budget to add climate reporters, and we understood that the complexity of the story—slow versus fast—was working against us. So our ask was simple: we wanted newsrooms to commit to upping their game for a week, stretching themselves to do more climate reporting than they would normally, and then report back to us on what they learned.

We debuted in April, led by Mark Hertsgaard, my partner on the initiative and now Covering Climate Now’s executive director. We targeted the second week of September, during the UN Climate Action Summit, for the coverage experiment. Over the spring and summer, we talked to editors and reporters representing newsrooms from around the world. We learned that there was a wide consensus that more coverage was needed—few journalists (outside the right-wing echo chamber) were in denial about the importance of the climate story. Staffers, young ones in particular, had long been pushing their organizations to do more.

But news outlets still held back, for three main reasons. First, there was a pernicious view, particularly in television, that reporting on the climate story was a political act that could turn off conservative audiences. Second, newsrooms were convinced that they simply didn’t have the staff to do more climate coverage at a time when core beats—police, courts, city hall—go uncovered. And third, reporters simply did not know where to start: they lacked training that would help them interpret climate science, they struggled to find local angles to global narratives, or they didn’t see how to connect climate change to the stories they already follow every day.

On the first point, we hoped that CJR’s endorsement—and the fact that mainstream organizations like CBS News were involved in the effort—could provide cover for newsroom managers worried about how their climate reporting would be perceived. On the resource question, we never asked anyone to add to their payroll. Instead, we encouraged them to rethink their existing beats, to make everyone in the newsroom a climate journalist—from those on the news desk to sports to business to culture. The last concern—that news organizations, even large ones, didn’t know where to begin—seemed at first depressing, but then gave us hope. If they were ill-equipped to tell the most important story of our time, we would provide them with tools.

Our modest start—a plea for attention—yielded astonishing results. On the appointed week in September, more than three hundred news organizations participated in Covering Climate Now, including some of the most widely read in the world. Together, they published or broadcast more than 3,600 stories for a combined audience of more than a billion people. According to Google Trends, climate searches that September were the highest they had been in Google’s history. Since then, the number of our partners has grown past four hundred, and their combined audience approaches two billion people. We are just beginning to build a network capable of informing the world that it’s not too late to save ourselves.

We are just beginning to build a network capable of informing the world that it’s not too late to save ourselves.


Our hope is that this magazine can begin to supply some answers about what’s needed for climate journalism to be effective. We hear from Emily Atkin, a climate reporter who felt constrained by traditional forms of storytelling (“It was difficult to hide my sense of alarm,” she explains), and Michael Specter, a writer who believes in the ability of facts to convey the severity of the crisis. E. Tammy Kim reports from the Doomsday Clock–setting convention of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which may be the only publication, she writes, “to cover climate change with an approach that is explicitly existential.” Alexandria Neason goes back to her childhood home in Hawai‘i, where well-intentioned climate journalism focuses on tourists and ignores indigenous people. Betsy Morais, CJR’s managing editor and the guiding force behind the magazine, writes about the difficulties—and opportunities—for reporting on the climate in China, where, as the coronavirus reminds us, censorship is rife. I talk to George Miller, the director of Mad Max, about what reporters can learn from movies when it comes to crafting climate stories. Elsewhere in the issue, we trace climate journalism across Alaska, shadow a fire reporter in California, and lament the ubiquity of the polar bear as a climate change mascot.

Clearly, the climate crisis can’t be contained in a single issue of this, or any, magazine. But we can use this occasion to survey the work being done and to consider how we can do better. It’s as good an expression of CJR’s mission as there is.

We also have worked to produce a magazine that takes its subject matter to heart. If you are holding this issue in print, you are reading it on 100 percent recycled postconsumer stock. The inks we’ve used are vegetable- and soy-based. Allied Printing, the company we’ve hired to produce the magazine, has a zero-carbon footprint; nearly three-quarters of the energy used at its facility comes from wind and solar power. To further minimize our climate impact, we’ve elected to print half the number of issues we typically would, which helps us offset the costs of eco-friendly printing and distribution. We have also made every effort possible to reduce travel for our writers and photographers.

We have reached a turning point for journalism and the planet. Old ideas that had dampened our attention to climate change—that the subject was too polarizing or too complicated or a money-loser—have been proven wrong. Old forms of storytelling—fast, without helping readers draw crucial connections—are not what’s needed to confront the crisis we face. We owe it to our audience, and our conscience, to be more thoughtful. Climate change is the story of our time. Journalism will be judged by how it chronicles the devastating reality.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.