Covering Climate Now

As California burns again, news outlets neglect climate change again

October 29, 2019

California is burning again. I opened this newsletter with those words nearly a year ago. They’re true again today, and will be in the future. As fires have raged across the state—from the hills of Los Angeles to Sonoma County, north of San Francisco—journalists whose focus is on climate change have been clear that such trends are helping to stoke the flames. “Siri,” Brian Kahn, managing editor of Earther, tweeted Sunday, sharing a picture of smoke billowing around a bridge in Vallejo, “show me one image that perfectly encapsulates the climate crisis.” This morning, Bill McKibben, the veteran climate writer and campaigner, asks, in The Guardian, whether climate change is making California uninhabitable: “It takes a force as great as the climate crisis to really—perhaps finally—tarnish Eden.”

To be clear, the role of climate change in California’s wildfires is complicated. They have long been a fact of life in the state, and more recently have been exacerbated by population shifts and a creaking power grid. (It’s important that the press notes this: as Daniel Cusick writes for E&E News, executives at PG&E, the beleaguered local utility, have cited the climate in a bid to shift blame from their infrastructure, which actually deserves (and is getting) close scrutiny for its role in sparking fires.) Nonetheless, scientists generally agree that climate change is substantially exacerbating the problem, making tinder of vegetation and helping fires intensify and spread. As Adam Sobel, a climate scientist at Columbia University, told the New York Times last week, you can get certain diseases without smoking, but smoking increases your risk.

ICYMI: Indian Country Today joins the Associated Press

Last year, I argued that far too much coverage of California’s fires failed to draw this clear climate-change link—part of a broader trend of news organizations doing detailed enterprise reporting on climate, then neglecting to cite it in quick-turn stories on natural disasters. How does this year’s coverage compare? Now, as then, there’s some room for optimism. Many outlets have published helpful explainers: papers from the Times to the local Mercury News, for example, explained what we do and don’t know about the intersection of climate change and wind patterns. Last year, the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle urged Californians to take action to mitigate the dangers of the climate crisis. Yesterday, the editorial board of the LA Times was just as punchy. “How did things get so bad in California, so quickly?” it asked. “The answer is climate change. It is here and our communities are not ready for it.”

Again, however, far too many news articles on the fires mention climate change fleetingly, or not at all. As of earlier this morning, the top fires stories on the homepages of the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, NPR, CNN, NBC, and CBS failed to cite the climate context, but found the space to note that the fires forced Arnold Schwarzenegger, or LeBron James, or both to evacuate their homes. We were told, again, that this is California’s “new normal,” but the reason why was largely implied. Even otherwise outstanding coverage—including that of the Chronicle, the LA Times, and the Press Democrat, in Sonoma County—hasn’t consistently made the climate link. Yesterday, Brittny Mejia, of the LA Times, won deserved, widespread praise for reporting that laborers were still showing up for work in an affluent, evacuated part of LA because their bosses didn’t tell them to stay away. As observers including Kahn and Kamala Harris, the Democratic presidential candidate and California senator, pointed out, the story is a clear, important example of climate injustice. And yet climate change isn’t mentioned.

To reiterate, linking a specific disaster to climate change is really hard, and fires in California are especially complex. But news outlets’ failures to consistently mention climate change in such stories—even just once—are troubling. Too often, it seems, the climate crisis is still siloed in our coverage of its effects: it appears consistently in opinion pieces and explainers about natural disasters, but less so in straight news coverage. Climate coverage has, gradually, been improving. But we still have a way to go.

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Late last week, Amy Westervelt, a climate journalist, wrote on Twitter that when a California firefighter told her, during her coverage of a fire there in 2017, that “this is climate change,” her editor at an unnamed “big paper” initially told her to drop the quote because this was “not a politics story.” Westervelt says she pushed back, and won. If this year’s coverage is any indication, however, such wrongheaded attitudes persist.

Below, more on wildfires and the climate crisis:

  • Paying attention: In general, this year’s California wildfires have struggled to break out of a packed news cycle, fighting for attention with impeachment, the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and other big stories. (Several journalists argue that the fires would be the top story if they were happening on the East Coast.) In her newsletter, HEATED, Emily Atkin argues that “the Trump administration’s ongoing crusade to dismantle America’s regulatory state on behalf of polluting industries” is “aggressively picking up steam as impeachment talk dominates mainstream news.”
  • Related problems: Last year, I noted that many California fire stories that did note climate change did so only through the remarks of politicians and officials. Such attribution, I argued, is insufficiently authoritative, and can make scientific fact look political. This year, right-wing websites have presented Democrats’ statements linking the fires to climate changes—most notably, those of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—as evidence of an agenda.
  • Journalists are humans, too: Yesterday, Kayna Whitworth, a reporter with ABC News, was forced to evacuate her home in LA. “I’ve covered a lot of fires,” she said, “but to see the Super Scooper fly right over your house while you’re trying to load your kids up in the car to evacuate is really scary.”
  • (Really) slow journalism: For Nieman Reports, John D. Sutter outlines his plan for BASELINE, a “multi-generational documentary series” that will “revisit four communities on the front lines of the climate crisis every five years until 2050. Think of it as a generational time-lapse—a longitudinal film series.”
  • Covering Climate Now: CJR and The Nation, in partnership with The Guardian, are leading a project to increase the visibility of the climate crisis in the world’s media; in September, we brought together more than 300 news outlets with a combined reach of 1 billion people for an inaugural coverage project. You can find more details here.

Other notable stories:

  • Mike Isaac, of the New York Times, obtained a letter from more than 250 Facebook employees to senior management complaining about the platform’s decision not to fact-check political ads; the move, the employees wrote, is “a threat to what FB stands for.” Speaking of threats and Facebook, Democratic presidential campaigns that were recently targeted by Russia on Instagram, which Facebook owns, say the company did not alert them to the disinformation effort, the Post reports. This week, CJR’s Mathew Ingram is discussing Facebook, political speech, and more on Galley, CJR’s discussion platform, with guests including Jillian York, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Harvard’s Jonathan Zittrain. Ingram kicked things off yesterday with Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former security chief. You can revisit their conversation here.
  • Whither Condé Nast? New York’s Reeves Wiedeman goes deep on the answer. “Condé Nast was, for a long time, a place where people simply felt lucky to get in the door. But Condé expats have left in recent years to found Glossier, become the ‘chief content officer’ of Goop, and work at Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube,” he writes. “After years of drama, downsizing, and intrigue, what seems to be happening most with Condé is that it is becoming—normal. Just another media company trying to get by.” (ICYMI, Kyle Chayka also wrote at length about Condé Nast recently, for the New Republic.)
  • Management at G/O Media told Deadspin, one of the sites it owns, to focus only on sports in its coverage, The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reports. Deadspin is nominally a sports site, but frequently touches on other topics; in August, Megan Greenwell, its then-editor, quit, in part because of G/O’s “stick-to-sports” ethos. G/O also removed a post from Deadspin in which staff said they were “upset” with the site’s “ad experience.”
  • Last week, NBC pledged to release women who signed NDAs with the company from any “perceived obligation” to stay silent about sexual harassment there. Now women who signed similar agreements with Fox News, including Gretchen Carlson, are calling on that network to do likewise, one of the women, Diana Falzone, writes for Vanity Fair.
  • Yesterday, the shooter who killed five staffers at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, last year admitted to the offense. A judge must now decide whether to accept his plea; if they do, the trial will move into a second phase weighing whether the shooter is criminally responsible for the crime. His lawyers have invoked the insanity defense.
  • For CJR, Valerie Vande Panne reports that the AP is now running stories from Indian Country Today, a Native American news site, on its wire. “It’s such an underrepresented population,” Katie Oyan, an AP editor, says. “I think Native America has more representation in Congress than they do in journalism right now. And that’s not much.”
  • For Coda Story, Umer Ali and Ramsha Jahangir report that Pakistan is building a “web monitoring system” that will analyze all web traffic going in and out of the country. The move, they write, “raises serious concerns about privacy and civil liberties in Pakistan, where government critics have sometimes seen digital retribution from officials.”
  • And Washingtonian’s Andrew Beaujon noticed that the Times excised the claims that “it’s uncommon to meet a Washington native” and that “calling [DC] a fun-loving city would be a stretch” from a piece about the city’s relationship to the Washington Nationals. The language had been lampooned on social media.

ICYMI: Dropshipping journalism

About Covering Climate Now

CCNow, a partner of CJR, collaborates with journalists and newsrooms to produce more informed and urgent climate stories, to make climate a part of every beat in the newsroom — from politics and weather to business and culture — and to drive a public conversation that creates an engaged public.

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