Covering Climate Now

Climate change plays second fiddle as California burns

November 12, 2018

California is burning again. Separate fires in the north and south of the state wreaked devastation over the weekend and are not done yet. In SoCal, the Woolsey Fire has killed two people so far. In Butte County, north of Sacramento, the death toll from the Camp Fire is 29 and rising, with more than 200 people still missing.

Many news organizations have stressed the historic proportions of the latter fire, in particular—on Sunday night, it tied as the deadliest recorded in California history. While outlets at all levels have painted poignant portraits of human suffering, local newspapers, as is their responsibility, have led with more pragmatic coverage. Small titles like the Chico Enterprise-Record have reported on what dislocated residents can expect to happen next. The San Francisco Chronicle, meanwhile, took a bigger picture look at how the state’s intensifying fire threat might be mitigated going forward.

The Woolsey and Camp fires are not coincidental, one-off monstrosities, but rather significant new evidence of a rapidly changing climate. Sadly, far too much media coverage has failed to draw that link. That oversight is not surprising—in turn, it fits its own trend of big news organizations investing in detailed reporting on climate change, then failing to cite it in their quick turnaround stories when the threat strikes close to home. (As Hurricane Michael made landfall in Florida last month, CJR’s Pete Vernon pointed out that newspaper front pages did not mention climate change, despite having splashed dire UN climate projections just days earlier.)

ICYMI: NPR kills journalist’s piece over her accent

Over the weekend, fire stories that did reference climate change often did so in quotation marks, referencing, variously, high-profile comments from outgoing California Governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles fire chief Daryl Osby, and the musician Neil Young (the latter’s remarks, on his website, were a rare benefit of a cycle that otherwise paid wildly disproportionate attention to celebrities losing their homes). These are weighty voices, and editors’ hesitation to blame individual meteorological events on climate change in the absence of conclusive proof is not without reason. Nonetheless, this sort of attribution is not sufficiently authoritative. Brown’s comments, in particular, were framed as a political dispute with President Trump, even though the latter’s weekend tweets blaming poor forest management for the fires carried significantly less merit.

There is clear contextual evidence of the role of climate change in California’s worsening wildfire problem, and not enough outlets have cited it. The San Francisco Chronicle, at least, quickly got bona fide experts on the record: LeRoy Westerling, a climate and fire scientist at the University of California, Merced, for example, told the paper that “Climate change is drying out our landscape.”

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The Chronicle’s editorial board itself weighed in definitively as the fires spread on Friday, adding a practical call to action. “Rather than absolve us of responsibility for the growing human and material devastation of wildfires,” it wrote, “global warming should spur more urgent efforts to mitigate the danger with policies that make sense in any weather.”

ICYMI: Reporters must convey the perils of climate change without paralyzing their audience

Below, more on the California wildfires and climate change:

  • Newspapers affected: Concern grew on Sunday as Chico Enterprise-Record Editor David Little struggled to locate two of his employees. They were both later found safe.
  • Keeping the receipts: San Francisco Chronicle Editor Audrey Cooper yesterday tweeted her paper’s fire coverage budget. It ran to around $24,000, much of which went on safe clothing and equipment for reporters.
  • Mismanagement: On Sunday, CNN meteorologist Tom Sater dismantled Trump’s claims about the fires.
  • “You have to experience it”: The Daily Beast interviewed UCLA geography Professor Glen MacDonald, who has studied climate change and wildfires for decades, after he was forced to evacuate his home on Friday night. “You write about it. You study it. Then you suddenly get a call at 11:30pm saying your home is under voluntary evacuation. Then you see that red glow in your rear mirror when you leave,” MacDonald said. “You have to experience it.”
  • One to come back to: In July, The New Republic’s Emily Atkin criticized news outlets for treating extreme weather events as acts of God rather than linking them to climate change. Some of the same tropes were on display in fires coverage over the weekend—especially around the Northern California town of Paradise.

Other notable stories:

  • A telling story in the Times last night: Intelligence officials close to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, discussed using private companies to assassinate enemies more than a year before the dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the country’s Istanbul consulate. Relatedly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Saturday that he passed an audio recording of the murder to the US and other Western governments.
  • Also in the Times, Sahil Chinoy, Nicholas Kristof, and Jessia Ma track historic covers of The American Rifleman, an NRA magazine. “The Rifleman has been published under its current title since 1923, revealing how the group has politicized and mobilized its members over the past century,” the trio writes. “The covers of the magazine show how the NRA’s conception of itself has evolved from a largely apolitical association of hunters and sportsmen to the last line of defense against ‘gun-banning’ politicians.”
  • The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison looks at the parallel faultlines inside the White House, Fox News, and the Murdoch family. “The West Wing contains various factions; so does Fox,” Ellison writes. “[Bret] Baier and [Martha] MacCallum are like Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, projecting a reasonable mien and moderate opinions, while [Sean] Hannity and others lean toward the extremes.”
  • The government of the Philippines said late last week that it would pursue news website Rappler and its founder, the crusading journalist Maria Ressa, for tax evasion. Ressa, who has strongly criticized the country’s authoritarian president, Rodrigo Duterte, called the move a “clear form of continuing intimidation and harassment” by the regime.
  • After The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, reported that hard-right Iowa Congressman Steve King referred to immigrants as “dirt” during his recent re-election campaign, King accused its reporter of misquoting him. On Saturday, the magazine released audio of the remarks. (ICYMI, King barred two local papers, the Des Moines Register and Storm Lake Times, from his election night event last Tuesday.)
  • After offloading Time magazine to Marc and Lynne Benioff earlier this year, Meredith Corporation announced late last week that it’s selling Fortune, too, striking a $150 million deal with Thai businessman Chatchaval Jiaravanon.
  • The Atlantic’s Scott Nover re-ups the story of Robert Sherrill, an anti-establishment writer for The Nation who, in the 1970s, sued the Secret Service for denying him White House press credentials. While the court did not demand Sherrill be issued a pass, it did lay out a series of steps administrations should take to guarantee reporters’ First Amendment rights. Experts say the precedent could help Jim Acosta, the CNN White House correspondent Trump banned from the briefing room last week.
  • And CJR published a must-read series of dispatches from its print issue on race and journalism. Reporters checked in with 10 newsrooms—in Honolulu; Seattle; LA; Baltimore; New York; Denver; Houston; Orlando; Jackson, Mississippi; and South Bend, Indiana—whose staffs do not reflect the diverse demographics of their communities.

ICYMI: A swarm of stories, and what’s missing

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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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