The Media Today

Struggling to tell the biggest story in the world

October 9, 2018

The projections are dire: Widespread drought, food shortages, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040. That is the future we’re facing, according to a new report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The story received prominent coverage on the homepages of the The New York Times and The Washington Post on Monday, and was discussed on cable news. But with a daily news cycle that churns out a constant stream of stories with sensational angles or immediate implications, can the press find a way to focus on a slow-moving crisis that affects everyone on the planet?

If history is a guide, then the answer is largely “no.” Writing in 2015, then-Guardian Editor in Chief Alan Rusbridger argued that “the problem with this story is…it’s so big, and it doesn’t change much from day to day. Journalism is brilliant at capturing momentum, or changes, or things that are unusual. If it’s basically the same every day, every week, every year, I think journalists lose heart.

On Monday, Rusbridger surveyed the covers of UK papers and lamented the absence of articles on the UN report. “If voters are kept in the dark about global warming by newspapers then urgent action by democratic politicians becomes a hundred times harder,” he wrote. Climate change has long been held up as an example of the sort of story that news outlets know is important, but struggle to cover. This new report, which warns that world governments have only a dozen years to take meaningful action, could be a wake-up call, but only if journalists find a way to realign their priorities.

RELATED: Going full Doomsday: Reporters must convey the perils of climate change without paralyzing their audience

The Post’s Margaret Sullivan argues that the press must find a way to keep attention on this threat, even while dealing with the demands of the daily news cycle. “There is a lot happening in the nation and the world, a constant rush of news. Much of it deserves our attention as journalists and news consumers. But we need to figure out how to make the main thing matter,” Sullivan writes. “In short, when it comes to climate change, we—the media, the public, the world—need radical transformation, and we need it now.

In America, that transformation requires an acknowledgement that President Trump, who has questioned the very idea of climate change, heads a Republican party that is one of the few major political organizations in the world that rejects the basic scientific consensus. The Times’s Mark Landler and Coral Davenport note that Trump spent part of Monday in Florida, “a state that lies directly in the path of this coming calamity—and said nothing about [the new UN report].”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

With the immediate implications of climate change being more dire that previously thought, heading off disaster will require a massive effort from governments around the world. The sort of political will required to make necessary changes could be driven by public pressure, but that pressure depends on an informed citizenry, which is where the press comes in. As Sullivan writes, it’s past time for fresh thinking: “Just as the smartest minds in earth science have issued their warning, the best minds in media should be giving sustained attention to how to tell this most important story in a way that will create change.”

Below, more on the coverage of a global emergency.

  • What’s different?: Previous studies had focused on the global damage caused by a rise in average temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius. The UN report released Sunday calculated the effect of a 1.5 degree increase, and found that the effects would include “inundating coastlines and intensifying droughts and poverty,” reports the Times’s Davenport.
  • Plain writing: The BBC’s headline on its story about the UN report lays out the stakes: “Final call to save the world from ‘climate catastrophe.’
  • Other priorities: One anecdotal measure of how hard it is for this issue to gain traction in Washington: On Tuesday, neither Politico Playbook nor Axios AM, two influential DC morning tipsheets, contains the phrase “climate change.”
  • Not just Trump: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who finished first in the initial round of the country’s presidential election on Sunday, has said he plans to follow Trump in withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement if he is elected. Brazil is the world’s seventh-largest producer of greenhouse gases.
  • Climate change on the ballot: The topic may have been completely ignored during the 2016 presidential debates, but Lyndsey Gilpin writes for CJR that climate change has emerged as an increasingly important topic in the heart of coal country. As part of our series on midterm races, Gilpin checks in from Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District.


Other notable stories:

  • In the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope questions whether journalism needs to have an immediate impact in order to matter. “For every Harvey Weinstein or Eric Schneiderman or Elizabeth Holmes investigation, there are dozens—even hundreds—of others that don’t receive the responses they deserve,” Pope writes. “The results of our work are completely out of our control; justice, even karma, sometimes moves fast, but more often moves slow and sometimes not at all.”
  • Following up on yesterday’s newsletter: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Saudi government to provide “a thorough investigation” into Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance. The Washington Post reports that “Turkish investigators believe Khashoggi was probably dismembered and his body removed in boxes and flown out of the country.”
  • Former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks is headed to Fox, where she’ll be executive vice president and chief communications officer. CNN’s Brian Stelter notes that “Monday’s announcement inspired lots of quips about the revolving door between the Trump White House and the Murdoch media empire.” Bill Shine, a former Fox exec, became White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications over the summer.
  • The New York Times republished its exhaustive investigation into President Trump’s wealth as a special section on Sunday, but the major Sunday shows ignored the story, reports Media Matters’s Matt Gertz. A panelist on CNN’s State of the Union mentioned it in passing, and MSNBC’s Joy Reid devoted considerable time to the piece, but ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox News all failed to address the report on their flagship shows, Gertz writes.
  • The Washington Post’s Dan Zak offers dual profiles of Ben Shapiro and the Crooked Media guys, who are waging a “battle in your ear buds.” Podcasting from opposite sides of the political aisle, Shapiro and Crooked Media’s Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett, and Dan Pfeiffer have ushered in a new age of political punditry, Zak writes.

ICYMI: The silencing of a Saudi truth teller

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.