The Media Today

The crisis outside our window

July 14, 2023
Flames from the Donnie Creek wildfire burn along a ridge top north of Fort St. John, British Columbia, Sunday, July 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

For too long, American journalism has downplayed the climate crisis. Four years ago, to mark the launch of a new initiative aimed at addressing the problem, Mark Hertsgaard and I wrote a piece lamenting how reporters, particularly in the US, tended to minimize climate science, foreground political squabbling, and ignore the effects of a burning planet on the people most at risk—a track record that did not reflect well on our profession.

Thankfully, much has changed since then. The project that began in 2019, Covering Climate Now, has grown into the largest media collaborative of its kind in the world. This week seemed to mark another step forward, as newsrooms of all sizes were forced to reckon with a planet that seems to be at its breaking point. “The world is hotter than it’s been in thousands of years, and it’s as if every alarm bell on Earth were ringing,” the Washington Post’s Sarah Kaplan wrote this week, in a piece that was typical of the new tone and topped the paper’s print front page, ringed by photos of wildfires in Canada, flooding in India and Vermont, and extreme heat in the American Southwest. “We are going to see stuff happen this year around Earth that we have not seen in modern history,” a meteorologist told David Gelles, the new climate newsletter writer at the New York Times, who filed his piece as floodwaters inundated his cabin in New York’s Hudson Valley this week. “It will be astonishing.”

The press has made progress in connecting such episodes of extreme weather to the broader shifts in the climate brought about by the burning of fossil fuels. “Journalists in New York City and other pollution-plagued cities no longer even need to look out the window to find the climate story,” Covering Climate Now wrote in a recent newsletter, as Canadian wildfire smoke choked New York and turned the sky orange. “Climate change is in our houses and in our lungs now. It will keep getting worse until the fossil fuels fanning the flames are quit.”

And yet resistance remains. According to a study by the watchdog group Media Matters for America and an analysis by the Heated newsletter, US TV news is still failing to adequately link the weather with its root causes. As Heated’s Arielle Samuelson and Emily Atkin put it this week:

Only five percent of TV stations that covered the heat waves in Texas and the Southwest connected them to the climate crisis, a new study from Media Matters found. The majority of major TV networks failed to report the direct link between global warming and record-breaking temperatures.

ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 123 segments about the heat wave, but only seven mentioned climate change. Major cable networks did no better: CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC aired 187 segments about the heat waves, but only 8 mentioned climate change. At this point, failing to connect extreme heat to climate change is more than oversight—it’s misinformation.

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Tracking the causes of the climate crisis remains a missing link for journalism. This week’s horrific weather is not, as climate denialists might argue, an act of God. Earth did not heat itself. Our present moment of peril is the result of decades’ worth of decisions, by oil companies, policymakers, and, at least until very recently, an embarrassingly compliant media. “Even if the news media was regularly connecting extreme heat to climate change, it wouldn’t be enough,” Samuelson and Atkin write. “To truly do the climate story justice, the news media must go further, and connect climate change to the fossil fuel companies refusing to reduce their planet-destroying emissions.” 

This summer’s climate apocalypse is not the end point of human neglect of the planet. This, in a sense, is a new beginning; things will only get worse from here. Journalism’s project must now be to harness growing attention to the climate crisis—audience interest, as well as newsroom focus—to center the climate story in a way that reflects the seriousness of the problem. Climate became the most important story of the past week. We need to treat it like the most important story of our lives. Sadly, the opportunity to do so is increasingly staring us in the face.

Every reporter must become a climate reporter. Investigative journalists must uncover the role of the energy industry, and its enablers in elected office, in continuing to make the problem worse. Reporters at every level must highlight the tools available to us—and there are many—to address the crisis at hand. It will be a source of shame for our profession if we let this moment pass with the status quo intact.

The recent talk of the apocalypse brought me back to one of my favorite reporting moments at CJR, which was the opportunity I had, in 2020, to talk to the Australian filmmaker George Miller about how to approach the climate story. Miller, who was seventy-five when we spoke, has made four Mad Max movies, all of them set in a dystopia made worse by climate change. He also directed Happy Feet, the 2007 Oscar winner about a group of dancing penguins whose habitat is threatened by a warming planet. Miller told me that he never sets out to make movies about climate. But he has thought deeply about how the changing climate should influence our storytelling. When we spoke, he was in Sydney, and smoke from wildfires was obscuring the view from his office window. When I asked him whether he’s able to mentally compartmentalize the climate crisis, he replied:

You do, but it’s almost impossible to ignore. It’s astonishing how much it’s in the conversation, you know, with family and friends. It’s really interesting. Until something affects everybody, people seem to be able to brush these issues under the carpet. Now, somehow, everyone’s politicized. In rural Australia, there’s not only fires, but there’s severe drought. And the rivers, the great inland river system, which basically greens most of the Australian desert—they are drying up, and you see what they call “fish kills” in which, it seems, millions of fish wash up dead, for complex reasons. There’s almost a biblical pestilence about things.

You can read our full conversation here. And one further note: CJR and Covering Climate Now will be helping to convene a major conference on climate and the media this fall. Stay tuned to this newsletter and Covering Climate Now’s website for more details.

Other notable stories:

  • Overnight, actors represented by SAG-AFTRA went on strike after failing to reach a labor agreement with producers, joining an existing strike by screenwriters and effectively shutting down Hollywood. (The last time both groups walked out at the same time was in 1960, when the actors’ union was led by Ronald Reagan.) The strike will affect journalists who cover Hollywood stars, since actors are now (mostly) banned from promoting their projects in the press, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo and Natalie Jarvey report. “This is basically like, the celebrity factory has shut down,” The Ankler’s Janice Min said. “If this goes on for a long time, you will feel it across the whole internet.”
  • Yesterday, the Associated Press announced a deal with OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, that marks “one of the first official news-sharing agreements made between a major US news company and an artificial intelligence firm,” Sara Fischer reports for Axios. Under the terms of the deal, OpenAI will be able to use the AP’s archives to help train its algorithms while the AP will get access to OpenAI’s technology. The deal comes as the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation into OpenAI’s data-collection practices and whether it has harmed people by publishing false information about them.
  • Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire highlighted three states whose governments are funding fellowships in a bid to boost local journalism. “In New Mexico, recent college grads are matched with newsrooms to complete 9-month fellowships,” Scire reports. “In California, 40 fellows will work for two years in newsrooms that operate in underserved communities around the state. And the legislature in Washington State just allocated $2.4 million to start its own two-year program to boost local journalism.”
  • Earlier this week, the newspaper chain McClatchy let go of three Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial cartoonists—Jack Ohman, of the Sacramento Bee; Joel Pett, a freelance staffer at the Lexington Herald-Leader; and Kevin Siers, of the Charlotte Observer—on the same day. Ohman told the Post’s Michael Cavna that he could not “recall another day like it, even amid decades of brutal cuts in the field of newspaper political cartooning.”
  • And, for a new digital issue focused on therapy as a feature of modern life, The New Yorker published a selection of therapy-themed cartoons from its archives. “Therapy and cartooning may very well be symbiotic professions, at this point,” Emma Allen writes. “For the cartoonist, the doctor serves as both muse and captive audience. Also, it’s a medical fact that, if you shrink a brain enough, its contents are reduced to a single punch line.”

ICYMI: The government talking to the platforms is a First Amendment minefield. A judge just blew it up.

Kyle Pope was the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He is now executive director of strategic initiatives at Covering Climate Now.