CJR at COP26: Inside the biggest story in the world

GLASGOW — A week ago this morning, thousands of people, many of them journalists, gathered at a convention center in Glasgow, Scotland, for the first full day of COP26, a crucial United Nations climate summit. They were greeted by a long line to get in, which would normally be a fine British welcome (some people, including me, would say that lines are the only thing Britain does well), except—unlike the best British lines—this one was apparently more of a surging, sharp-elbowed mass than an ordered, mannerly procession. (Those arriving by train from London had already faced weather-induced travel delays; actually, Britain does those well, too.) The Guardian’s Fiona Harvey said it was “inexplicable that the Scottish hosts have not managed this better having had nearly two years to prepare”; Laura Waddell later shot back, in The Scotsman, that it was the British government in London that organized the event, and quoted the tennis player Andy Murray’s famous gripe that he’s “British” whenever he wins and “Scottish” whenever he loses. At one point, a huge COP26 flag outside the venue began to fall down. It was, Fortune’s Katherine Dunn wrote, a “symbolic anecdote” that journalists “couldn’t resist.”

The heavy media presence (eventually) inside the venue attested to the fact that COP26 is a huge story; as Sunita Narain, the director-general of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, put it during a recent briefing organized by Covering Climate Now, a climate-reporting project led by CJR and The Nation, journalists are often hesitant to tie the climate crisis to extreme-weather events, and so COP “becomes that one event” at which journalists can “report on the issues of climate change, the politics of climate change, the signs of climate change,” driving the climate story up the news cycle. This dynamic has been true at past COPs—particularly those that took place in Copenhagen, in 2009, and Paris, in 2015—but Mark Hertsgaard, the director of Covering Climate Now, wrote for CJR last week that American media seems to be paying much more attention this time round. “I’ve covered UN climate conferences since the 1992 Earth Summit”—the event that set the stage for subsequent COPs—and “never have US news organizations devoted as many newsroom resources, produced the sheer volume of coverage, or given the story such big play as they did in the opening days of COP26,” Hertsgaard observed. He singled out the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Guardian, and NPR for praise; TV, he wrote, “lagged, as it often does,” yet even there, the picture was positive by past standards. Media Matters for America calculated that the major cable networks collectively devoted more than four hours of airtime to the conference last Monday.

Related: At COP26, some US newsrooms are finally stepping up. Will it last?

Since the opening days of the conference—when many world leaders, including US President Joe Biden, were in attendance—the prominence of coverage across top US news outlets has waned a bit, superseded, in many places, by the Virginia gubernatorial election and the passage of Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill. (As I wrote last week, these are both climate stories, yet COP26 hasn’t always been discussed as part of them.) Still, a lot of coverage continues to come out of COP, with protests over the weekend bumping the story up the news cycle again. Importantly, the quality of much coverage has been good, too (though the volume makes it hard to generalize). Ahead of COP, many major outlets ran explainer packages clearly laying out the key players and the stakes, treating the conference as a story for everyone, and not just insider baseball for policy wonks. Coverage that I’ve seen of countries’ subsequent pledges has often trodden the line between skepticism and nihilism (falling signs and “FLOP26?” puns aside). The Post just splashed a big investigation finding that many countries are significantly under-reporting their emissions.

Still, keen observers I spoke to said that some errors of focus and framing have persisted. Much topline coverage has focused on world leaders as personalities—suggesting, for example, that the absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping means that “China” isn’t at COP, even though the country sent its longtime climate envoy—as well as the other celebrities in attendance. (Leonardo DiCaprio showed up; the Queen, almost every major outlet told us, didn’t, on doctor’s orders.) Such figures have helped focus media attention on Glasgow, but ahead of the conference, Saleemul Huq, who leads the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh and has attended every COP, wrote for the Daily Star newspaper that journalists shouldn’t conceive of the conference as a leaders summit. Whether a given president “flies in for a photo opportunity or doesn’t fly in is immaterial to what’s going to happen in the COP,” Huq told me shortly after his column appeared. “But the photo opportunity is what gets the media.” (Inviting leaders was “a typical Boris Johnson ploy,” Huq added, referring to the British prime minister. “He’s showing you a shiny object and distracting you from the reality.”) Huq’s fear that world leaders would overshadow the nitty gritty has materialized, he told me yesterday—though he noted on Twitter that Bangladeshi media, for whom the climate stakes are huge and immediate, are still following the ins and outs of the process.

COPs, Huq told me, are almost like two conferences at once: the formal negotiations, and then a “conference of people”—activists, Indigenous groups, businesses, and so on—that is harder for the press to characterize because of its sheer breadth. In recent days, I’ve seen lots of stories about activism at COP; numerous journalists have done an effective job of highlighting the disparities between the views of officials inside the conference center and protesters in the streets, as well as pointing out that many people from poorer countries couldn’t come at all, for reasons including the pandemic and sky-high travel and accommodation costs. But there’s room for the access story, in particular, to be more central. Addressing a demonstration on Friday, Vanessa Nakate, a climate activist from Uganda, said that “while the global south is on the frontlines of the climate crisis, they’re not on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.” Climate justice is, ultimately, the central story in Glasgow. “It’s really easy to focus on numbers and targets: it’s a very transactional and Western way of looking at the world,” Carla F. Fredericks—an enrolled citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation of North Dakota and CEO of the Christensen Fund, who came to COP to advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous rights and perspectives—told me last week. “If you start talking about reducing methane emissions, your average person doesn’t even understand what that means. And the urgency of this crisis is not communicated if it’s communicated through that lens.”

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As we enter the second week of the conference, questions of climate justice must remain front of mind. Whatever happens, the press—as Harvey, of The Guardian, argued recently—will need to avoid the temptation to frame the outcome as a total success or a total failure, since the reality will certainly be more nuanced; indeed, Huq told me that we should avoid talk of a unified “Glasgow Agreement” entirely, since this COP is about how “we implement the Paris Agreement—which we made six years ago—better: We’re not doing enough; we need to do more; how do we do that?” Of course, continued, top-level media attention is a prerequisite of all this. “It’s usually during the second, closing week of these conferences that the key agreements are or are not reached,” Hertsgaard wrote—so “the true test” for the press “is what comes next.”

The many journalists who remain on the ground are still paying attention. Their number now includes me. Early this morning, I walked along the River Clyde from my hotel to the venue, which is comprised of a building that looks a Martian spaceship and a building that looks a bit like an armadillo—though once you’re inside its warren of makeshift halls and tunnels you lose any sense of the architecture. When I got there, there was no line (or portentous visual metaphor); I showed my ID, accreditation, and a negative COVID test (self-reported) to get inside, where I was presented with a reusable water bottle (aluminum), a thick wad of disinfectant wipes (“crisp pear”), and a cool COP26 face mask (Hertsgaard has since mandated that I wear a Covering Climate Now mask). I’m still finding my feet, but for the next four days, I’ll be covering media stories at and around the conference in this newsletter. Tips are very welcome, whether you’re here or not. You can reach me at [email protected]. I cannot promise not to make an ABBA joke at some point.


Other notable stories, by Mathew Ingram:

  • CJR’s Feven Merid reports that McClatchy—which owns dozens of newspapers across fourteen states, and was acquired by Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund, last year—will not participate in the next cycle of placements for the Report for America project. A source told Merid that the chain’s decision came in response to comments made earlier this year by Steven Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America, in an op-ed published by the Los Angeles Times. Waldman said that hedge funds have “a track record of cutting the reporting staff of local newsrooms to increase profits” and that something needs to be done to confront the damage they do to local journalism.
  • Jonathan M. Katz argues in his Substack newsletter The Racket that the New York Times is the “secret weapon” of the far right, because of a propensity to quote conservative operatives as though they were run-of-the-mill US citizens, and to present their arguments in a facile or disingenuous way. “They manufacture the impression of a broad constituency for extreme right-wing ideas, softening the images of actors from far-right militia members to anti-vax vigilantes,” he writes. “They also make the politicians who champion their ideas appear more representative and more popular.”
  • Irena Hwang, a data reporter with ProPublica, writes about an investigative reporting project she worked on that documented failures in the US food safety system that allowed the spread of a virulent type of salmonella, which caused tens of thousands of people to become sick. Hwang, who did PhD-level work in bioinformatics while pursuing a degree in electrical engineering before becoming a reporter, describes how she was able to trace the salmonella strain by looking at genomic sequencing data.
  • A combination of shrinking supply and other industry constraints has pushed the price of newsprint up around the world, The Economist reports. “European newspapers will have to pay newsprint prices that are 50-70% higher in the first quarter of 2022 compared with the year before,” the magazine says, while publishers in Asia will face price increases of between twenty-five and forty-five percent, and North American prices are already that much higher this year compared with 2020. “It’s like tasering an elderly person who’s already on a pacemaker,” one British newspaper executive told The Economist.
  • A company owned by the Chinese government is working on an offer to acquire Hong Kong’s influential South China Morning Post newspaper, according to a report from Bloomberg. “Bauhinia Culture (Hong Kong) Holdings Ltd. is interested in a deal with Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. that would see the city’s most prominent English-language newspaper join its stable of media properties,” the news service reported. Alibaba has come under significant pressure from the Chinese government over the past year to divest some of its media assets, including the Post.
  • The Guardian writes about a messy internal battle for control over Canada’s largest cable and media conglomerate, Rogers Communications, a $20-billion family-owned empire that owns not just cable and telecom assets but also TV networks and sports teams. “Kicked off by an accidental pocket dial that revealed an executive-level coup attempt, the battle has pitted mother against son, ensnared Toronto’s mayor and drawn comparisons to the HBO show Succession,” the newspaper writes.
  • Bentkey Services, the company that owns the conservative website the Daily Wire, has filed a lawsuit challenging the Biden administration’s employer vaccine mandate in federal court, according to a report from Law and Crime. “The two-page filing itself contains no legal analysis, facts or arguments,” the site says, describing it as a petition filed directly with the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit asking for review of the mandate. “The Daily Wire will not comply with President Biden’s tyrannical vaccine mandate, and we are suing the Biden Administration to put a stop to their gross overreach,” Daily Wire co-founder and co-CEO Jeremy Boreing said in a statement.

ICYMI: McClatchy to decline future Report for America participation, following hedge-fund critiques

This story has been updated to correct a reference to Irena Hwang, whose name was previously misspelled.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Masses of people queue as they arrive for the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. The U.N. climate summit in Glasgow gathers leaders from around the world, in Scotland's biggest city, to lay out their vision for addressing the common challenge of global warming. (AP Photo/Frank Jordans)