Covering climate change, now

“The media are complacent while the world burns.” That’s the headline on an article, by Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope, co-published last week by CJR, The Nation, and The Guardian. “At a time when civilization is accelerating toward disaster, climate silence continues to reign across the bulk of the US news media,” Hertsgaard and Pope write. “Especially on television, where most Americans still get their news, the brutal demands of ratings and money work against adequate coverage of the biggest story of our time.”

The statistics are alarming—both in terms of the science and in terms of the reporting. According to a 2012 study by Media Matters for America, for example, TV and print outlets, across an 18-month period, gave 40 times more coverage to the Kardashians than to ocean acidification. When climate change has been covered, it’s often been covered poorly: false “debates” between real experts and denialist cranks; the failure to link unfolding disasters to climate change; framing policy solutions in terms of the political horse race; the list goes on.

ICYMI: The hiring spreadsheet and the clash at The Markup

How can we do better? Yesterday, Hertsgaard, environment correspondent at The Nation, and Pope, editor and publisher at CJR, convened a town hall at Columbia Journalism School to address that question. Speakers including Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Bill Moyers debated a range of related problems—the lack of newsroom diversity causing certain communities to be under-served; the flaws in coverage of the global wave of climate activism—as well as possible answers. Why don’t we put CO2 levels in the weather report?, one audience member asked. Panelists agreed that would be a good idea.

A major theme of the town hall was the tension between public-service climate coverage and corporate media’s thirst for ratings. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes—who has, in the past, called climate change “a palpable ratings killer”—addressed the conflict directly. “People outside the mainstream media vastly overestimate the ability of the mainstream media to set agendas against the grain of people’s exogenous attention,” he said, though media insiders do “vastly underestimate their ability” to set agendas. Either way, “Grappling with the reality of attentional issues can’t be hand-waved away.” In March, Hayes devoted an entire episode of his show to the Green New Deal, a package of energy and infrastructure proposals, and booked one of its most vocal advocates, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to come talk about it. The ratings, Hayes said, were slightly down on a normal episode; still, at least he tried. Too often, TV news producers don’t bother. “All of these television stations have military guys, and former CIA guys, and tons of lawyers and judges on their roster to be experts,” Klein said. “But climate scientists are brought in once in a while.”

Marshalling public attention toward weighty scientific matters is undoubtedly hard. But it isn’t impossible. Yesterday, panelists suggested that the way we’ve covered climate change—not the subject itself—has been putting audiences off. “One of the strongest forces we’re up against is the sense of doom, inevitability, and kind of a self-loathing,” Klein said. “We’re not even sure we deserve to survive. Let’s just hang out and watch zombie movies and visions of the future that take the apocalypse for granted.” Solution-oriented reporting—around the Green New Deal, for example—could help change that. As Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist at The Washington Post, put it, we have power here. The climate “is an extraordinarily compelling story. If we can’t tell it compellingly there’s something wrong with us as journalists.”

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Going forward, CJR and The Nation have jointly launched #CoveringClimateNow, a coordinated effort to reframe climate coverage nationwide. The tenor of the debate needs to change, and we can all play our part in that. “It’s really OK for journalists, for example, to be advocates for press rights in America,” Sullivan said. “And I think it’s also OK for journalists to be advocates for a healthy planet.” Klein added: “There isn’t a spare planet for journalists.”

Below more on covering climate change:

  • Early pointers: You can watch yesterday’s event in full here. In their introductory piece, which you can read here, Hertsgaard and Pope have some preliminary suggestions for improving coverage. They include: follow the industry leaders; don’t blame the audience; establish a diverse climate desk, but don’t silo climate coverage; learn the science; lose the Beltway mindset; cover the solutions; and don’t be afraid to point fingers.
  • Teenage promise: For CJR, Abby Rabinowitz explores how teenage climate activists are transforming coverage of the issue. “Thanks to social media, striking teens are writing climate news, and, in some cases, calling the strikes that make headlines and framing their message,” Rabinowitz writes. “As told by teens, the ever-nearing deadline conveys not just urgency, but also injustice: it’s both a science story and a morality tale about generational violence, even homicide.”
  • An urgent disaster: In November, McKibben, a panelist yesterday, wrote in The New Yorker that large parts of the earth risk becoming uninhabitable due to extreme weather. “‘Climate change,’ like ‘urban sprawl’ or ‘gun violence,’ has become such a familiar term that we tend to read past it,” he writes.
  • A lasting shift? According to the Times’s Lisa Friedman, the Congressional GOP has started to take climate change more seriously of late. “Driven by polls showing that voters in both parties—particularly younger Americans—are increasingly concerned about a warming planet, and prodded by the new Democratic majority in the House shining a spotlight on the issue, a growing number of Republicans are now openly discussing climate change and proposing what they call conservative solutions,” Friedman writes.


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday morning, in Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader, said the time had come to overthrow Nicolás Maduro, the country’s president. Guaidó was flanked by soldiers. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who already recognized Guaidó as the country’s leader, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Maduro had been ready to flee to Cuba, but that the Russians told him to stay put. (“How do you know?” Blitzer asked. Pompeo wouldn’t elaborate.) Maduro’s government took CNN and the BBC off the air yesterday, moments after the networks showed footage of an armored vehicle mowing down protesters. Addressing the nation last night, Maduro said a “deranged” coup had been defeated.
  • The Mueller report may have been published, but the Mueller scoop wars continue. Last night, the Post, swiftly followed by the Times, reported that the special counsel wrote Attorney General William Barr in late March; Mueller complained that Barr’s initial memo to Congress “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his report, and had instead stoked “public confusion.” Barr is likely to be asked about the letter—and the appropriateness of his actions more broadly—when he faces the Senate Judiciary Committee today. The cable networks will have special coverage. Grab the popcorn.
  • Facebook kicked off a two-day developer conference yesterday. “I know we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly,” a grinning Mark Zuckerberg told attendees. (He waited for a laugh. He did not get one.) To combat that perception, Facebook debuted elements of its much publicized pivot to privacy, including an overhaul of its main app to put more emphasis on groups. Journalists are skeptical. Going forward, “the nightmares on the platform—disinformation, livestreamed terror, communities dedicated to targeted harassment, social media-abetted genocide—will be less traceable by researchers and the press,” NBC’s Ben Collins tweeted.
  • Breaking this morning: Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks who was recently kicked out of Ecuador’s London embassy, where he had been in exile, has been sentenced to 50 weeks in jail in the UK for skipping bail in 2012, the year he entered the embassy. Last month, British police confirmed they had received an extradition request from the US government for Assange. Prosecutors in Sweden have also left open the possibility of charging him with sexual assault.
  • CJR’s Mathew Ingram published a spreadsheet that Sue Gardner, CEO of embattled investigative startup The Markup, used to rank potential employees. Criteria included “famous,” “justice-seeking,” and social class. (“Obviously I am guessing here,” Gardner wrote of the latter category.) The spreadsheet is emblematic of the cultural chasm between business and editorial practices at many news operations, Ingram writes. “At The Markup, both sides were at war.”
  • Turmoil, too, at The Correspondent, the English-language arm of De Correspondent, a crowdfunded Dutch outlet whose founders have been accused of U-turning on plans to sustain a US newsroom. Management initially denied making that promise, but have now (sort of) apologized—and pledged refunds—after Zainab Shah, its first US hire, and prominent supporters including Nate Silver and David Simon said they felt misled. As Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen notes, however, key questions have yet to be answered.
  • Last week, Jim Spanfeller—who became CEO of Gizmodo Media Group and The Onion after Great Hill Partners, a private-equity firm, bought the properties from Univision—told Variety he had no plans to “cut our way to growth.” Yesterday, The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reported that at least 25 staffers will be leaving the company as part of a “major restructuring effort.” Senior editors Susie Banikarim, Alex Dickinson, and Tim Marchman are reportedly on the way out. New editorial hires are expected, however.
  • The US arm of Altice, a European cable and telecom company, is buying Cheddar, a financial-news streaming service for millennials, for $200 million, The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin and Lillian Rizzo report. Jon Steinberg, Cheddar’s founder and CEO, will become president of Altice News, a group that will include Cheddar, New York metro network News 12, and Israeli channel i24News.
  • Following a three-year push to turn its finances around, The Guardian—which, unlike many of its competitors in the UK, has no online paywall, but instead appeals for reader donations—has broken even. According to Press Gazette, the paper “has more than 655,000 regular financial contributors,” including donors and subscribers, “while another 300,000 people made one-off payments in the past year.”
  • And CJR’s Zainab Sultan spoke with Kathi Duffel, an English teacher at a California high school whose newspaper plans to publish a profile of an 18-year-old student who is a sex worker. The school district demanded to review the story and suggested Duffel, who advises the paper, could be fired if she fails to hand it over. She has no plans to comply.

ICYMI: After 10,000 ‘false or misleading claims,’ are we any better at calling out Trump’s lies?

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.