On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an arm of the United Nations, published its first major report on climate science in seven years, warning that climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying” and urging immediate, large-scale emissions reductions. As Andrew McCormick, of Covering Climate Now, a climate-journalism project led jointly by CJR and The Nation, writes in a piece out today, US news organizations quickly and prominently featured the report with striking imagery, helpful explainers, and links to extreme weather events that have recently been in the news. Still, the coverage was far from perfect. Major outlets played down the climate-justice angle, often failing to note the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis on the world’s poor. As McCormick and others have noted, some of the framing, particularly in headlines and tweets, implied that it’s too late for humanity to take action. Axios, for its part, covered the IPCC report in a newsletter sponsored by Chevron, the energy company.
Nor was the source material perfect. On Tuesday, Emily Atkin, a climate reporter, wrote in her newsletter, HEATED, that news organizations often rely heavily on reports like the IPCC’s when it comes to communicating climate science to their audiences—but the IPCC report, while sound scientifically, was not intended to be a tool for public communication so much as a framework for world leaders. Its language had to be agreed upon by nearly two hundred governments; as a result, Atkin writes, it “tends to be pretty conservative, particularly when it comes to talking about who to blame.” The report’s summary (on which a lot of coverage drew) doesn’t mention “fossil fuels”; some authors of, and commentators on, the report considered it a victory that “unequivocal” human culpability for the climate crisis was stated plainly. “If this is the only time we’re communicating climate science to the public,” Atkin concludes, “then the public is going to get a pretty warped view of what scientists actually know.”
The press, of course, could address this problem by centering climate science more routinely, and not just when a scary study comes out. We’ve seen recent progress in that regard—but, as I’ve written before, the news cycle is structured, to a large degree, around discrete “news pegs,” and that privileges events over long-term trends. Attention tends to be fleeting: Coverage of the IPCC report topped major news sites’ homepages on early Monday morning but, as McCormick writes, the stories were buried or removed by that afternoon. According to CNN transcripts, the report was discussed on air just twice yesterday, and not at all in prime time. As of this morning, the report was nowhere to be found on the homepages of the New York Times or the Washington Post. It got a mention on the homepage of the Wall Street Journal, but far below opinion pieces called “Democrats Will Ruin The Climate” and “Climate Change Brings a Flood of Hyperbole.”
As it happened, the climate has been central to another of this week’s big stories: the Senate’s vote to pass a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, and the intensifying negotiations around a more ambitious package that Democrats hope to push through on a party-line vote. The infrastructure story has ground on for weeks beneath the toplines of the news cycle; some of that coverage has attempted to unpack its climate-focused components. Yet, as Kate Aronoff wrote recently for The New Republic, reporters on the infrastructure story—who tend to specialize in covering politics, not science—have struggled to translate the text of the bill, which is long and stuffed with legalese, into assessments of real-world impact. They also have also been mostly ineffectual in communicating the “dual reality” of the bill’s climate provisions—that they are both historic in their scope and insufficient in addressing the crisis at hand. Some coverage, especially on cable news, hasn’t even tried to discuss the climate implications in depth.
That the IPCC report coincided with the Senate passage of the infrastructure bill offered the press an opportunity to reorient climate within the infrastructure story—by comparing, for example, the scale of the policies under review in Washington with the actions recommended by the report. Some coverage—including several stories in the Post—made an effort to link the two; yesterday, Politico’s DC Playbook mentioned the report while describing differences in climate policy among Senate Democrats. Generally, though, the two stories have been siloed. Major coverage of the report didn’t mention infrastructure at all; coverage of the bill has focused mainly on the political horse-trading behind it. Numerous articles hailed the infrastructure bill as a “bipartisan win” for President Biden. Those I read mentioned the report not at all, and the climate only in passing.
That isn’t to say that climate journalism must mention a given report to be successful. But the IPCC report’s relative absence from infrastructure coverage signifies a media ill-equipped to focus on multiple big stories at once and draw links between them. The global climate crisis, the report, and the infrastructure bill are, in an important sense, all part of the same story. America’s climate commitments aren’t just tied up in domestic political squabbles; they determine the administration’s credibility in international climate negotiations—the next round of which are scheduled to open in the UK in November. As Allison Fisher, who leads the climate and energy program at Media Matters for America, tells McCormick, “The needle on climate coverage is moving forward, but the climate emergency isn’t a one-day story.” Nor is it a one-report story.
Below, more on the climate crisis:
- By the numbers: Fisher and Evlondo Cooper, of Media Matters, calculated the amount of airtime that TV networks devoted to the IPCC report on Monday: news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS gave a combined twenty-two minutes to the story, a figure that rose to sixty-six minutes on MSNBC, and thirty-three minutes on CNN. Fox News gave the report fifteen minutes of airtime, and some of the coverage “attempted to sow doubt about its findings,” Fisher and Cooper write. Other networks’ coverage mostly “characterized the severity of the climate emergency as articulated by the report.”
- Climate justice, I: On Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman spoke about the report with Saleemul Huq, who leads the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh. At one point, Goodman asked Huq how he thinks recent extreme weather events in the US and Europe have affected media coverage of the climate crisis. “In Bangladesh, and indeed in the rest of the Global South, this is not news at all,” Huq said. “We’ve known this for the last decade. We’ve been suffering. We’ve been dealing with it as best we can, with the rest of the global media not taking much interest.” Now that more climate catastrophes have hit the West, he said, they’re getting “wall-to-wall television coverage.”
- Climate justice, II: Recently, Ezra David Romero explained, for NBCU Academy and Covering Climate Now, why it’s important that reporters center climate justice in their stories. “The climate justice story is often not told well, if it’s told at all. Like the climate crisis itself, the dominant media narratives around climate change have been shaped by the wealthiest nations and the most powerful newsrooms, whose most powerful members are often disproportionately white,” Romero writes. “Telling climate justice stories means unpacking why the climate crisis is harming the most vulnerable first.”
- “Visual failings”: Last week, Michael Shaw wrote, for CJR, about the poor visual choices many newsrooms made in illustrating extreme heat in the American West. “The images that led news stories widely minimized the event. Many photos made it look like a run-of-the-mill heat wave; some were so banal as to conjure stock photography,” Shaw wrote. “Headlines about widespread fatalities were accompanied by images suggestive of a typical hot summer day.”
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, Austin Tice—an American journalist who was taken hostage in 2012 while reporting in Syria—turned forty. In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Tice’s parents called on the Biden administration to engage with Syria and make liberating Tice a priority. In a statement, Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, said he believes that Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, has the power to free Tice, and that US officials are “working diligently and around the clock to bring Austin back to his family.”
- A young female journalist in Afghanistan spoke to The Guardian about her experience fleeing the Taliban, which recently captured her home province as the US military pulled out of the country. “I am still on the run and there is no safe place for me to go,” she said. “Last week I was a news journalist. Today I can’t write under my own name or say where I am from or where I am. My whole life has been obliterated in just a few days.” (ICYMI, I wrote last week about press freedom in Afghanistan.)
- This week, Chennakeshavalu, a journalist in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, was killed by a police officer and his brother. According to local authorities, Chennakeshavalu had been investigating corruption on the part of the officer, who invited Chennakeshavalu to come and talk to him, then stabbed him with a screwdriver. The suspects have been arrested; the Committee to Protect Journalists has more details.
- Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president of Mexico, pledged that his government will protect Azucena Uresti, a TV anchor, after a man claiming to speak for a cartel boss threatened to kill her; the exchange was captured in a video that went viral on social media. As Oscar Lopez reports, for the Times, López Obrador’s remarks were “unusual” since he is an “incessant” critic of the press and the Mexican government has a poor record of keeping reporters safe.
- The government of Tanzania suspended the publication of Uhuru, a newspaper owned by the ruling party, after it reported that Samia Suluhu Hassan, the president, plans not to run for reelection. John Magufuli, Hassan’s predecessor, who died this year, regularly banned newspapers; activists hoped that Hassan’s presidency would bring an expansion of speech rights. Reuters has more details.
- Recently, Wilson Edwards, a Swiss biologist, posted on Facebook that he’d learned from sources at the World Health Organization that US officials and “certain media” have politicized an investigation into COVID’s origins as a means of attacking China. Chinese state media outlets reported widely on the post—only to take down many of their stories after Swiss officials said that “Wilson Edwards” doesn’t exist. The Guardian has more.
- For Foreign Policy, Melinda Liu profiles Qin Gang, China’s new ambassador to the US, and assesses whether he will be “a ‘wolf warrior’ or a fox.” Qin “is expected to be more pugnacious than his predecessor,” Liu writes, but “those of us in the press corps who have known Qin for years have seen a deft, wily player who is not necessarily anti-American.” Before he was a diplomat, he worked at UPI, the major US wire service.
- In TV-news news, Nate Burleson, a former NFL football player turned analyst, will join CBS This Morning as a co-host, replacing Anthony Mason; as Variety’s Brian Steinberg writes, the hire stands out since the show has traditionally been “a hard-news alternative to its main rivals.” At NBC, Jenn Suozzo is stepping down as executive producer of the Nightly News; she’s expected to join CNN’s new streaming service. And NBCUniversal pushed back its plans for a full return to office work due to the spread of COVID-19.
- And Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez checked in with Creative Printers, a company that publishes community newspapers in Stapleton, Nebraska—and runs a liquor store out of its back room. “Alcohol makes up about a quarter of Creative Printers’ total retail sales,” Tameez writes. “The newspapers are still supported by advertising and subscribers, but the goal is to support the village of Stapleton overall.”