After COP26, localizing the climate crisis

Last week, my colleague Jon Allsop wrote a series of dispatches for this newsletter from COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, considering the media coverage at a global summit centered on one of our most urgent global crises: an experience he likened to “being at the center of the news universe.” Though Allsop noted often that the magnitude of the event offered a handy peg by which to draw attention to the crisis on the global stage, he also noted that, from thousands of miles away, “for many Western news consumers, in particular, COP is just another block on a homepage, another chyron on cable news. Looking from inside here to out there, you sense an urgency gap that yawns wide.” In another dispatch, Allsop quoted climate activists Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate in their 2019 open letter to media editors, published in Time magazine: “No one else has the possibility and the opportunity to reach as many people in the extremely short timeframe we have.” They’re right, in a way, but “media editors” is a notably squishy term in our era of information glut, and considering that yawning urgency gap, “reach” requires trust as much as contact. As much research has suggested, local media has significantly higher rates of trust with news consumers than national media. Local news coverage of events like the COP summit—and the agreements they produce—provides opportunities to bring the urgency home.

A number of local outlets took the opportunity, during COP26, to begin that work. Houston Chronicle columnist Chris Tomlinson wrote several pieces about the high stakes of the crisis, including one exploring its ramifications for regional food systems: the climate summit was a chance to “pay now or pay later,” he wrote in another. (Elsewhere in the Chronicle, business reporter Paul Takahashi wrote that the summit’s pledge to end gas-powered car sales would have “major ramifications” for Houston, though the article failed to mention the high stakes should gas power continue to dominate.) Another metro paper, the Gannett-owned Detroit Free Press, posted little online about COP26 last week, but did publish a story linking climate change to the city’s frequent flooding. Staff at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette compiled wire coverage to report that, per the UN Secretary General, the summit had “fallen short” of more ambitious carbon-cutting targets. The same AP story ran on WKBN, a CBS affiliate in Youngstown, Ohio and WBAL, an NBC affiliate in Baltimore, Maryland. Many Sinclair-owned stations ran the same story on their sites, in addition to a smattering of AP stories throughout the week as well: on takeaways from the US climate deal, how gaps between rich and poor nations persist in the climate crisis, andwhy quitting coal is so hard,” in which coal is termed the “biggest climate villain” among the fossil fuels.

When it comes to local news coverage of COP 26, wire coverage loomed large—a predictable outcome in our world of resource-strapped newsrooms, and a logical one when the subject of the news peg is as resource-intensive as a twelve-day summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Allsop noted in last week’s dispatches that the Associated Press—whose coverage frequently fronts local newspapers and websites across the US and beyond—had between fourteen and eighteen journalists at the summit on any given day; it’s possible those fourteen to eighteen journalists had an outsized influence on local understanding of the global summit. As environmental journalism researcher Bruno Takahashi told me in the spring of last year, the influence of wire services in climate reporting is not limited to the US; it spans the globe, via services such as Reuters (which is based in the UK), AFP (France), and EFE (Spain) . “Wire services are becoming more and more dominant, because of the crisis in the business of news media around the world,” Takahashi said. “It’s just cheaper for smaller outlets to purchase content as opposed to hiring their own reporters. That makes a lot of the coverage homogeneous and doesn’t allow more fine-grained coverage. Wire services are pretty neutral, pretty basic, and appeal to everyone, so they’re not specialized to your region.”

The global nature of the climate crisis poses a particular challenge for local news, threatening, as it does, all of us, everywhere, albeit in different ways with divergent immediacy and severity. And “local news,” of course, comprises many things—among them, metro newspapers, TV stations, radio, blogs, hyperlocal community outlets. (Misinformation often gets jumbled with local information networks on social platforms; Facebook, for example, profits significantly from climate misinformation, as a recent study found.) In whatever form it takes, local news is naturally positioned to tell stories unique to its own community; that can be its greatest strength, but such focus can also become a weakness if it functions as blinders and limits the imagination.

Part of the difficulty in addressing the crisis lies in the difficulty of connecting global responsibility to individual responsibility, and weighing self-interest against human interest; given the right resources, local reporting could help thread those needles. During the first week of the summit, The Lafayette (Indiana) Journal and Courier reported on Purdue’s Climate Change Research Center drawing connections between Indiana emissions and the COP26—albeit from a press release—including links to an animation noting that, by 2050, climate change would reduce Indiana’s corn production by 12 percent. “Every region of the world is contributing to climate change in some way,” Jeff Dukes, a Purdue professor, said for that report. “These animations provide local context to the Glasgow negotiations. There are many things we can do in our own state that will minimize our contribution to climate change and help insulate us from the impacts.” As the COVID story has proven again and again, a global story is always, necessarily, a local one, too.

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites

TOP IMAGE: 13 November 2021, United Kingdom, Glasgow: People are standing under a globe at the UN Climate Change Conference COP26. For two weeks in Glasgow, around 200 countries are struggling to find a way to achieve the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial times. Photo by: Christoph Soeder/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images