Summit coverage highlights the tension between global and domestic affairs

This weekend, global leaders of the seven wealthy democratic nations known as the G-7—the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the UK—met for their annual summit, along with leaders from Australia, India, South Korea, and South Africa. Those who spent the past year heralding the transformation effect the pandemic might catalyze across the world may find themselves disappointed; much of the coverage emphasized a return to convention, with some modest markers of change. Pew surveys showed that, under the Biden presidency, public opinion has rebounded significantly in at least a dozen countries, including all of the six other countries included in the G-7; CNN reported “sighs of relief.” The US is “back at the table,” Biden said, and the group recycled the Biden campaign slogan in their infrastructure aid program, calling it “Build Back Better for the World.” Three subjects rose to the top of summit coverage: the group’s pandemic response, commitments to climate action, and foreign policy toward China.

On Friday, the first day of the meetings, the group announced that it would donate one billion vaccine doses to other countries over the next year, a headlinegrabbing move that vows to add 870 million new doses to those already promised or funded since last February’s summit. The International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization both quickly responded to say the plan was not ambitious enough, the WHO suggesting that eleven billion doses would be necessary to end the pandemic. The United Nations echoed the sentiment, saying “we need more.”

On climate action, critics also noticed the group’s disproportionate power in the world and felt that its action failed to match its influence. Though the Times called the G-7 climate action “aggressive”, the BBC reported that the group “disappointed activists.” Reversing some of the US stonewalling on climate that marked the status quo of the Trump era, the Group of Seven promised to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030; they agreed on the need to end the use of coal, but did not choose a deadline by which to do so. Recently, Mark Hertsgaard at The Nation (and executive director of Covering Climate Now, the media collaborative co-founded with CJR) wrote that most media coverage has focused on such emissions cuts, though a Paris Agreement promise to provide $100 billion to under-resourced countries has not been fulfilled; the pledge, Hertsgaard wrote, is “equally important, though much less discussed,” despite “the truism that climate change is overwhelmingly caused by the rich but disproportionately punishes the poor.”

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The group’s foreign policy toward China was less unified in message, and coverage waffled between highlighting consensus—like the group’s collective condemnation of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and anti-democratic action in Hong Kong—and emphasizing divisions—like many leaders’ hesitance to go as far as Biden had hoped. The Times wrote that “the session had distinctly Cold War overtones — a reflection of the deepening sense that a declining Russia and rising China are forming their own adversarial bloc to challenge the West,” adding that Biden’s foreign policy doctrine is framed in terms of “a struggle between dissonant, often unruly democracies and brutally efficient but repressive autocrats,” a framing that some newsrooms accepted—especially in pieces leading up to the summit. The president even submitted an Op-Ed to the Washington Post to promote his agenda, writing, “Will the democratic alliances and institutions that shaped so much of the last century prove their capacity against modern-day threats and adversaries? I believe the answer is yes.” For its part, China pushed back, saying through a spokesman at the London embassy, “The days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone.”

After more than a year of domestic news coverage on global events that clearly acknowledged the interconnectedness of the world, the press in G-7 countries—many of which now find their pandemic response on more solid footing than the rest of the world—will struggle to balance the traditional framing of foreign policy news coverage against one of the epiphanies of the last year: things that happen “over there” also matter here. Climate action cannot be limited to domestic policies, or it will fail, both globally and domestically. The global vaccination effort cannot be limited to a small group of nations, or it will fail, too. Reporting for one’s audience also requires situating such coverage in collective terms, because that’s the nature of the world. The past year has shown the value of globally-minded reporting, and as the world shifts again, that’s a value to maintain.

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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