Climate Change Reporting Described As Among Most Psychologically Taxing

CAMBRIDGE, MA. – Media veterans experienced in covering war zones and science are finding the climate change beat as difficult and mentally taxing a reporting job as they have ever had.

That was an overarching theme from a panel of journalists gathered at Harvard University April 30 to discuss “Covering a Changing Climate.”

ABC’s Bill Blakemore, who said he’s reported on perhaps a dozen wars, likened covering climate change to being a reporter in 1939, on the brink of World War II. “This is the most psychologically burdensome story I’ve ever covered,” he said.

Blakemore said he tries to create broadcast stories of different tone and shape – not all watchers absorb stories in the same way, he said. And he’s trying to offer a “multi-platform matrix” through video and the Web, as “waves” of previously skeptical viewers tune in and look to catch up.

Steve Curwood, host of public radio’s “Living on Earth,” said that, unlike some stories where you can report and leave the story behind, with climate change “you can’t leave the battle zone. It’s really tough psychologically.”

Compounding everything, panelists said, has also been the tough fight inside news organizations to bring, and keep, the story in print or on the air.

The Weather Channel’s Heidi Cullen, a scientist by training who once worked at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, (see Forum article, September 2007) said she’s fought a “subversive” battle to bring climate coverage to weather reporting. Despite the on-air time constraints, she’s found that with hard work journalists can still explain substantive issues in the “one-and-a-half minutes” often allotted. (With a full one-hour weekly program, “Forecast Earth,” The Weather Channel commits far more time to the issue than other networks.)

Cullen said weather reports need to expand the horizons of their content. She said she “would like to see forecasters give wind forecasts, give solar forecasts” in order to “revolutionize” the format.

The late afternoon forum, co-sponsored by Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and Global Environment with the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), attracted an audience of about 90 people, including journalists from regional newspapers and broadcast outlets, and local academics and graduate students.

Panelists sat beneath a huge portrait of Harvard alumnus, conservationist, and President Teddy Roosevelt.

National Public Radio president Kevin Klose, a veteran journalist himself, dropped two news nuggets into the discussion: NPR’s “Climate Connections” series will likely be extended beyond its intended one-year run; and a new series called “The Next 100 Million” is set to explore the potential effects of population growth on American life.

Klose said the “Climate Connections” series, done in collaboration with National Geographic, has succeeded by focusing on “human narrative,” where listeners’ “habits of mind” can be influenced through the “subtle, mysterious and almost magical” experience of radio. The global reporting initiative also fostered a “centering of our values” for NPR, Klose said, with an emphasis on deep, intelligent content.

Reporting climate news beyond ‘episodic reports’ …

Sweeping efforts that bring home the full scope of the climate change issue are crucial, but they will take significant resources, said David Ledford, executive editor of the Wilmington, De., News-Journal and president of the Associated Press Managing Editors organization.

Ledford said that the press has “got to get beyond the episodic reports and chronicle this with some consistency.” He called for a large-scale coordination of news organizations and citizens to begin documenting local environmental changes, establishing records and creating a baseline of information.

Panelists also discussed the tricky issues involving journalism ethics, given the high passions that are running to raise the issue of climate change.

New York Times science writer Cornelia Dean noted the importance of avoiding advocacy journalism and maintaining objectivity. She said some climate change reporting has taken worrisome evidence and “push[ed] it a little harder than it ought to be pushed.”

Reporters’ chief task, Dean said, is “to give citizens the tools they need.”

John Wihbey

A regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections, John Wihbey is an editor and researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (E-mail: john@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @wihbey)
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