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Mass media reporting on climate change over the past three decades “has not been, for the most part, journalism’s finest hour.”

With clearly implicit understatement, book author and journalist-turned-activist Bill McKibben opened a recent #CoveringClimateNow conference at Columbia University’s journalism school with a widely accepted truism.

American media by and large for some 30 years acted as a tool of fossil fuel interests’ aggressive disinformation campaign, consistently framing the issue as a disputed theory instead of an evidence-based serious threat, McKibben told the conference by video.

“That was tragic,” he said, “because the three decades, essentially, that we wasted in this phony debate were the three decades that we most needed in order to come to terms with climate change.”

New effort to boost reporting on ‘existential’ climate threat

The conference principal organizers, The Nation’s Mark Hertsgaard and Columbia Journalism Review’s Kyle Pope, now have launched an effort to help the media better cover what many experts openly describe as an “existential threat.”

In opening the five-hour event, all of it available on YouTube, Pope described the conference as the beginning of an unprecedented effort to improve climate coverage in the United States. An early component will be an organized September week of stories in media outlets across the nation. Pope called that step “one of the most ambitious efforts I’ve ever seen to get the U.S. media organized and focused on a single issue.”

Hertsgaard and Pope say they also see the project developing a handbook to help journalists cover climate change, including resources such as contact information for climate scientists. An opening version of their approach appears in the form of an article published in the May 6 issue of The Nation, for which Hertsgaard is environment correspondent.

Speakers at the conference agreed that the U.S. media’s treatment of climate change remains woefully inadequate, with a few notable exceptions among the “elite” national media. However, speakers and attendees appeared to agree also that most reporters and editors – and also an increasing part of the American public overall – now at last understand that warming over the past seven decades or so is real and overwhelmingly the result of human activities.

“The way that we were mired in this idiotic bad-faith debate about the science for so long” has effectively ended, said MSNBC “All In” host Chris Hayes. “As the conceit of what mainstream coverage has to deal with, I think by and large that part of it is over.”

Too few resources, too many money woes

But panelists and speakers emphasized too that major obstacles still stand in the way of effective climate coverage, perhaps most importantly resource and staffing constraints in an era of acute journalism restructuring and money woes. News outlets where Americans get most of their news – local TV stations and struggling newspapers – scarcely cover the issue and do so in ways unbefitting coverage of a major social issue.

“This climate crisis is coming at [a time of] an enormous business model crisis for U.S. media,” Pope told the audience. “So if anybody thinks the solution is to add five climate reporters to local newspapers, it’s never going to happen.”

“Perhaps the problem is not solved by creating more discrete climate reporting siloed-off in a science section,” Genevieve Guenther, founder of a volunteer organization called EndClimateSilence.org, told an afternoon session. “Maybe the problem is solved by re-educating all reporters on all beats to mention climate change in the stories they’re already reporting.”

Ed Baum, the editor of a small community newspaper in New York’s Westchester County, said he sees climate coverage as a priority. But his constraints include a very small staff, a lack of data tailored to his coverage area, and a dearth of area climate scientists. Working within those limitations, he said he tries to focus coverage on local climate impacts – such as invasive plants – and changes that readers can make in their own lives.

“There was something called the Zero Waste Challenge in our community, and we did a page-one feature on a family that tried to hit that goal over 90 days, and what they learned from it,” he said.

Scientists helping media do their job

On the topic of access to scientific expertise, climatologist Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said many climate scientists would welcome opportunities to collaborate with news media to improve climate coverage.

“There are so many questions that have a scientific component to them, like attribution of extreme events, but also what are the vulnerabilities in any particular location,” he said. “These are questions that scientists have got answers to that they’re just not getting into many of these stories.”

Environmental news as a revenue stream?

The Guardian’s Jane Spencer offered an upbeat tale of how climate coverage can actually add resources to a news organization.

“The last couple of years, we’ve been really heartened and excited to see how we’ve been able to build our revenue strategy off the back of our environmental reporting,” she said. Data from reader donations show that the Guardian’s audience is particularly interested in environmental coverage – even more so than website traffic or ratings might suggest – and will support it financially. And since advertisers follow passionate audiences, this reader base has helped the paper attract ad revenue, running a number of (carefully vetted) campaigns related to climate change. The combination of reader donations, advertising funds, and philanthropic support has enabled the paper to grow its environmental team in the U.S., Spencer said.

However, not all audiences are hungry for climate news. MSNBC’s Hayes said that although he prioritizes the topic on his show, it doesn’t perform well in the ratings, even when high-profile and charismatic guests like Green New Deal proponent and first-term Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) are featured.

Climate a ‘compelling story’ … IF media can tell it

Other speakers discussed the interest/attention problem as a framing challenge. Editors and audiences alike tend to shy away from stories that are heavy on policy and light on human interest, they said. Instead, popular climate stories tend to feature compelling characters, strong narratives, and, for regional outlets, powerful local connections.

Creative storytelling can also help get the message across. During a panel discussion focused on Green New Deal coverage, author and activist Naomi Klein and Vox journalist Carlos Maza discussed making creative video segments that have earned hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.

“It is our responsibility to make [climate change] compelling, to make it engaging, and to bring it home in a very immediate way,” said Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post media columnist. “It is an extraordinarily compelling story. And if we can’t tell it compellingly, there’s something wrong with us as journalists.”

See related story: Beleaguered journalism interests seek to aid ailing planet

Editor’s note: Sarah Wesseler, Brooklyn-based freelancer, provided on-site reporting assistance for this post.

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