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'Is this good enough anymore?': Why years of 'media silence' around climate won't return

US journalist Mark Hertsgaard said: “The main thing is to play the story as big as the story is.”

MEDIA COVERAGE OF climate change has evolved in recent decades – with more stories usually seen during times of reports, conferences and extreme weather events. 

The wide-ranging and never-ending topic broke into the sphere of the general public in the late ’80s. Since then, it has gone through ebbs and flows of coverage from the media. 

In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen told US Congress that it was 99% certain the rising temperatures were not a natural variation, but rather an effect of global warming. 

Later that year, then-UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher said it was possible that with climate change “we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of the planet itself”.

These were some of the speeches and stories at the time that garnered widespread headlines about climate change. 

Few have been covering climate for as long as US journalist Mark Hertsgaard who began writing about the issue in 1989 soon after it “finally jumped into the mass consciousness”.

He is now the environment correspondent for US magazine The Nation and is the executive director of Covering Climate Now – a global climate coverage newsroom collaboration.

Since the late 1980s, media coverage of climate has fluctuated. It usually increases in volume during extreme weather events, before UN annual climate summits and at the release of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the most recent of which came out in August.

COP26 is taking place in Glasgow from 31 October and, as with previous COPs, there will be heightened interest in the climate crisis. 

The 2009 COP summit in Copenhagen also garnered a huge amount of media attention.

Between then and 2019 – aside from coverage around the 2015 COP in Paris – Hertsgaard said there has been relative “media silence” on climate change.

“While that was worst in the United States, it was also true in Europe,” he told The Journal

“If you asked news outlets they’d say ‘oh yeah, we did that story, we did climate stories’ – it was like less than 1% of their coverage.

And when you’re talking about the defining story of our time that is going to essentially determine whether we have a liveable planet for my daughter and children all around the world, you don’t cover it just 1% of the time.

“I think the climate silence has now been broken. I don’t think we will ever go back to that.”

Research from 2019 found that climate change coverage accounted for around 2%-4% of all news articles in main national media in Ireland. 

The volume of stories – as it is with any important issue – is crucial. 

“The main thing is to play the story as big as the story is,” Hertsgaard said. 

“Just the same way we covered Covid, where we had stories every day. Stories are at the top of the broadcast, they’re leading the homepage.

Every newsroom is telling its audience every day: Here’s what we think of as important, and here’s what we think of as not important.

“And the stuff that they don’t talk about, they really don’t think is important. So the main thing they have to do is to say: This is important.

“If and when we get to that point with climate, then I feel like we will be where we need to be.” 

Hertsgaard said the fact that the climate crisis can no longer be dismissed as an issue for future generations, or experienced only in certain countries like Bangladesh, will also keep the issue at the forefront. 

“You don’t have to be a scientist anymore, all you have to do is look out the window.”

Irish perspective

Dr Dave Robbins – from the DCU school of communications and director of the university’s centre for climate and society – focused his PhD on print reportage of climate change in Ireland between 2007 and 2016. 

Robbins said Ireland is “kind of mid-table” and not an outlier when it comes to climate coverage. 

“You find that countries that are very vulnerable to climate impacts have higher levels of coverage, and you find that countries that are very dependent on extraction industries say, they tend to have higher levels too,” he told The Journal

We’re not out front and centre in the crosshairs of climate change as other places with higher levels… I would say we are not doing great, but we’re not worst in class either.

In terms of current reporting, Robbins said in general it is “still not back up on the levels that we were in 2009 before the Copenhagen COP, but it is building”.

“[Ireland] is a small country with a kind of very precarious media sector and with very few resources to go and do investigations or do independent off-diary type coverage. 

“So you tend, when there’s nothing happening in climate change – no legislation or parliamentary debates, there isn’t much happening on the policy front – then there’s nothing for journalists to report on.”

Making up for mistakes

Robbins said there are two main elements to media mistakes around climate coverage – not enough reporting on the issue and unhelpful commentary about the significance of the crisis. 

Another issue is presenting climate stories as a “struggle or battle between two political parties, or two politicians, or two ministers, or Ireland and the EU” instead of giving wider context. 

“We’ve moved away from people outright denying that climate change is happening or that humans are responsible to ‘well, let’s just be careful here before we do anything about it’,” he said. 

Robbins said media organisations should be – and have been in many cases – thinking about climate change “not as a siloed topic for a climate change correspondent” but rather as an issue “affecting every beat”. 

“It should be the context for every story, the way jobs and the economy, or politics are,” he said. 

As the crunch comes for reporting on emissions and carbon accounting and sustainability reporting and all that kind of stuff, journalists are going to have to be much more literate while interrogating those kind of documents. 

“Even in lifestyle coverage, there’s going to be a lot of claims made about sustainable production and sustainable products and all that kind of stuff, and we’ve got to be able to detect the greenwashing that’s in there.”

He said one point he is “hammering home” to reporters is the importance of changing newsroom cultures around climate coverage and looking to reporting in a way similar to the past. 

“I’m just asking them to stop and just interrogate those. Pause. Before you write an intro, before you plan out that coverage, and just say: is this good enough anymore?” 

Climate summit

COP26 – the UN’s conference on climate change – begins on 31 October. Hertsgaard has attended and reported from many of these summits over the years, and the stakes are particularly high for the outcome this year. 

“It’s very, very easy for journalists to be cynical about international meetings,” he said. 

“I think it would be worthwhile for journalists to remember that we are all part of the human race, and that it is not biased for us to be in favour of the human race surviving, and therefore, this conference succeeding.

The habitual, reflexive tendency of journalists to basically be negative, critical, sceptical is in full throttle at these meetings because ‘oh it’s one more meeting where everybody talks and nobody does anything’.

“Well, that’s a very lazy attitude, I think. The whole reason that we are talking about a 1.5 degree goal now is because of the Paris summit.”

UN countries agreed on a goal at the 2015 COP summit to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees, preferably 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

Hertsgaard said the emergence in recent years of a global climate movement is one reason giving him hope for COP26, while remembering that time is moving quickly. 

“We left it so late, and there’s only so much you can do at this point in the process. So, I’m hopeful and we’ll just have to see what happens.”

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Readers and viewers

Surveys show that the majority of people at this point are worried about the effects of climate change. 

A Reuters Institute report from 2020 found that 71% of Irish people believe that climate change is very or extremely serious. 

This compares to 90% of respondents in Kenya and Chile, and an overall average of 69% of respondents.  

The report outlines that the role of media is “critical” in influencing levels of public concern. 

It assessed a shift since 2019 in terms of public and political interest in climate coverage, with more people “particularly the young” attending demonstrations. 

35% of respondents surveyed for the report watch television to get their climate news, and 15% look to online news sites from major news organisations.

13% get it from specialised outlets covering climate issues. Many people spoken to for the report said they follow activists like Greta Thunberg to keep up-to-date about climate change.

Both Hertsgaard and Robbins believe interest and reporting on climate change will keep story volumes high going forward.

“There are huge battles ahead, so I think it won’t fade away as badly as it did in 2009,” Robbins said. 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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