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Opinion: We are all climate reporters now

The public is telling the media what it wants, writes Dr David Robbins, and that is trustworthy, engaging climate coverage.

Dr David Robbins

THIS PAST YEAR has been a busy one for climate change reporters. We have had the UN climate conference in Glasgow, the landmark IPCC Assessment Report, the recent World Meteorological Organisation’s ‘State of the Climate’ Report, and, a little closer to home, the ‘turf wars’ – a controversy over a proposed ban on the commercial extraction of peat for domestic heating.

It has also been a time when a Nieman Lab headline – “If you’re not a climate reporter now, you soon will be” – came true, as events such as the Ukraine war threw up climate-related issues like energy security and global food supply, and climate broke out of the environment silo and spread to other newsroom ‘beats’.

Media reflects on its role

It was also a year when the Irish media engaged in some critical reflection on the role of journalism in the climate crisis. At a DCU Centre for Climate and Society conference in May, RTÉ’s director of news and current affairs, Jon Williams, spoke about how public pressure had helped the organisation re-examine how it reported on climate change. The DCU centre has also been engaging with media organisations – Bauer Media, the Examiner Group, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, and RTÉ – on how to broaden and deepen their climate coverage.

These interventions have focused on interrogating newsroom cultures and journalistic routines that lead to reflexive framings and approaches. “How did we cover this last time?” or “how do we usually do this?” are common newsroom questions which require critical examination in a climate crisis. We have also started to see self-critical analysis of the media, in the form of op-ed reflections on the limitations of standard media framings of conflict, drama, and economic cost. There is a sense that the media have woken up to the notion that they are not bystanders in this crisis.

What readers want

The media have certain normative roles to play when it comes to climate change: informing the public; warning them of dangers; holding authorities to account; and investigating climate issues. But what is less clear is what the public want from the media when it comes to climate coverage. This year’s Reuters Digital News Report provides some insights. A sizeable cohort, especially among older age groups, have a traditional view of the media: that they should present a variety of views and allow individuals to make up their own minds. A similarly sized group take a different view: that news outlets should take a clear editorial stand in favour of climate action.

These responses, I suggest, relate more to people’s views around the role of the media than to any potential support for – or opposition to – actions to reduce carbon emissions. A lot of people want the media to remain impartial and play the ‘honest broker’, while a lot of others want more advocacy.

Journalism that takes a side

This question of activist journalists, or advocacy journalism, is set to become more central as the climate debate moves on from questioning the reality of climate change to questions around specific climate actions. The media will play a central role in informing the public about carbon budgets, emissions targets, and particular policy measures.

These debates – which US climatologist Michael Mann calls “The New Climate Wars” – will pit the forces of inertia and delay against those calling for policies that align with what science tells us is necessary. It may well be that media organisations will have to pick a side: align with those who want them to present all-sides-of-the-argument coverage, or move with those who demand that the media take a stand in favour of climate action.

The public also wants news organisations to focus on the roles of government and on large corporations in reducing emissions rather than on the actions individuals can take. It seems that Irish people understand to a large extent that it is big systems such as energy, transport, and agriculture that have to change in order to tackle the climate crisis.

Need for environmental literacy

However, there is still some work to be done by the media, especially public service media, in increasing literacy around climate, carbon, and the environment generally. Some 32% of respondents either do not know whether the media should be focussing on government and business or do not think they should. This suggests there is still a constituency among the public which does not have an appreciation of from where Ireland’s emissions originate.

Climate and the environment come in at number six in the list of topics of which Irish news consumers are interested. There is considerable demand for climate-related news content, and some international news organisations, including Bloomberg, Forbes, the UK Times, and The Sun, have introduced dedicated climate channels or employed ‘green teams’, while Sky News has a daily climate programme.

The ‘Greta generation’

Despite the widespread impression that younger people are more engaged with these topics, the demand for climate news is greater among the older age groups. Some 55% of those aged 65 and over want to read news reports about climate, compared to 34% of those aged 18-24. The notion that younger people, the ‘Greta generation’, are highly engaged and motivated by climate-related issues, is further undermined by another of the report’s findings: 21% of those aged 18-24 believe that news outlets should take a clear editorial stance in opposition to climate action. This figure contrasts with the 5% of those aged 65 and above who take a similar view.

The data in the climate change section of this year’s report also dispels the notion that there is a rural-urban divide on the climate question. People in Munster are just as interested in climate news as people in Dublin (both 45%), and those in Connacht and Ulster (42%) and the rest of Leinster (43%) are not far behind. The report gives clear cues to the media concerning climate coverage. Legacy media outlets will be heartened to see the high levels of demand and engagement from older news consumers. And there is a large cohort of younger people to be won over with innovative coverage. There are already signs that the media are rising to these challenges.

Dr David Robbins is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communications at DCU. He is also the director of the DCU Centre for Climate and Society.

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Dr David Robbins

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