“Climate journalism that works” commissioned by the European Broadcasting Union. between knowledge and impact”, a new report features a Q&A with Wolfgang Blau, co-founder of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network. This is an edited extract.
In October 2022, consultancy Brunswick appointed him as managing partner responsible for the Climate Hub.
Wolfgang, you spent two years studying how news organizations cover climate change. What shocked you the most?
Most striking was the level of denial when you confront yourself or others with the gravity of the climate crisis. I used to think that overcoming denial culminated in a single breakthrough moment. I had a somewhat judgmental view of denial, including my own.
I saw it as a weakness or something to be attacked. I suspect this is why so much journalism is so alarming, confrontational and destructive; reporters often feel they have to drive home. Then I started reading the psychology of denial.
Today, I think it would be better to look at denial with more compassion. It’s an integral part of our psyche, actually helping us survive. Denial has many layers and is something that can rarely be transformed into shock and awe journalism.
What is ideal climate journalism in your experience?
A news organization’s climate journalism must be as pervasive as the effects of the climate crisis. It should be perfectly normal to have a paragraph about climate impact in, say, a sports or company earnings story. Climate tables are important, but they run the risk of creating new silos in the newsroom.
There is no field of journalism that will not be transformed either directly by climate impacts or by humanity’s efforts to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Journalism must also translate the issue of climate change into the here and now.
People tend to respond better to this than to very abstract stories. And in general, journalism about potential solutions needs more context. Currently, goalposts are often missing. Stories about new carbon capture technologies or a new wind farm are almost meaningless if they don’t have the context of how much power will be needed to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius.
Let’s take the epidemic. Only when we had a small set of measurements did we develop an idea of whether the situation was getting worse or better. This context of the bigger picture is missing from most climate journalism.
So it’s like digital news. Many news outlets started out with a very complex set of metrics to measure success, but realized that the best metrics are understood by everyone.
Yes, we need clarity. It is very difficult to find these indicators, but what we need most is symmetry; How much does the proposed solution actually contribute?
To summarize things to do. First, break climate journalism out of its organizational silos and make it mainstream. Second, localize it and bring it to the here and now as much as possible. Third, put it in context.
Are today’s newsrooms up to the challenge?
Many news organizations are producing better climate journalism today than they were two years ago, but the efforts of even the best are still not commensurate with the scale of the challenge we face. Climate change or whatever you want to call it: climate crisis, climate issue, climate emergency, global warming. climate change is a systemic challenge, but most news organizations still only treat it as a topic.
Now you can see news organizations that have created world-class climate desks, but then let their business desk cover fast fashion giant Shein or Saudi Aramco’s quarterly earnings report, as if there was no experience in their newsroom. on the climate. This separation no longer makes sense. And it’s not about injecting activism or politics into business coverage. Rather, it’s about better business journalism.
Some newsrooms have now introduced their best reporters to the climate beat. Canada’s CBC commissioned a former war correspondent to do so. Is this a trend?
I have not noticed this as a widespread phenomenon. But you’re right, many editors see climate journalism as crisis reporting. And while it’s important to cover extreme weather events, they’re still breaking news of something much deeper and more systemic. For example, there is the aspect of climate adaptation, predicting and preventing the effects of climate change that can no longer be prevented or have already occurred.
Only in the context of climate adaptation are we looking at the biggest rebuilding story since World War II.
Are our transportation infrastructure and cities ready for higher temperatures or rising sea levels? How do we shift the world’s agriculture to crops that are more heat or drought tolerant?
There are so many important and interesting stories about climate adaptation alone that you ignore as an editor when you reduce climate journalism to breaking news and crisis reporting.
As the war continues, the epidemic is still in the news, newsrooms face conflicting pressures.
It seems to be a recurring theme in the history of climate journalism. there is always another crisis that seems more important. Often it doesn’t even need a crisis. All it took for the latest IPCC report to be out of the news cycle for a few hours was for an actor to misbehave at the Academy Awards.
In:It took seven years to prepare that report.
With the Russian attack on Ukraine, several contributors to the Oxford Climate Journalism Network said they could no longer cover climate change, but had to help the news desk or cover the energy crisis.
That said, energy literacy is a key aspect of climate journalism, and it seems the war in Ukraine has also raised the world’s awareness of how integral energy is to our societies and economies. The next phase of this realization may be that the much-needed transition to renewable energies will come with its new set of geopolitical dependencies.
Which should be exciting for all those political strategy reporters… But does everyone in the newsroom need climate literacy?
Yes, you need more climate literacy in newsrooms, just as news organizations at some point realized that they can’t just depend on digital specialists, but need to increase everyone’s digital literacy to stay relevant as an organization.
Will knowledge be sufficient to stimulate action?
You may have a lot of factual knowledge, but still not appreciate that the clock is ticking. The place of denial has changed. It has moved from denying climate science, and specifically that climate change has been anthropogenic since the pre-industrial era, to denying how urgent our situation is and how little time we have left to avoid a much more dramatic course of events.
A willingness to accept the pressures of the times we are in is part of climate literacy.
Has climate coverage become a C-level topic?
In newsrooms. I suspect. It was a somewhat confusing experience for me that in some of my other jobs I met CEOs of very large global companies who had deep knowledge of the climate crisis. I have yet to meet a single editor-in-chief with climate knowledge.
At many major news organizations, climate literacy is still where digital literacy was in the late 1990s, when editors-in-chief delegated “the web” to a few experts or had just launched their first digital teams, mostly at a safe distance from their main newsroom.
However, it is the nature of the climate crisis to move faster than most of us think. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a major news organization soon reorganize around the climate crisis as its organizational core.
This Q&A, abbreviated, is republished with permission. You can read the full article in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) News Report 2023, Climate Journalism that Works. In Between Knowledge and Impact.