Expert Commentary

Covering climate change: What reporters get wrong and how to get it right

Elizabeth Arnold explains how public apathy about climate change is partly journalists' fault and offers tips to improve their coverage.

Elizabeth Arnold interviewing in the field
(Elizabeth Arnold (r) interviewing scientist Rolf Gradinger on the ice in the middle of the Bering Sea / photo courtesy of Elizabeth Arnold)

Before she was a journalist, Elizabeth Arnold spent several seasons fishing salmon commercially in her home state of Alaska. In 1985, she began reporting for Juneau’s NPR member station KTOO, covering local environmental and political stories. From 1991 to 2006, she served as a political correspondent out of NPR’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaigns, Congress and the White House

She later returned to Alaska to teach journalism at the University of Alaska and focus on environmental reporting through Arctic Profiles. Through the project, which is funded in part by the National Park Service, Arnold produces “intimate portraits of people making a difference within Beringia,” a region currently experiencing dramatic effects of climate change that includes Alaska and parts of Russia and Canada.

It’s a window into Arnold’s broader approach as a proponent of solutions journalism – reporting stories on how people are responding to problems in meaningful ways.

In the spring of 2018, she spent a semester at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center as a Joan Shorenstein fellow, researching the media’s role in communicating climate change and its effects. In an interview with Journalist’s Resource, Arnold highlighted how reporters following their instincts might contribute to public apathy about climate change, and how they can adopt a solutions approach to improve their coverage of the subject.

“As somebody who lives here in Alaska — and I’ve reported all over the Arctic and I’ve been to the North Pole twice, 10 years apart — I have a pretty good idea of how bad [climate change] is, and I think most Americans have a pretty good idea of how bad it is. And I’m a lot more interested in what we’re doing about it, and I don’t think I’m alone,” Arnold said.

WHAT REPORTERS GET WRONG: They focus on gloom and doom, desensitizing readers to the subject.

“From my research, I’ve learned that there’s a huge body of research that shows that this gloom-and-doom narrative in climate change reporting leads people to tune out. This sort of daily drip of stories — the warmest year on record; the least amount of ice in the Bering sea; a month ago it was the decline of outdoor ice skating rinks in Canada — it just reaches this point where people feel hopeless and overwhelmed. And when we feel that way, psychologists say, we tend to just avoid and deny, and tune out.”

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Don’t just focus on impact and threat; also highlight what people are doing to address it.

“As journalists, we haven’t been doing a good job of getting past documenting the impacts — it’s easy, it’s dramatic, it leads … It’s like [focusing on] the conflict when you’re covering politics. It’s really easy to get a quote from the right, a quote from the left about any given piece of legislation. The harder story is explaining the underlying policy. And when you think about it, that’s what actually serves the public best, and informs society, and gives people the ability to be effective citizens and vote, and that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.

“I think that in reporting the story of climate change, which is an incredibly important story, we just need to be telling a more representative story. Impact and threat without this word ‘efficacy’– what we can do about it — is just inadequate. And I know that “solutions journalism” sounds like advocacy, and I definitely am or was in that handwringing camp of journalists who worry about sounding like you’re advocating, until I really started learning more about solutions journalism and thinking about it a little more.

“If you look at public health, what journalist would do a story about an epidemic without putting in the same story, or at least in a sidebar, something about vaccines, or how to avoid transmission? That would be journalistic malpractice. But we don’t think that way when we think about climate change.”

What about climate deniers? Does focusing on what’s working over the threat strengthen their cause?

“I think trying to convince people who are climate deniers… that isn’t my job. I think my job, the job of the journalist, is to tell the story, the complete story, take it or leave it. You may not want to believe it, and that’s fine, but I don’t think we should be wasting our time trying to convert people who don’t want to believe it’s happening. I think it’s much more important to be telling a more complete story to the people who are listening.”

WHAT REPORTERS GET WRONG: They focus on subjects that make it hard for readers to relate.

“Most climate change stories are about weather, sea ice, glaciers, ocean temperatures, which is another reason why people tune out … people care about stories that are relatable.

That’s part of the problem with climate change reporting, people feel like they don’t have any entry point, they don’t have a ramp into it, and they don’t get how it affects them.”

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Put a human face on it.

“Even if you’re telling that science story about minimum sea ice this year, there were humans involved in gathering that data. Who are they, who are the scientists, why is he or she studying this particular thing, what new questions does it raise? Find those people and write about them.”

HOW ELSE TO GET IT RIGHT:  Editors can expand climate change coverage beyond the science desk.

“We need to wrest the story away from the science desk. It’s really important for journalists to understand climate science and ocean acidification and all of that, but the story shouldn’t be controlled by one desk. It’s intensely political, it’s economic, it’s social. There are climate stories that involve sports, entertainment, race, demographics. It really touches everything in our world, and so it shouldn’t be relegated to one group of reporters and editors.”

HOW ELSE TO GET IT RIGHT: Find individual characters to tell their stories.

“When you tell the local story, or you tell the story of the solar panel installer, it doesn’t mean you don’t, at some point in the story, pull out and make it a national or even international story. It’s just that it’s so much easier for people to digest, and they have an entry.

“If you tell the story about how a solar panel installer who used to be a West Virginia coal miner who’s working in your neighborhood, and you talk to him about what his politics are, how he feels about climate change, or whatever it is, it’s such a better way to allow people into the larger story about climate change, which is just so … it’s really unwieldy. When I’m assigned a story, I always go down to the lowest common denominator. I go to who’s my character? Who can tell this story best? Because that’s always more effective than the big sweeping generalizations.”

WHAT REPORTERS GET WRONG: They stick to the same sources: scientists and politicians.

I took a look at media coverage over five years of climate change stories in the Arctic and the overwhelming voice was either of scientists or of politicians. And there was this appalling lack of local people in stories about what was happening in their world. And so, as you know, journalists, we tend to find sources by looking at each other’s work, which leads to this repetition of the same voices, the same experts.”

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Tap local resources to find new sources (and new stories).

“Journalists need to go the extra mile. Find new voices. If you’re a national reporter, talk to local reporters. Whether you like it or not, they probably know more than you do about what’s happening in their communities, and they’ve got great stories, and surprisingly, more often than not, they’re willing to help, they’re flattered. And they can turn you on to stories that they’ve been doing, and that will work at a national level.”

WHAT REPORTERS GET WRONG: They know what the story is before they report it.

“I do think the tendency, especially up here [in Alaska] and in other communities that are really facing the direct impacts, journalists just want to get in there, and they want to document that, and they want to get out. So they already know what their story is, and they come in and they treat people like victims, and they’re not spending time they need to in the community to see how people are actually living and responding, because they have the story written. We’ve all done that at one point or another in our lives and I feel bad about that, I think that’s exploitative. It’s really easy to cherry pick a quote, and it’s really easy to ask a question of someone who is feeling really challenged by their environment, and isn’t sure whether their house is going to be standing in a few months. It’s really easy to get a heart-wrenching, emotional quote out of that person and call it a day.

“Journalists sometimes don’t do the research. They don’t see what’s been written already and advance the story instead of just saying, ‘Oh I’m going to go in there and do the same story, but I’m going to use more superlatives and get better images and it’s going to be more impactful.’

“I mean, it seems like when national reporters are sent to rural places or far-flung places, they tend to act and write as though they’re these intrepid explorers … This one journalist wrote, ‘I’m standing at the edge of the edge of the world.’ It’s like, couldn’t I say that at Boston Harbor, or Miami? And this sort of self-involved attitude gets into the reporting: this is about me and my experience with this remote place, and the people are treated more like zoo animals as opposed to these Americans who happen to live in a rural, northern community and they’re dealing with major change.”

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Stick around and get the whole story.

“I covered a story about climate change, one of many, about how it was affecting this community here in Alaska about a decade ago. And then I watched over a period of 10 years as my colleagues from national organizations and international news organizations came in and all told the same story over and over about the impacts on this particular community — houses and schools were eroding into the sea — without really reporting how people were responding and building this new community across the water nine and a half miles away, which is really an important story for so many places that are in the midst of having to respond to the same kinds of challenges: coastal erosion, sea level rise.

“The fact that it was a really long, and has been and continues to be a really long and difficult process, and there were lots of setbacks and divisions along the way, is also a really important story to tell. But the only story being told was [about] people waiting for help, unable to help themselves … And the story of their response just wasn’t being told.”

For reporters covering climate change who are looking for new angles, Arnold suggested the following:

  • Outliers: “I want to read about state and local governments that are working to reduce emissions in spite of the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks.”
  • Green industry: “I want to read about the fastest-growing job in America right now: solar panel installer … Who are the people installing the panels? Who are the people buying the panels? Why are they buying the panels?”
  • Microgrids: “I want to know about microgrids that are working in rural communities up here –that are weaning entire communities off really expensive, hard-to-get diesel.”
  • Demographics: “Climate change, so far, disproportionately affects indigenous people, low income people, people living in rural America. Here in America and worldwide, how are they responding, and how are governments and NGOs [non-governmental organizations] responding? What lessons can be learned from those responses? … It’s a huge story, and what happens is people just do this climate victim story, and there just, there are local heroes already in these stories.”

Arnold also pointed out research and resources on climate communication, as well as exemplary outlets reporting on climate:

  • InsideClimate News, a single-subject site for environmental reporting.
  • The Tyee, a solutions-focused outlet based out of Vancouver.
  • Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication, which studies the factors that shift public opinion on the subject.
  • The University of Colorado at Boulder’s International Collective on Environment, Culture & Politics, which produces monthly reports about media coverage of climate change.

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