The pandemic has brought many truths about journalism home. It refocused newsrooms’ attention on readers' needs, forced them to use science and data in their stories, and also report on what is going right to lift morale.
It worked. The majority of news organizations saw a spike in traffic, subscriptions and public interest in the news during the spring and summer of 2020.
However, the audience growth is slowing down and newsrooms are looking for the next big topic that could keep the public engaged. Looking at the increase in climate stories and new climate news product launches in the industry this year, it seems many organizations are betting on climate change coverage to be the next opportunity for audience growth.
But what makes them think so? The Times and the Sunday Times, the Financial Times and some other publishers told Journalism.co.uk that an increase in climate stories stems from a strong audience demand shown in reader surveys and audience data.
But it is not that simple, according to Wolfgang Blau, visiting research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism who spoke recently at Newsrewired, and who is leading an in-depth study on the topic.
"Climate change, the climate crisis, or the environment as a broader term are always amongst these top five topics audiences would like to hear more about," said Blau. But there is a difference between what readers say they want and the content they will actually consume, he added.
Like COVID-19, climate change is a difficult topic to report on in an engaging way. It is highly complex, it requires some degree of scientific knowledge, it is barely tangible, it is not new and, most importantly, it is gruesome and can leave people feeling helpless and doomed.
But for all the negatives, the pandemic forced an important change in the newsrooms.
"The COVID situation is unique in that this was the first time that the science desk dominated the newsroom for such a long stretch of time," said Blau, adding that several science editors told him they felt much more integrated in their newsrooms than before. They also get routinely asked now by other desks to check their stories for scientific accuracy before publication. It was also important to get the facts right to disempower COVID-19 denialists, which is not dissimilar from what is happening with climate change.
Another similarity between the pandemic and the climate crisis is that both affect people locally and need to be dealt with locally, but can only be overcome in a joint global effort.
And, just like COVID-19, climate change permeates every sector in the world and can be covered by any beat, from the economy to current affairs, to sport to fashion. For this reason, Blau said that about 80% of news organizations he surveyed plan to increase their climate coverage in the near future.
According to his findings, a third of news organizations surveyed increase the budget and staff of their existing science desks, while a slightly larger share of news organizations are setting up new climate desks in addition to their existing science teams. A less common but more cost-efficient strategy for news organizations is to create virtual climate hubs where journalists from different desks meet regularly to collaborate on stories and projects.
Another issue is the balance between the desire to influence public awareness and trying to avoid being seen as an activist. Impartiality, after all, is one of journalism’s most cherished values.
But think about it. During the pandemic, journalists had to convey messages such as "wash your hands," "wear a mask," "do not cough at your neighbor," or "stay two meters apart," because this was necessary to save lives. These often passionate calls to actions were rarely seen as journalists practicing activism. When covering the climate crisis or the need to curb carbon emissions, though, many journalists told Blau they were either worried about being seen as activists or were told by their superiors to make sure they did not come across as such.
"It's a surprisingly foggy situation for many journalists, but this can be solved," said Blau.
"Most reputable news organizations have a code of ethics that clearly defines conflicts of interest. News organizations should now also give clearer guidelines on what sets out activism from journalism so that especially younger editors don’t have to second-guess themselves and feel empowered to cover the climate crisis more frequently."
Perhaps the biggest challenge is to keep climate change in the news. The three main criteria of newsworthiness — recency, vicinity and simplicity — go out of the window. Climate change is not new and, especially if you live in the U.K., tends to be seen as something that is worse in other parts of the world. And, it is certainly not simple to convey. "When it bleeds it leads" also does not quite work as climate change is a process rather than a killer event.
Blau explained that for most of the time, reporting is a retrospective activity — we talk about what just happened or is happening right now. The farthest we tend to look into the future is a few months or years, for instance, when talking about an election.
But with climate change, we need to get used to working with speculative science that looks 20, 30 or 40 years into the future and discusses political strategies and ‘Green Deals’ that have to reach just as far. There is also the challenge of translating the climate crisis into a language that can be understood, and into stories that readers can relate to in their everyday lives.
The conversation now needs to move on from whether climate change is human-made or not. What matters is which solutions we should pursue and who in the end will carry the cost of reorganizing and retooling our societies and economies in time. And to cover these big questions, concluded Blau, should be a great opportunity for journalism.