Covering Climate: Are Journalists up to the Task? More Important — Is Journalism?

April 15, 2013

Special Energy Report: Part Two/E-Reporting Biz

By BUD WARD

How well is American journalism poised to cover the climate change story now?

The question is especially timely given expectations for final release over the coming months of federal research agencies’ “National Climate Assessment,” the nomination of former EPA air director Gina McCarthy as the new EPA administrator and of a new NOAA administrator, and of the scheduled initial release this fall of IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report.

What’s more, rapid and troubling changes in the journalism field continue apace: The New York Times’ decision to eliminate its specialized environment and climate “desk,” and the paper’s scrapping of its “Green” blog, which had been an outlet for freelancers, along with the continued cuts in specialized environmental coverage at other newspapers and the demise of valued outlets such as The Phoenix in Boston.

Let’s say, for purposes of argument, that there is an adequate supply of journalists and journalist-wannabes — many of them no doubt among SEJ’s own members — eager to sufficiently cover the innumerable challenges that make this uniquely “generational” set of climate challenges so journalistically demanding.

Granted that the bench could always be longer, and deeper too. But the talent is there for the asking, ready now and tomorrow and in the coming decades to take on the reporting and editing challenges associated with all that comes under the infinite umbrella of human-caused climate change.

But that begs the question, which, rightly so, involves not “journalists” but rather the institution of “journalism.” It’s a much more thorny question, and the answers are likely to be less selfgratifying, and far less comforting.

Can an institution in crisis cope with climate story?

If we assume American journalism is in fact “well poised,” that still leaves open only the question of just how well poised.

No doubt there could always be more — more column inches, more air minutes, more continuing education opportunities, and gobs more Twitter tweets and Facebook friends and followers and allthings- digital. They’re there, as stated earlier, “for the asking.” The issue comes down to whether their editors and news managers and salary payers — and their audiences — indeed are doing the asking.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

It’s in fact cruel irony that these most pressing, yet in some ways incomprehensible, climate challenges come at a time of historic unease and transition in the media business. That’s a term perhaps more apt now than ever before to the day-to-day practice of journalism in the U.S.

There are, after all, sound reasons that climate change is considered a “generational issue,” and, what’s more, a “wicked” one both for communicators to speak to and for the public at large to understand and confront.

No matter how effective today’s journalists and today’s journalism are in tackling the climate conundrum, the problems it presents may well be ultimately unfixable. We can manage them, yes. But “solve” them? Most likely no.

Climate change poses a broad set of insidious societal, economic, political and (yes) environmental challenges that our children and theirs will still be wrestling with long after we’ve passed, or dropped, the baton. And wrestling, that is, as direct and indirect victims of its adverse impacts, but also as journalists and other communicators and educators striving to better inform the public generally.

With its most serious and most highly visible impacts still remote for many, both in time and in distance, and with carbon dioxide, the most important single greenhouse gas, both odorless and invisible, it’s hard for many to visualize the myriad problems careening down the road toward us. Further compounding the challenge is the difficulty in assessing blame, and with it responsibility — the fact that there’s no single or even institutional “black hat,” no Megabucks Inc., no single villain.

There’s no data to suggest that the late cartoonist Walt Kelly had climate change in mind when, in a 1971 Earth Day strip, his iconic “Pogo” first penned the line, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

But he might as well have.

That the issue transcends traditional “environmental” problems and encompasses everything ranging from public health to infrastructure, from national security to international competitiveness, and from daily weather to yearly snowmelt and sea-level rise only increases the challenges facing the media.

And those are the very challenges that the “institution” of journalism appears now resolutely unprepared to address and resolve.

What breed of journalists can get the job done?

What skills might today’s and tomorrow’s reporters covering climate most need?

To do the job exceedingly well, they need to have in their DNA a lot of “ink in the veins” journalism, a sharp nose for news, and a keen knack for storytelling.

Being able to discern the real significance of the latest so-called “ground-breaking” research will be key, so they will need a lot of science smarts too and will need to know how to best vet and qualify those so-called “breakthroughs” often not deserving of that name.

That’s a start, but it’s far from enough. They’ll need more than a tad bit of social psychology, and more than a dollop of aquatic biology to go along with a nugget of atmospheric chemistry. And of course physics. And statistics. Oh. Did we mention economics? And international diplomacy and law? And the study of cognition and of persuasion methodologies?

The qualifications list goes on. But the key point is that more so than any previous issue they have been charged with addressing, the climate change issue deeply embodies an expansive net of diverse issues and specialty fields, many of them far afield from their past experiences and the courses most of today’s journalists pursued and excelled at as students.

So into this daunting challenge comes journalism, circa early 21st Century: An era of shrinking news holes, vanishing hard news outlets, paring down of science beats and desks and other specialty coverage in preference for more “GAs,” and a waning of American attention spans, geared now more toward infotainment, 140-character tweets, and “e-blasts” than to heavy-lifts of daily serious reading and reflection.

You get the picture.

So it’s not only fair to wonder — it’s actually irresponsible to ignore — the question of whether American journalism today in too many ways drives some to leave the once-hallowed bastions of outstanding reporting to do just that — outstanding reporting.

Leave traditional journalism in order to do truly good reporting on climate change? More than a few have done just that, and their names are well recognized among environmental journalism savants. Names like Phil Shabecoff, Bill McKibben, Ross Gelbspan, Eric Pooley, Andy Revkin.

The belt-tightening, eyeballs-obsessed, “BREAKING NEWS” over-emphases characteristic of so many news organizations today imposes on quality journalism the kinds of constraints no self-respecting and enterprising journalist can conceivably welcome. Or long endure?

But while these are pitfalls primarily of the “institution” of journalism, it’s critical too that journalists themselves accept some responsibilities on their own part: Too many of us, let’s be honest, took news-writing and feature-writing classes, and other journalism courses knowing full well that in doing so we could avoid those danged statistics, mathematics, science, and physics electives we did our best to ignore. Those, that is, that might have given us some of the skills now so urgently needed in the media to report knowledgeably on an issue as daunting as our warming climate.

The same kinds of motives that drove those brilliant scientists to so diligently avoid journalism and philosophy and civics — their dread of words and letters and grammar and essay-writing — motivated many journalists to shun the science and math-based courses and expertise the sciences so demand.

Democracy demands we close the information gap

Did I mention here perhaps the most significant and troublesome shortcoming of contemporary journalism in so far as its dealings with our warming climate?

It’s the issue of the steadily widening information gap, the chasm between those now and in the future having access to the world of rich and authoritative online information on climate change and its implications…and those not having, and in some cases, of course, not wanting, such information.

It’s not traditional journalism but rather the Web and blogs and social media drill-downs and podcasts and more that serve well those already having a climate knowledge bounty, and still wanting more.

But it is within the repertoire of traditional journalism to serve also that much larger group of news — and information — havenots. Our democracy demands we do so.

Until journalists and their institutions of journalism measure up, how can anyone maintain that the democratic principles that attracted so many of us to journalism can now accommodate a response to the simple question posed other than with an abrupt “Poorly”? And then doubt that we now must go about doing all we can, individually and collectively, to rectify those shortcomings?

Bud Ward, a founding SEJ board member, is an independent journalism educator and former editor of Environment Writer. He edits the website, Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

Editor’s Note: This is Bud Ward’s final E-Reporting Biz column. Since the Fall 2007 issue, Bud in this column has contributed his deep expertise on how the changes in the journalism field have affected the environment beat, particularly in climate change coverage.

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* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.