|Jeremy Hoffman, chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, shows journalists sea surface temperature data at an October 2019 climate workshop hosted by Climate Matters in the Newsroom, the Science Museum of Virginia and three Virginia universities. Photo: Courtesy Science Museum of Virginia. Click to enlarge.
Reporter’s Toolbox: New Resources Help Improve Climate Coverage
By Susan Joy Hassol
Climate change, once considered a problem for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. Its impacts are affecting us here and now.
Americans are increasingly concerned and want to hear more about it in their news. A Yale and George Mason University survey reveals that 69 percent of Americans are worried about global warming, a dramatic 16 percent increase over the past five years.
But while they are increasingly concerned about it, two-thirds of Americans say they only hear about it in the media once a month or less.
Equally problematic to the paucity of climate reporting is how most climate stories are framed — as a political, scientific or environmental issue, rather than as a threat to our health, safety, security, food, water, energy and more.
Nor is there much coverage of solutions — of what people are doing about climate change. There is also a general failure among network television and local news outlets to connect extreme weather events to human-caused climate change, according to analyses by Media Matters for America and Public Citizen.
While heatwaves, wildfires and hurricanes receive a great deal of coverage, very little of that coverage makes the linkages to climate change clear.
Climate reporting picks up steam
But a new day is dawning in climate journalism.
TV networks and newspapers are establishing more regular coverage and some are building their climate teams. An initiative led by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation called Covering Climate Now includes hundreds of media outlets worldwide, with a combined audience of more than a billion people.
As climate reporting is picking up steam,
excellent new resources are available to journalists
Climate Matters in the Newsroom, supported by the National Science Foundation, for instance, provides free, weekly, localized climate reporting resources in English and Spanish, delivered directly to your inbox. These include broadcast-ready graphics and story ideas you can make your own by adding local context.
The Climate Matters in the Newsroom team also offers workshops for journalists at professional society meetings — including at Society of Environmental Journalists’ conferences in 2018 and 2019 — as well as with university partners in the Southeast United States. The workshops feature experts in climate science and solutions as well as journalists doing exemplary local climate reporting.
Avoid scientific jargon
A popular session in these workshops involves language tips for those covering climate, based on my three decades of experience in this arena.
|David Boraks of WFAE in Charlotte, N.C., at center, talks with fellow journalists as they practice using new resources to tell local climate stories at a September 2019 climate reporting workshop. Photo: Courtesy Climate Matters. Click to enlarge.
For example, I remind journalists to avoid adopting scientists’ jargon in their reporting. For instance, don’t say “anthropogenic,” say “human-caused.” Avoid “spatial” and “temporal;” instead use “space” and “time.”
I also stress that some words mean different things to scientists than they do to the public. For example, “aerosol” means “spray can” to the public, while scientists use it to refer to tiny atmospheric particles. Scientists use the term “enhance” to mean “increase,” while to the public, it means to improve (so the “enhanced greenhouse effect” sounds like a good thing).
And when scientists describe a vicious cycle in the climate system, whereby warming causes more warming, they use the term “positive feedback,” which to the public sounds like a good thing, as does anything associated with the word “positive.”
For more on the language of climate change, see my TEDx talk, articles in Eos and Physics Today, and my piece on communicating the linkages between extreme weather events called (Un)Natural Disasters, in the World Meteorological Organization Bulletin.
Connect the dots
Another great new resource helps journalists connect the dots between extreme weather events and climate change. These “Quick Facts for Any Story,” created by Climate Communication and SciLine, summarize the latest science on the linkages between climate change and heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires, and torrential rain and flooding.
Each “Quick Facts” begins with a top-line message that can be used in any story to make a scientifically supported connection between extreme weather events and global warming. Each also includes a list of key facts on the linkages with references to peer-reviewed studies, pitfalls to avoid and experts you can contact for quotes.
More of these are coming soon. And SciLine connects journalists with credible, articulate scientific experts on any topic, on deadline, for free.
Reporters are also commonly faced with oft-repeated myths about climate change, and Skeptical Science is a great resource for debunking them. The website provides both basic and intermediate rebuttals to all the most common talking points of those who reject the science of global warming.
And finally, my Climate Communication website offers a highly selective collection of resources including other websites, articles, reports and videos. Some of my favorites include Energy Innovation, Project Drawdown, Climate Interactive and the Yale Climate Opinion Maps.
Journalists have a great opportunity to report creatively on climate change. The public is particularly hungry to hear more about solutions to the climate crisis, including the policies and technologies that work to reduce climate-warming emissions and draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Reporters can find timely and accessible information at the resources above to enhance their ability to tell personal, local climate stories that matter to their audiences.
Susan Joy Hassol is the director of Climate Communication. She has led the training of 400 journalists on climate issues, including at workshops held at the SEJ 2018 and 2019 annual conferences. She was the writer of the first three U.S. National Climate Assessments and an HBO documentary, “Too Hot Not To Handle.” She has testified before the U.S. Senate, and is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Hassol writes and speaks widely on climate change and communication. Follow her on Twitter: @ClimateComms.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 3. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.