How climate crisis is also changing the climate for news

Climate change is arguably the world’s biggest environmental story to date, and for journalists, it may be the toughest one yet. Not only is it scientifically complex, but it also poses numerous political and social challenges. In fact, journalists – being the instigators of discourse by profession – are now, more than ever, under constant fire by critics and dissenting scientists in cahoots with the fossil fuel industry, all of which can make objective, two-sided storytelling a cumbersome task. 

It is alarming that almost every successive year in the 21st century became synonymous with record-breaking temperatures and extreme weather patterns, yet for newsrooms and their readership, it is starting to feel like nothing is new under the sun. Or is it?

The greatest concern for publishers is this: it is becoming more and more evident that the topic of climate change is failing to gain traction. Media complacency and reader disengagement are becoming increasingly prevalent as the planet plunges in climatic turmoil – and we at Content Insights have tasked ourselves with uncovering why this urgent issue feels so postponed.

So what exactly is the cause of apathy in newsrooms towards the issue of the climate crisis? Why are we so reluctant to take action in these dire times and how should publishers change their narrative to rekindle reader engagement? 

The issues of addressing climate change

During the prime-time Presidential debates in the US in 2016, 2012 and 2008, not one single question about climate change was asked by the moderators. Such negligence didn’t sit right with Chris Hayes, a progressive journalist and author of a television show All In With Chris Hayes, who spent an entire week highlighting the impact of climate change in the US in an attempt to review the issues that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were ignoring.

But the main problem was, as Hayes said back in 2016, that “every single time we’ve covered climate change, it’s been a palpable ratings-killer.”

Admittedly, it’s not just the brutal demands of ratings and money that are working against adequate coverage. Even journalists who made it their mission to convey that climate change is a crisis aren’t unanimous about how to approach it. 

In response to this issue, the UK’s prominent left-wing daily, The Guardian, recently updated its house style in order to call things by their proper name. “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue,” said the editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner. “The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

Indeed, news media serves to ‘stitch together’ spaces of both science and policy and connect it to everyday life. However, for journalists and newsrooms, the scientific component of climate change has traditionally been the greater area of challenge, as it requires a deeper level of technical knowledge than most areas of coverage do.

The New York Times tackled this issue by establishing a desk dedicated to climate change in 2017, with editors and reporters in Washington and New York who collaborate with bureaus around the world. The goal, according to Hannah Fairfield, the paper’s climate editor, is to produce visual, explanatory and investigative journalism at a time when the calamities caused by climate change seem to be intensifying.

The climate story is too important and multi-dimensional for a news outlet not to have a designated team covering it, especially since climate denial is showing signs of decline.

Make no mistake, readers are indeed becoming increasingly aware of climate change

According to a 2018 report by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, seven in ten Americans (73%) think global warming is happening, an increase of ten percentage points since March 2015. That’s almost 239 million people – and a follow-up report confirms that this number will continue to rise as more and more people are “directly experiencing climate change impacts.” Similarly, a national Reuters/Ipsos poll from December 2018 found that 72% of Americans consider climate change to be a moderate, serious, or imminent threat.

The numbers are, however, much more promising in Europe. The European Social Survey highlights that, in most countries, more than 90% think that the world’s climate is at least probably changing. Although in Israel and a number of Eastern European countries less than 90% think this is the case – these figures still represent overwhelming majorities.

But despite the fact that the readership is opening up to this topic, we have confirmation that the way the story of global warming is approached by newsrooms isn’t quite corresponding with people’s interests or concerns. 

How have newsrooms been successful at sparking reader engagement so far?

We put our content intelligence to good use by looking at 21 different major media outlets that wrote about climate change since the beginning of this year. Their articles on the matter generated a total of 12.1 million Article Reads with the average Attention Time of 63 seconds. For an urgent issue like global warming to have such modest average values reveals that readers aren’t sufficiently invested in the environmental stories they are being served – and it is most likely because they either feel they cannot do anything about it after reading the articles, or the issues simply do not affect them physically to get involved.

The best way to determine the level of reader engagement is via the Read Depth metric. Our sample has an average value of 42.17%, meaning that most readers weren’t engaged enough to read the stories all the way through, usually giving up before they’ve even reached midway. The cause for such dispassionate consumption of content can vary, but at its core, it has a lot to do with authors missing the mark by not aligning their narrative with their readership’s personal experiences of climate change. 

The measure of Page Depth (the metric which describes the average number of pages visited after a reader opens the initial article) reveals another intriguing finding. It is a useful way of showing how eager people were to dig for any additional news or information – and in the case of climate change, articles had an average Page Depth value of 1.97. On one hand, this number can mean that readers were, in fact, willing to uncover more about the issue they are reading, but considering that this topic has an average Read Depth value below 50%, it can also imply they hopped from one train to another in hopes of finding a more relevant story. 

In summation, what we can see is interest, but reader engagement is indeed lacking – and considering that we are nearing the 2020s and the 11th hour is, apparently, looming – it’s becoming too little, too late to keep missing the bullseye. 

Newsrooms must revamp their approach to reporting if they are to jump-start reader engagement

The latest official wake-up call was issued by the IPCC’s landmark report (and shared by The Guardian, New York Times, The Nation and Nieman Lab, to name a few), stating that unless we radically cut down greenhouse gas emissions in the next 12 years, we will face a disastrous future in which hundreds of millions of people around the globe will experience famine, homelessness, or worse. 

The problem with this robust, statistical narrative with not-so-subtle hints of fatalism is that it doesn’t quite move people and appeal to them on a personal level. In fact, such scenarios can often be interpreted as shameful or terrifying, paving the way to a condition that has the opposite effect of instigating action: 

Climate grief.

Matthew C. Nisbet, a communications professor at Northeastern University and the editor of the journal Environmental Communication, argued in an article for Energy In Demand “We have good research that in amping up the threat without actually providing people with things they can do, you end up with fatalism, despair, depression, a sense of paralysis, or a sense of dismissiveness and denial.”

After decades of reporting predominantly with doomsday undertones, what would be the solution to alleviating climate grief and raising the readership’s morale to take action?

Per Espen Stoknes, a climate psychologist and economist, said in an interview for Deutsche Welle that for starters, we need to stop playing the blame game. “We have lots of studies that show how people tend to disengage,” he explained, “and the reason is fear and guilt feelings, which tend to be evoked by the ‘doom framing’, and then we start to shut down. These are feelings that make us passive, not active. We know from psychotherapy that just shaming people or making them feel guilty does not enhance the willingness to change.

The effects of climate change are real, quantifiable and dramatic, yet newsrooms need to be able to cover it in a way that resonates with their readership, not to defeat them. Per Espen Stokes further clarifies how the issue of reader disengagement can be resolved: “Rather than speaking about PPM levels (parts per million, calculation of CO2 in the atmosphere), the year 2100 or melting Arctic ice far away, I would like to hear more about other people like me and my neighbors or colleagues or somebody else I would identify with.” This approach, as Stokes emphasizes, feels much nearer, much more personal and urgent than listening to climate science’s sermons about the looming perils we are about to face.

The news sector needs to be transformed just as radically as other core sectors of the global economy

One thing is certain, action and engagement are needed if we are to break the status quo. Even though there is “no documented historical precedent” for the scale of the changes required, Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for The Washington Post and the watchdog for American journalism, articulated the prophesized challenge this way:

“Just as the smartest minds in earth science have issued their warning, the best minds in media should be giving sustained attention to how to tell this most important story in a way that will create change.”

And there are remarkable examples of newsrooms reinventing themselves or joining forces, weaving a whole new meaning into the old phrase ‘think globally, act locally’. 

For instance, right now the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald, South Florida Sun Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, Palm Beach Post, and WLRN Public Media make up the Florida Climate Reporting Network, and they are banding together to increase local reporting about the climate crisis this state is enduring already. 

Julie Anderson, editor-in-chief the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel, spoke about their collaboration: “We’re trying to pull together as many resources as we can to do dedicated reporting on the climate crisis in Florida,” Anderson said. “We felt like none of us could do the job alone, but we thought we could do a pretty good job if we pulled our resources together, or at least amplified our voices together.

Another great example of reporters joining forces is led by Inside Climate News as part of a National Environment Reporting Network. In a collaboration of newsrooms from nine states in the Midwest, reporters have challenged themselves to create a project that would offer readers in the Midwest local perspectives on climate change, at a time when climate policy is becoming a defining issue in national elections.

The solutions to adequate coverage of the climate crisis are indeed most effective when they are localized, but there are efforts to bring change in the industry, too. The Earth Journalism Network, Society of Environmental Journalists, Poynter Institute, and the International Center for Journalists are working hard to build media capacity globally in order for these stories and issues to receive proper coverage around the world. Universities (Stanford, Oxford, Harvard, MIT, etc.) have also pitched in by sponsoring programming and fellowships that in part help bolster journalism in this area.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Change is coming one way or the other

We may be at the cusp of a global environmental disaster, but the way it unfolds depends entirely on our actions today. Nature is, after all, relentless and she doesn’t have a second to spare.

The Nation’s very insightful study about the issues environmental journalism is faced with reveals that we are indeed riddled with environmental and political problems that mainstream news media fail to cover. Such negligence gave rise to a calamitous public ignorance, which in turn has enabled politicians and corporations to avoid action and keep promoting their agenda.

But all is not lost. 

According to an inspiring article in The Guardian about overcoming hopelessness and moving past climate grief, we are also seeing a dramatic rise of nonviolent protest movements around the world – such as the Extinction Rebellion, the New Green Deal in the US, or the School Strike movement led by the inspiring Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. Such movements are healthy as they give us an awakened sense of agency that goes beyond personal guilt for our own carbon-intensive vices. 

It may seem like it’s past time to make amends, but it is never too late to join the fray. We as journalists are obligated to close that gap between scientists and policymakers, but most importantly, we have an obligation to keep our audiences in the loop with the world they live in.

So ask yourself, how can newsrooms tell the story of climate crisis in ways that will finally resonate with their readerships? And, given journalism’s deeply troubled business model, how can climate change coverage be paid for?

Hint: collaboration just might be the key.

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