"Climate change isn’t just an environmental story, it affects almost every beat we cover"

Sean Holman is an associate professor of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary and a freedom of information researcher and climate crisis coverage advocate. We talk with him on how journalists can improve their coverage of the climate crisis in times of pandemic.

What is your assessment of climate coverage at the moment? Is there any story that journalists are missing?

Climate change coverage has improved since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 2018 special report on global warming. But that coverage still doesn’t reflect the threat climate change poses. We’re talking about a phenomenon that could result in the premature deaths or displacement of millions of people, along with the extinction of one-third of plant and animal life.

That’s not hyperbole. That’s just a scientific estimate. And we’re already seeing the beginnings of those impacts around the world: from wildfires in Australia and the Arctic Circle to heatwaves in Siberia and extreme rainfalls in Texas. By that measure, if newsworthiness means anything, climate change should be the number one story in the world today. But it’s not being treated that way in many too many places.

In your opinion, what is the nexus between climate change and coronavirus? What are the main similarities between the media coverage of the climate crisis and the pandemic?

Both these stories have demonstrated just how intractable the problem of misinformation and disinformation has become. The health of a democracy depends on citizens using shared sets of facts to make rational and empathetic decisions about the world around them. After all, if the facts can’t change someone’s behaviour, then the only recourse to do so is force or faith - both of which are profoundly undemocratic. But climate change and the pandemic show too many people are making irrational and un-empathetic based on fictions. We see that in the anti-masking protests that have happened around the world. And we see that in our continued refusal to take personal and political action that is commensurate with the threat posed by climate change. And that should deeply concern journalists. After all, in a society that becomes unbound from the truth, what is our role?

Is there a lesson that journalists and media outlets can learn from COVID-19 in order to improve future coverage of climate-related issues? What would be your main advice to journalists covering the climate crisis during the pandemic?

In an emergency, the news media doesn’t just provide the public with information about that disaster. They also provide the public with information about what they can do about it - how they can keep themselves and their loved ones safe. We resolve their feelings of uncertainty by telling them to move to higher ground when there’s floods, stay indoors when there’s wildfire smoke, or - in the case of the pandemic - social distance and wear a mask.

But we don’t do that when we cover climate change. As a result, it’s not surprising when our audience tune out of that coverage. It’s simply making them feel more uncertain and out of control in an already uncertain and uncontrollable world. So we need to help resolve those feelings by explicitly telling our audiences what they can do about climate change whenever we report on that phenomenon - from private to public action. This isn’t about bias. This is about serving our audiences, providing them with the information they need during an emergency.

Journalists are always in a rush and audience attention is a finite resource. In a moment where the world faces simultaneous crises - health, economic, environmental - how can journalists and media include them in their stories so none of them is muted?

We have never been able to do this and I don’t think we can. So, as journalists, we must use our best news judgement to determine what’s the most important story for our audiences. It’s the kind of triaging we do i newsrooms and on our beats every day. But the problem is we too often seem to diminish the importance of climate change. Perhaps it’s because we believe it’s one of those stories everyone already knows about, where there’s nothing new to report on? So the challenge is to find new angles that haven’t been reported on. And the good news is there’s lots of them. That’s because climate change isn’t just an environmental story. It’s a story that affects almost every beat we cover. And we’ve only just started to appreciate the implications of that.

The IFJ has organised a new internal experts group on climate, dedicated to the IFJ's global actions and plans on climate crisis.

Jennifer Moreau, IFJ ExCom members and Unifor representative (Canada) was elected President of the IFJ Climate Change Action Team (CCAT) and Vice-Presidents Paco Audije (FESP/Spain) and Filemon Medina (SPP/Panama). Members : Zuliana Lainez (ANP/Peru), Maria-Jose Braga (FENAJ/Brazil), Jim Boumelha (NUJ-UK/Ireland) and Zied Dabbar (SNJT/Tunisia).

IFJ Guidelines for reporting on Covid-19 vaccines

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