“Journalists, and particularly science journalists, need to be fair, transparent and analytical”
Interview with Alok Jha, science correspondent for The Economist, writing on everything from cosmology to particle physics and stem cells to climate change.
Most science stories needed today and dealt with by the media are very complex and require not only specialist skills but also knowledge and understanding of what has changed in the media landscape and, more generally, in the societal one. Alok Jha, science and technology correspondent at The Economist, has a lot to share about how navigating and conveying this complexity. We talked to him about how to deal with the two most urgent challenges we are facing in these times, Covid-19 and climate change, and what can we learn from that.
The pandemic is such a story from a scientific and healthcare point of view that every single journalist, including me, has been working on it: looking at the virus and the spread, the modelling around, how to deal with it. Every single section of the society is living this crisis, it sucked the oxygen and coverage of everything else.
In some ways, climate change also affects every single one of these aspects but it happens more slowly and incrementally. In a way, Covid-19 is a practice run for what climate change is, a sort of a warning too: it’s the same magnitude of story, of impact, but just over a different time scale.
Things are changing now: we’re starting to see a second wave of stories looking into future developments. And climate is coming back into the public and media conversation since we are focusing on how to come out of this crisis in a green way. There are many articles and analysis on how recovery can be better than the situation we lived in when we came into this crisis.
The Economist has published an issue with a provocative cover that said “Can Covid-19 help us flatten the climate curve?” What is the answer to this question?
After months of stop, governments need to think how to restart everything. A huge amount of tax-payers money is going to be used as a stimulus into rebuilding the economy. It’s all a matter of political will: we could do it on the same assets that already existed — the carbon-intensive infrastructures and industries — or see an opportunity to accelerate the transformation towards a less carbon-intensive industry.
At The Economist we have looked into ways to invest in clean power rather than in coal-fired power stations, in energy production systems that allow for the same energy output while jump-starting an entire new industry. Changes are already happening, but can be accelerated by picking the good ones from the point of view of climate.
It’s hard to make choices about the kind of future you want: governments and businesses want to be sure these things work and it’s such a big shot. There is a temptation to just carry on as before. That’s where civil society, green groups, people who are positive about making action on climate can have an impact. They can point towards a green recovery.
The use of the expression “Flatten the climate curve” was meant to invoke this phraseology we’ve all ingested with Covid-19, about taking economic and social hits to preserve our health system capacity. Looking at it from the climate point of view, it means we can slow our growth and use the economic recovery to the point where we don’t damage the environment.
Which languages, narratives, formats are more effective when trying to cover climate change? Is this also an opportunity for journalism to change how we write these stories?
Climate change is a very complex story, as many other stories are today. There is a lot of science involved, technology, politics, economics and they’re all interacting with each other all the time. So, being a journalist has become much more challenging.
Ten years ago, a lot of the stories I was writing were simpler, reporting on one single piece of discovery simplifying it for our readers. And partially, it is our job to simplify messages so that people who are not experts can use them, whether it’s for entertainment or for decision making or whatever else.
But the situation has dramatically changed and in recent years I have been studying how to tell complex stories. I still don’t have any definitive answers: we are all making this up as we go along. But the media landscape has changed completely now: we have lots of different ways of interacting with our audiences, from traditional channels to social media, and getting information out to people is not as difficult as it used to be. Even non-expert readers can get all the information they need if they really want it.
So, the main goal for a journalist is no longer to be the primary source of information but rather to be analytical and trustworthy, to guide through the information, to help people navigate complexity, to look at how a certain fact affects other issues readers might be interested in. It is to be transparent about sources and your analyses and to give a platform to voices that have something significant to say but are being unheard. In the past, I thought we were due to be mainly fact-checkers, but this also changed: today scientists and experts can use the vast array of media platforms to check and correct information directly. Our role as journalists might be more that of finding these people who are saying relevant things and promote their voices. We have a more complex and hybrid role.
Building on this, have you seen changes in the ways the media deal with climate change?
Definitely. Twenty years ago, the environment correspondents were doing classic specialist stories: glaciers melting, the Antarctic getting smaller or sea levels rising. That has definitely changed all over the world.
Climate change has become an issue discussed at all levels, like a layer in society rather than a specialism. In all media where I’ve worked I have seen conversations with senior editors calling for a serious effort not only to cover the issue but also to turn it into something to be covered every day. Most major newsrooms have a climate desk now. When a media like The Economist decides that this is something we need to have at the centre of all decision-making, you know we are on the right track. So, also the arc of the stories is getting better: it’s not only dooming stories anymore but more focus on how to reengineer economies, build businesses that are more resilient to climate change, and future scenarios.
The good thing is that we are no longer discussing the existence of climate change, we are beyond that in the public sphere. This has been our main task as journalists in the past.
Now we are focusing more on which solutions will lead the economies on the right path faster. In fact, I do not cover strictly climate science stories anymore: I look more into science and economic papers that discuss models, alternatives, possibilities. And this makes our work much more complicated: it is not easy to know whether some of these alternatives are good or not, there are multiple routes and there might be different motivations, facts and even goals supporting them. To spot something that is reliable from something that is not so good it has become more difficult, we need to be transparent and cautious.
Some media have made a pledge to the climate crisis, declaring a commitment considered as a move away from the traditional ‘objective’ journalism. This has solicited a reflection on the role and position of the media: are journalists called to become more activists? Is there a contradiction between being a good reporter and yet not pretending to be falsely objective in front of such an urgent question?
A: This is a conversation I’ve had early on in my career, I’ve had it in the middle of my career recently, and I think I’ll have it until I retire. There is not one answer to this question. Journalism adapts to the time, reporters have to. There will always be a spectrum of positions with two ends: those who believe that you must always be objective, and others who think something is too important as an issue to not be an activist. What you cannot be as a journalist is to be fixed dogmatically on one end forever.
For instance, the American printing media is very objective and balanced: it’s a professional industry that just reports news in separate sections from commenting and analysis. It’s a system that reports always fairly recording basically what’s happening. This works well under the condition that everyone else in the information system acts the same. However, in the last 10 years, that system has been put under incredible stress by populist government’s politicians and other players who act in bad faith. Players who basically exploit this fixed balance philosophy against those same media, deconstructing them from within to gain visibility, because they get covered anyway, no matter whether they lie or not. It’s like the virus using the reproductive machine of a cell to survive and thrive. In such a case, you need to boost the immune system. In other words, if you as a reporter see that your mechanisms are being misused you need to adapt and react. You don’t report something false stated by someone simply because they are important, famous or powerful. It doesn’t mean you have to go all the way to activism.
My job as a journalist is to help the most important person in my life, my reader, to understand more complex topics. Compare your sources, make it clear why one is more authoritative or reliable than the other, if that’s the case. State your position, if there are reasons to do it. Give your readers tools that help them see how you have come to those conclusions. Alan Rusbridger, my former editor at The Guardian used to say it all the time: you need to be fair and not objective. Be analytical and fair. And transparent.