Interview with Meera Selva, deputy director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and director of the institute’s Journalist Fellowship Programmes at the University of Oxford, UK.
In October, the Reuters Institute launched the Oxford Climate Journalism Network (OCJN), which Selva co-founded with visiting fellow Wolfgang Blau, who was previously global chief operating officer at Condé Nast, executive director of digital strategy at Guardian News & Media, and editor-in-chief of Zeit Online.
The OCJN will run online courses, leadership programmes and fellowships, with the aim of transforming how journalists and newsrooms cover the climate crisis, and weaving it more into everyday reporting. Meera Selva talks to us about the thinking behind the network and why it is crucial to move climate up the news agenda.
Why is there a need for an initiative like the Oxford Climate Journalism Network (OCJN) and a change in the way climate issues are reported in the media?
Meera Selva: Most newsrooms aren’t really suited for covering the climate story. This is because it’s a story that, although very immediate, also lasts over years and we don’t always see the impacts. It’s also the single biggest issue of our time, but the existing ways we approach news don’t give space to cover it properly.
It’s a lot more understood than it used to be, and there’s a generation of younger journalists and newer media outlets that are doing really innovative work. But I think legacy organisations are slow in understanding the nature of the challenge and, crucially, communicating the nature of the challenge to their readers.
What we really want journalists to do is think about climate change at the same fundamental level that they think about the other points in a story and see climate stories as not just their own separate beat. It’s important that other journalists who cover politics, business, transport and sport also think about climate when they’re reporting.
That does not mean for every story the top line is air miles flown on aeroplanes by footballers in the Premier League, for example, but that it informs journalists’ reporting and, crucially, their questioning of people.
Can you give any examples of the types of stories in which journalists could take a different approach to incorporate the climate angle?
Meera Selva: Stories about the HS2 rail link in Britain, for example. All the stories about this have really been framed in terms of what this means for the UK government, and how it reflects on the policy agenda and election campaigns. What I haven’t seen overall is a proper analysis of how vital trains are to the public infrastructure system, the role they play compared to cars, and how they might be more efficient than cars at getting people from one part of the country to another.
There’s always a number in these stories about how much a project is overrunning or how much is not being spent, but not really a climate element. It’s sometimes covered as “now let’s look at the environmental elements”, rather than being part of the day-to-day reporting.
What are you doing with the OCJN and how will it help achieve these kinds of aims?
Meera Selva: We’re building on what we do at the Reuters Institute, which is to build networks of global journalists. There will be a [regular] six-month online programme for journalists from around the world from all sectors – not just climate correspondents, but also all other beats. We plan for it to be a multi-year project.
The idea is to give those on the programme some element of climate literacy, but also to get them thinking about how to rethink climate reporting and incorporate it into all sorts of stories. The aim is also to give them some indication of audiences – how audiences might respond, how much they trust and share climate news, and where they get their climate news from.
We ask for one hour every fortnight of live commitment, and beyond that there will be reading lists and things like digital platforms for setting up groups for activities. The other part is working with newsroom leaders through leadership courses. In addition, there will be journalist fellowships.
What’s the reaction been like to the network in its early days?
Meera Selva: Sky high. We’ve just closed applications for people to join the network in January [the start of the programme’s first run], and we’ve had over 780 applications from all over the world and all walks of journalism, plus a lot of approaches from media organisations wanting deeper collaborations.
There will be 100 people on each course. It’s a large cohort because we want impact, but this is also a size that can be broken down into smaller breakout groups.
We firstly select people who can act as “nodes”, so to speak, in their countries – those who are in influential newsrooms or who are in the middle of networks of journalists. We also select to make sure we’ve got geographical diversity and range, and journalists who cover a range of topics.
I saw that you did some communication about the OCJN at COP26 in Glasgow. What did you do there and what was the reaction like?
Meera Selva: We had a drinks reception one evening. The idea was to talk about the network and climate journalism, as well as about audiences – so I gave a presentation on that.
There was a kind of plea for understanding and diversity in reporting that really came out with everyone I met at COP, and people wanted agency in stories. So when you talk about the Maldives or the Pacific islands and the idea that they might be under water soon, there was a sense that much of the coverage was “othering” them – saying “these poor people are going to be under water soon”.
Journalists from these countries who did make it to COP26 were very clear in saying: “Hello, we are here, we have our stories, we also want solutions. We don’t just want, ‘We’re doomed, let’s figure out how we stop the same thing happening in the West’ “. We’re part of the same planet and it will hit us all.
Are there also specific ways in which stories can be written in a new way to have impact?
Meera Selva: Because we’re so global, it would be very presumptuous of us to tell every journalist how to write their stories, especially as there’s a complete range of outlets. They know their audiences and communities better than we do, and what’s going to grab people’s attention.
We’re not a journalism school, so we’re not going to say “this is the intro, this is the headline”. It’s about concepts and learning from each other. When it’s global, this can be really valuable, as you get far more ideas from each other.
It’s also about innovation in thinking “what is the story?” Is it 800 words on a page? Is it an infographic? Is it an interactive chart? Is it a game you can play that shows you the impact of rising sea levels? It’s about rethinking both what the message is you’re trying to convey and how you convey it.
What lessons can journalists take from reporting on the COVID-19 crisis for reporting on climate change?
Meera Selva: For a while, COVID-19 became the only story in town, so the science desk became the hub that everyone had to understand. I think what’s very important is that journalism is a public service, so for COVID-19 that means giving details of lockdowns and vaccinations but also doing what journalism is meant to do, which is hold power to account and be a critical, powerful, nagging, irritating voice.
I think climate change is something similar: you need to explain what’s going on, COP and the big policies, but you also need to irritate the hell out of governments and corporations.
Also, COVID-19 has taught us all that [in the West] we’re not immune from crises. We had the Ebola, SARS and MERS crises, but they happened outside Western Europe and North America, so it’s been easy to say “this happens elsewhere”. COVID-19 has shown us we’re not going to escape, and I think that’s where it’s got useful lessons for climate change.
What are your long-term hopes for the OCJN?
Meera Selva: That it helps journalists feel they belong to something. Climate-change reporting can be really overwhelming and a very depressing story to cover. What we hope this does is provide solidarity, a network and support for journalists, and a sense of solutions – because despair is not going to help. You need to have a sense of purpose and some sense that it’s worthwhile.
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