Katherine Dunn: ‘Climate change isn’t going away, both journalists and their audiences are in this for the long haul’

Katherine Dunn profileKatherine Dunn is the Content Editor of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, a new initiative by the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford that aims to improve climate coverage in newsrooms worldwide. She was previously an editor at Fortune magazine, where she covered climate change and the energy transition, including writing features on a shareholder battle at ExxonMobil and the murky world of ESG investing. Before that, she worked for Wall Street Journal, S&P Global Platts and Maclean’s, often (but not always) covering energy and commodities. She is Canadian and lives in London.

Are new story angles needed for journalists to get better at covering climate change? Do you think that finding original ideas and story angles could make people more trustful?

Katherine Dunn: One thing the director of the Reuters Institute, Rasmus Nielsen, often says that makes me laugh is that journalists tend to think that the solution to any problem is more journalism. That’s so true.

In many newsrooms, yes, it’s important to start producing climate journalism in the first place, and giving those reporters and editors resources. But in many others, climate journalism is already happening – often really amazing climate journalism! – but it may not be getting the placement, the images, the social promotion, and the support it needs.

The first step for a news organisation may honestly be: are we making the most of the climate coverage we already have, and the really good reporters and editors who already do this work? But yes, sometimes new angles are really important. We know that a lot of climate coverage can be COP26-style coverage – summitry, with loads of photos of leaders meeting each other, descriptions of policy, etcetera.

Both from a visual perspective (check out the work of Saffron O’Neill at the University of Exeter, who recently came and spoke to the network) and from a written perspective, these stories may be the ones that readers have the hardest time connecting with. They are important, but they can also feel technical and far away.

The network was really founded on the idea that all kinds of different stories can be climate stories, and all sorts of different beats now have a climate angle. I am a business reporter by training so of course I really feel strongly about this personally. Sometimes it’s about reframing what looks to be on the surface primarily a fashion or a politics story to be explicitly about climate – and sometimes it’s about adding a little climate context somewhere in the story, and sprinkling it in. If you start asking your sources how climate is changing their industry or their work, you’ll virtually always get an interesting answer.

Covering climate has some special challenges, in terms of scale and complexity. But in many ways what we hear anecdotally about what probably makes a good climate story – regardless of the angle or the beat – is probably what make a good story about any large and complex topic: human voices, plus experts and information that feel really relevant and connected to the audience that journalism is for.

During the pandemic, we could all see that there are people who do not trust science, who are anti-vax, and of course there are also climate change deniers… what went wrong?

Katherine Dunn: Yes, and I would like to give a shout out to all the health reporters (and the reporters who were reassigned to cover health, including many climate reporters) who covered the pandemic. This was a very hard job and if you know one of these journalists, give them a hug. Many of them experienced really brutal trolling online, and had very difficult conversations with family and friends. It took a personal toll. I think we need some kind of special recognition for these journalists and what they’ve been through.

I can’t say what has gone wrong on climate misinformation over the last few years, but it’s important to know that climate denial and misinformation have a long and often well-funded history. Historically, it was not a grass roots movement, let’s just say that. I think there is still overt climate denial, but there’s much less; the idea of putting a climate change denier in an article without context, next to a climate change scientist is, thankfully, something you don’t see very often anymore on large platforms (in English language media, which is what I’m reading!!).

But now, there’s also a strain of “it’s too late to do anything” you might see popping up, which some people would consider an opinion and others would consider climate misinformation.

The science is so clear about climate change’s existence and cause, and has been for a long time. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to eliminate overt denial (as we can see with vaccines), but now we’re onto muddier territory now, where we’re seeing things pop up like a company saying they’re “climate negative” for example, and explaining why that might be totally incorrect can be a lot more difficult. On the other hand, a lot of great journalism is coming out of tackling these kinds of claims head on.

How can you find the right balance of making the story human while avoiding over-using human emotions?

Katherine Dunn: I am really wary of telling people how they should report and don’t really like the idea that journalists are ‘manipulating’ human emotions. They know how to report already, and we do know that human voices and human emotions are essential to journalism of all kinds. But finding the balance of emotion and information in a story is something that a reporter and an editor have to find themselves, based on the tone of the publication and their audience.

It is also really going to depend on the story: is it an explainer? Is it a news story about an IPCC report? Or is it a story about the aftermath of an extreme weather event? I should say that I have read or listened to climate journalism that many people considered really powerful, and others considered too emotional—and a lot of that will be down to the individual, the style of their outlet, maybe reflective of their personal feelings on climate coverage.

How to report about climate change on a daily basis without making people, our readers overwhelmed?

Katherine Dunn: There’s a question here for journalists who do this work too of: how do you report on this without making yourself overwhelmed? It’s not easy and a lot of journalists feel very unsupported or misunderstood, often within their own newsrooms.

Big goals – like fighting climate change! – are overwhelming, both for readers and journalists. But try and weave this into the fabric of all kinds of different stories, because it’s affecting everything. It doesn’t always need to be ‘presented’ as a climate story—if you’re writing about the auto industry right now, you’re writing about climate change, because every major auto company is in the process of transforming its business, for example. If you’re writing about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you’re also writing about an energy crisis and a food crisis—again, climate change.

Climate change isn’t going away, so it’s also about remembering both journalists and our audiences are in this for the long haul.

People are regularly exposed to dis- and misinformation about topics like Covid-19 and climate change, so I suppose it is no surprise that some of them are avoiding the news. My question is, can the media fix the damage and how?

Katherine Dunn: This is a good question, and one that’s really hard to answer. There is so much news content now, and people understandably feel the need to put up boundaries around when they consume the news, and the amount – and there will also be news avoidance. Anecdotally, when it comes to climate in particular, we hear this is a real issue.

The same things that make climate action difficult are the things that might make reading or watching news about climate difficult: it can feel overwhelming, depressing, hard to see where one person can make a difference. It can also produce a frustrating dynamic for commissioning editors, where they say:”The audience said they wanted this, and then they didn’t click!”

Solutions journalism

There is a big conversation going on in climate journalism about whether one answer to this is ‘solutions’ journalism: focusing first and foremost on what we can do about climate change. This discussion brings to the fore how many news organisations see their role: some journalists will see the idea of ‘solutions’ journalism as activism, and fundamentally opposed to their role in society; others will see it as fundamental to their role and a no-brainer. Both sides want their coverage to get read or consumed, but it’s something news organisations need to decide based on their own role and news culture.

There’s another approach that says providing the “Ok, so what’s the solution?” section of a news piece is a fundamental, quite traditional piece of journalism. In that framing, looking for the solution is not a mechanism of activism but a fairly uncontroversial piece of the overall information package the journalist is there to provide.

Another angle is about where the readership is. In wealthy countries, urging solutions is often about how can that country reduce its emissions, fund research, encourage personal lifestyle changes.

For journalists from the Global South, it’s obviously a different conversation – because the historical contribution to climate change was probably much smaller, and the immediate impact(right now) is probably much larger, compared to wealthy countries. The idea of personal consumption changes may be unhelpful, even really tone deaf and ridiculous.

If you’re in a newsroom in Europe, a good place to start is by following the work of experienced journalists in countries that are often seen as victims of climate change—maybe you start following journalists in Bangladesh or in Fiji—and taking inspiration from their work. I don’t think we should ever sugarcoat the situation. But we should be wary that when we talk about ‘solutions’ journalism, that we’re not issuing dictums about what journalism should or shouldn’t do that are really very specific reflections of our news culture and organisation.

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