Reporting on climate change, a complex task: challenges and solutions

During the three days of the ESMH Summer School “Journalism and climate change: how to tell complex stories”, journalists from different countries had a chance to learn about climate change reporting, its complexity and its main issues, but – above all – about possible solutions.


It all started with … a chameleon, as Tim McPhie, spokesperson for Climate Action and Energy at the European Commission named the European Green Deal when speaking at the opening session ‘EU policies’ on the first day of the event: “The European Green Deal is a bit like a chameleon, as it looks different to different people depending on the environment it finds itself in…it survived Covid-19, it survived energy price rises and it survived the Russian invasion,” he said.

Climate change is part of everything, it affects every policy we have and all sectors need to contribute. Being honest when dealing with challenges is necessary, as well as communicating with people. Those were some of the most important notes from Tim McPhie and Lasse Boehm, head of the Economic Policies Unit of the European Parliamentary Research service.

On the question about the importance of the European Green Deal for developing countries, Tim McPhie replied that if we do not accelerate the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss, and if we don’t meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement, it will have devastating consequences for the entire planet. Developing countries will likely be affected the first and the most by climate change. “We know that our policies in Europe and the positions we take in international negotiations can help shape a greener future for the whole planet, even if Europe only produces around 9% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The EU also supports the global green transition through its climate finance; 30% of the EU’s development aid is dedicated to tackling climate change,” said McPhie.

There is no easy solution to the climate crisis, and according to Anne-Sophie Garrigou, who leads media relations at EIT Climate-KIC, we are navigating into unknown territories, and we are still learning. “We should not forget that climate change is about people and we have to put people at the center of the discussion”, she added.

Exchange with experienced science journalists

The second day of the ESMH summer school started with one of the most insightful sessions of the event: ‘How could journalists get better at covering climate change?’ moderated by Luca De Biase (NOVA Sole 24 Ore). It featured four renowned environmental reporters as speakers: Katherine Dunn (Oxford Climate Journalism Network), Adam Vaughan (New Scientist), Fiona Harvey (the Guardian) and Alok Jha (the Economist).

The speakers’ messages were clear: we need accurate information on climate change, give the people you interview a chance to say something positive, no solution is perfect, it is our job to make people interested, stick with evidence and make the data work for you.

Katherine Dunn profile climate change expertKatherine Dunn, content editor of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network: “In many newsrooms it’s important to start producing climate journalism in the first place, and giving those reporters and editors resources. In many other newsrooms, 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.”Read Katherine Dunn’s full interview

Journalism vs activism?

Should journalists be activists (of common sense), wondered Chief editor of Nòva24 – Il sole 24 Ore Luca De Biase. Fiona Harvey, award winning journalist working for the Guardian, didn’t think so: “That leads us into areas where I do not think that we should go as journalists. I do not think it is helpful for journalists to see themselves as activists. We need journalists who are objective.”

Harvey explained that journalists have to interrogate and examine all the facts they can unearth, objectively and without fear or favour. According to her, there is nothing wrong with being an activist, but if one chooses activism one is no longer a journalist, and one should acknowledge that and be honest about it with readers. “To pretend to be a journalist while really being an activist is a lie. And journalists really must not lie, that is the cardinal sin” – she added.

Asked about how not to cross the line between journalism and activism, Alok Jha, science correspondent at the Economist said: “We journalists need to be transparent and being honest about our intentions, being interested about all sides and base our reporting firmly on good evidence (and being clear about the limitations of our evidence), that will keep people aware of our point of view.”

Tackling misinformation

“Lies travel fast,” said journalist Tine Hens who moderated the ‘Tackling misinformation on climate change‘ session. But even if false news travels fast and it is increasingly hard to recognize misinformation, we always have data and science. A few ‘red flags’ for misinformation were mentioned: cherry-picking ‘convenient’ studies, oversimplification, but also using emotions and not arguments. According to the speakers – Emmanuel André (Climate Feedback), Andrea Arnal (Verificat) and Maribel Angel (Maldito Clima) – we should not be hard on people, and it is important to develop and promote critical thinking.

Focusing on solutions

The third and last day of the ESMH event was dedicated to collaborative EU journalistic projects on climate change, constructive journalism as a solution, and it was closed with some remarks by Christian Ehler, MEP and STOA Chair.

Marcin Monko, team leader media at the European Research Council (ERC) said: “Follow your curiosity“. But what happens when editors are not interested in a climate story, and there are freelancers dealing with many rejected pitches, what can be done in that case? “The ERC science journalism project addresses this. It gives journalists, including freelancers, resources to work on a story or on something bigger, maybe a book or other reporting projects,” said Monko.

One of the other speakers was Croatian freelance science journalist Vedrana Simicevic. Someone asked if Croatia’s accession to the European Union had made things easier for journalists, but Simicevic didn’t think so. It did probably expand the range of information sources and the very networking that the EU brings in terms of connection to institutions and markets. “Also migration has opened up a number of new topics and phenomena that journalists deal with. Probably this has increased the popularity of the so-called cross-border investigative journalism’ she said. She believes that the media should proactively sensitize the public to ecological and climate change topics, and not wait for them to become a burning issue in society, such as a pandemic.

In the last session, we could hear more about constructive journalism. This reporting style is based on nuances, it offers solutions and is about promoting democratic conversation. It also avoids talking about disasters in the news all the time, which affects people’s worldview in a negative way.

Kristoffer Frøkjær profileAccording to fellow of the Constructive Institute at the University of Aarhus, Kristoffer Frokjaer: “we need to empower people to believe that they can actually do something about climate change, we need to avoid hopelessness, and we need to avoid news fatigue. That is why we need to put solutions in our journalism and consider more nuances”. – Read Kristoffer Frokjaer’s full interview

We can begin to talk about climate in terms of health, preparedness, opportunity, and not sacrifice… “A focus group study found that 85% of voters in the US seek preparedness as the preferred approach to address climate disruption, whereas adaptation is seen as a passive and reactive strategy,” said Myriam Bechtoldt, a psychologist and professor of leadership at the EBS University of Business and Law, Wiesbaden.

In his closing remarks, MEP and STOA Chair Christian Ehler, who has journalistic background, stressed out that academic and research freedom is crucial. He also warned that for the first time after the Second World War academic freedom is under pressure, both on a global scale and in Europe: “We can notice that the variety of the academic discussion is more and more limited.”

He said that he has never seen so much ideological pressure on research and the academia. “That is why a closer look is needed, we need to ask questions like ‘who financed this’, ‘who has financed what study’, and ‘where this does come from?’ We need to be able to show what is the bias.”

Related content:
Kristoffer Frøkjær about constructive journalism: ‘We need to empower people to believe that they can actually do something about climate change’
Katherine Dunn: ‘Climate change isn’t going away, both journalists and their audiences are in this for the long haul’

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