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Jan. 6, 2022, 9:33 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Just a little too slow: Why journalists struggle to cover climate change

The biggest news story of all time doesn’t quite fit our working definition of news, and hence is going remarkably undercovered.

The runaway success of Don’t Look Up — after 12 days it’s already the third-most viewed film in Netflix history — should have several salutary results, including perhaps a new willingness in Hollywood to make comedies that don’t turn on endless jokes about bodily functions. It’s a broadly intelligent film designed to get one thinking, and it has succeeded.

Its satire of the military, the presidency, and high-tech are funny and revealing, but its most important poke comes at the media. That reflects, among other things, the fact that the people who made it have spent lots and lots of time being interviewed; there’s nothing like a publicity tour to educate you about the vacuity of TV news. For my money, the single most spot-on character is played by Tyler Perry, as the co-host of a morning news show. Told that Leonardo DiCaprio is an astronomer, he quickly rummages through his mental file of tropes and genially demands, before we can get to the story of the comet, that his guest offer an opinion on the existence of aliens. “Can you tell us, yes or no, final answer.” (His perplexed guest, not yet adept at the media survival skill of turning inane questions into the answer you want to give, does indeed offer his view, spurring yet more tangents.)

The entire movie, of course, is an exposition of why we have not paid sustained attention to the climate crisis, the actual comet that bears down upon us in real time. (As someone who started using this metaphor in 2001 and 2003, I am very glad it’s finally reached a mass audience). One reason for that insufficient attention is clear: the fossil fuel industry ran an enormous disinformation campaign over decades, using its resources to muddy the waters and playing into journalism’s cult of objectivity to make it a he-said/she-said story for as long as possible. Also, Exxon buys a lot of ads.

But there’s also something a little subtler. Journalism is constructed around finding something new. (I think that’s why they’re called newspapers.) Which is a problem when it comes to the climate crisis.

In geological terms, we are speeding toward the abyss — we’re pouring carbon into the atmosphere hundreds and thousands of times faster than during the volcanic outpourings that marked the previous great extinction events in earth’s history.

But in journalistic terms, it happens just a little too slowly to quite register — climate change today is pretty much the same as climate change yesterday and tomorrow. Over a decade or two it will profoundly change the planet, but a decade is not a unit that really registers for TV, much less Twitter. The climate crisis is at all times the most important thing happening on earth, by far, but there’s rarely a 24-hour period when, by the standards we’re used to, it’s the most important thing happening that particular day. It is inexorable, and inexorability is hard for journalists to capture.

Contrast it with, say, “the economy,” another huge and impersonal force, but one that we’ve learned to cover, mostly because it comes with constant ups and downs — we go through “dips” and “cycles,” and we have little dramas along the way. (This fall it was the “supply chain crisis,” about which there were endless stories, even though in the end it barely turned out to be real; The New York Times, in a classic walkback, published a story three days before Christmas concluding that “nearly all packages have arrived on time or with minimal delays.”)

Because of these ongoing shifts and changes, we think of the economy with almost human tenderness — sometimes it is “ailing,” sometimes it is “on the mend,” sometimes it is “robust” or even “booming.” When it “overheats” journalists worry, because it is exciting and novel and because the drama will be resolved in weeks or months. Whereas, on this time scale, climate change doesn’t actually change. We are indeed overheating — but about the same amount as last month.

And so, even though there’s finally skilled and deep coverage of the issue in some corners of the press (I think over the last five years the Times and the Post have done a better job of covering global warming than any other subject, with one remarkable reporting job after another), its scale — the fact that it threatens everything we know and hold dear — hasn’t sunk in. It requires repetition, constant reiteration of the same small set of facts: the planet is heating rapidly, cheap solar and windpower can slow it down, these are being blocked by vested interest.

But repetition and constant reiteration are precisely what reporters and editors don’t like doing, hence the constant search for a “new angle.” I follow, for instance, the Twitter feed of Terry Hughes, the Australian marine scientist who has done more than anyone to chart the ongoing realtime destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. If journalism worked better, that destruction — over the course of a very few years, of the largest living structure on the planet — would be a compelling story. But instead, to his constant and correct exasperation, absurd updates about, say, 3D printers producing new corals help take the edge off the tragedy. They get attention simply because they’re new; the mass death of an enormous ecosystem is the same story as before.

I don’t know how to fix this defect of journalism. People have suggested — correctly, I think — that broadcasts should track the rise of carbon in the atmosphere as regularly as they report the Dow Jones average. But the problem is still that the daily carbon totals just keep going up; there’s not the novelty that comes with the Wall Street casino, which sometimes rises and sometimes falls.

This problem is, kind of, sorting itself out: as the pace of hideous tragedies clearly linked to a changing climate keeps accelerating, the necessary repetition is starting to happen. But it’s come very late, and it doesn’t include the repetition of solutions. When we’re in a recession, there is a reliable skein of stories demanding, say, interest rate cuts from the Fed; we’re not there yet with forest fires and solar panels.

Journalism’s weakness on this score is one reason we need to keep building movements — they are able to interject drama and storylines into the mix, and hence give reporters another way to cover the ongoing drama. But we still need to come to grips with the essential problem: the biggest news story of all time doesn’t quite fit our working definition of news, and hence is going remarkably undercovered. The comet, even now, is crashing into us, but we’re not quite able to see it.

Bill McKibben is an author, environmental activist, and founder of and Third Act. This piece originally ran in his newsletter, The Crucial Years.

Warming stripes for the globe, 1850 to 2020, from #ShowYourStripes. The progression from blue (cooler) to red (warmer) stripes portrays the long-term increase of average global temperature from 1850 (left side of graphic) to 2020 (right side of graphic).

POSTED     Jan. 6, 2022, 9:33 a.m.
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