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Oct. 17, 2023, 11:04 a.m.
Reporting & Production

“Make climate impact part of all beats”: Tips from the Sustainable Journalism Partnership for better climate reporting

“Good journalism is about doing compelling stories, and we seem to have forgotten that when it comes to climate journalism.”

— “Good journalism is about doing compelling stories,” Lars Tallert said last month at the IMEDD International Journalism Forum in Athens, Greece. “We seem to have forgotten that when it comes to climate journalism.”

Tallert is the founder and president of the Sustainable Journalism Partnership, an initiative that aims to “develop knowledge and practice on how journalism can be made more sustainable and at the same time contribute to a sustainable society: in research, education, business and journalistic practice.”

Part of that means developing business models “that take into account [the] environment and climate change.” Tallert was in conversation withOrnaldo Gjergji, a data journalist for the European Data Journalism Network and a data and policy analyst for the thinktank OBC Transeuropa.

“We need to produce and publish content that contributes to sustainable society and, at the same time, generates revenue for the media,” Tallert said. “Even though we might think that the situation is gloomy already as it is, we definitely need to think about environmental and social sustainability.” Tallert and Gjergji discussed tips for news publishers to produce more effective climate journalism and why the term “sustainability” in news needs to go beyond just turning a profit.

The IMEDD International Journalism Forum was hosted by the Greek nonprofit Incubator for Media Education and Development. You can watch the recorded video of this session here. Here’s a transcript of Tallert and Gjergji’s conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ornaldo Gjergji: Can you define what sustainable journalism is?

Lars Tallert: I think maybe the media industry is the only industry in the world that still defines sustainability as [being] connected to economic growth, what I would call financial viability. The way we define sustainable journalism is in a broader context.

A couple of years ago, some media researchers, editors-in-chief, and media developers from mainly the Nordic countries and sub-Saharan Africa met and asked ourselves two questions: How can journalism better contribute to a sustainable society? And how can media in itself be more sustainable environmentally, socially, and economically? We tend to focus our discussions on economic sustainability, which is, of course, necessary. But we cannot ignore social and environmental sustainability. This is the essence of what we call sustainable journalism.

It’s a holistic concept where we first look at content. That is our product: news. We need to produce and publish content that contributes to a sustainable society and at the same time, generate revenues for the media. So even though we might think that the situation is gloomy already as it is, we need to think about environmental and social sustainability. We need sustainable business models that take into account [the] environment and climate change. We need to have environmentally sustainable production and distribution. And not least, we need innovative, gender-balanced and inclusive newsrooms.

This is not rocket science, but we don’t see [it] happening in most media organizations. To make this possible, we need research on the connection between journalism and sustainability, and we need education on sustainable journalism. We decided to make a global NGO called the Sustainable Journalism Partnership, a community where we could discuss these questions. We did that about one year ago. Today we are about 400 researchers, media leaders, and senior reporters from 67 countries trying to find answers to these questions.

Gjergji: Of course, within sustainable journalism, climate journalism plays a big role. You chose a pretty provocative title for this panel, “Is Climate Journalism Digging the Grave for Both Media and Society?” What do you mean by that? How do you think we could do better climate journalism to make it more sustainable?

Tallert: [This panel is] at, like, 4:30 p.m. on the last day of the conference, so I thought I needed a provocative title. But there is quite a lot of truth to it.

If we look at what is happening specifically [with]  climate journalism, it’s like we’ve forgotten everything we have learned about journalism and we do other things [instead]. Obviously we have to make stories that are of concern to our audiences.

I’ll give you one good example from Nation Media in Kenya. They did a number of stories on what kind of crops are resilient to climate change. Huge success, huge economic success, and also a huge success if we want to improve the sustainability of the society.

Second, stating the obvious again, facts alone don’t help. And when it comes to climate journalism, we are kind of obsessed with 1.6 and 1.7 Degrees Celsius. We are storytellers. Good journalism is about doing compelling stories, and we seem to have forgotten that when it comes to climate journalism.

Third lesson: Don’t focus on the doom and gloom, but talk about the benefits of engagement and change. If you read the Reuters Digital News Report, you see that news avoidance is a big problem…Not talking about the benefits and engagement means that we lose subscribers and we also lose engaged citizens. We need to rethink. Of course we need to report about the bad things, but also remember to report about the benefits and engagement of change.

Our role as journalists is to empower people, right? What we tend to do is that we make people in despair. And that is a new problem. I’ve been doing journalism for 40 years. In the 80s that was not a problem. But in the present, [the] digital media landscape we navigate is contaminated by disinformation, by populist politicians and threats, harassment. We need to be more strategic.

I speak to the managers, the media managers that are here: Don’t isolate climate journalism from the rest of the newsroom. I’ve seen so many examples where I ask, “How do you work with climate journalists?” And they say, “Yeah, that’s the climate guy sitting over there,” and you see some strange guy sitting in the corner. You need to integrate climate journalism into the newsroom. There’s not a one-size-fits-all model, but integration of climate journalism is absolute. Don’t make a climate silo. And that is also very, very true for reporting. We tend to write about climate as if it’s something that is happening outside reality. Make climate impact part of all beats. Fashion. Celebrities. Sports. Everything is related to climate. But if we separate climate journalism into some kind of political silo for people that are already kind of interested in the topic, then we will lose audiences and we will lose engaged citizens.

The messenger is often more important than the message. In one really interesting study, [researchers] wanted to find out who the most effective messenger was if you want to report climate news to conservative audiences in the U.S. The answer was high-ranking [military officials]. So next time you do a story on climate journalism, why don’t you interview high ranking military [officials]? This is the way we need to rethink.

Basic climate literacy is a must. There’s a lot of things happening on that. There’s a lot of newsrooms that are taking this seriously. So things are finally starting to move, about 30 years too late.

Formats need to fit your targeted audiences. There is no mass audience. There hasn’t been a mass audience for 20 years. So we can’t go on pretending that there is a mass audience. I’m engaged in a very interesting study now, together with Professor Kristoffer Holt at my university, [about] how young people aged 18 to 25 define quality news. How they define news is not how I would define it. [They define it as] the event itself: Everything that is out there is news, and journalism is reporting about the news. So there are about five billion other people reporting about the news. So that also puts us in a different situation.

Do stories that seek to find common grounds through human stories. Polarization is one of the main problems, I think, in all countries. I’m from Sweden, polarization is terrible there. I was in Finland two days ago. Same problem. I think here in Greece, the same. We see it everywhere. When it comes to climate change, we need to solve this together. So that is the common ground. And I think that is an important message when we do journalism.

Do stories that focus on the here and now, rather than what is likely to happen in the distant future. Here we see definitely an improvement. But on the other hand, it’s mostly stories about forest fires, about flooding, about disasters, where we as citizens are portrayed as victims. And we are not portraying all the heroes that are actually doing fantastic things to prevent climate change.

[That was a] crash course in climate journalism in five minutes.

Gjergji: Thank you, Lars. We talked about the storytelling, the writing, the stories. But of course, journalism is not just about reporting. There is an entire business: the production, the distribution, and the development of the stories. And there might be, there probably will be, regulation on every different sector about the acceptable amount of carbon footprint to do some activities. What do you think about [that]? How could that be an issue for small and medium news outlets [that] don’t have the resources that big media outlets have in order to adapt to this kind of regulation? How do you think the media landscape will be transformed in case this regulation [takes] place?

Tallert: That is a very important question. Also the answer to that is, once again, business and the way we report are interrelated because there will be regulation based on your carbon footprint. That is certain, especially in the EU. I will give it two or three years until all media companies are obliged to present your carbon footprint. So you need to set up a system for that.

I think the big media companies can do it. But if you look at the small media companies, the media companies that really make a change, as I see it, that will be very, very difficult. So we need to come together and do this jointly as an industry. Go to Finland and ask what they are doing because they have been working on this for several years. And a couple of weeks ago the Danish publishers also agreed, together with the advertisers, to set up a system where you account for your carbon footprint. And of course, this is very good. This is a good thing for society, but it’s also necessary because if you don’t do it, you will be out of business. So it’s not only something we should do, it’s something we have to do if we want to stay in business.

[Audience question]

Clara Jiménez Cruz: I lead a fact-checking organization in Spain, and we have a climate section that I think has done some things right and many others, clearly not. But one of the things that we’ve seen over time in Spain, which is a country that has very little interest in climate reporting, even though we have a huge climate change issue and we are very heavily affected by climate change, what we see is that there’s very little climate literacy. What we are doing from the fact-checking perspective is a lot of pre-bunking stories and explanatory articles trying to get through to people, but we often find that things are getting very technical at some level, especially when we’re talking about regulation and discussions within Parliament. I’m wondering what your two cents for that kind of situation is on how to get over it and try to attract more [of the] public?

Tallert: I wish I had a perfect answer to that, but I don’t. But my simple answer is that, yes, we need to get the facts right. But the facts are not enough, especially if we want to meet a conservative audience or the people that don’t believe in climate change or believe that climate change is not that important.

We need to tell compelling stories. We need to admit that we are not rational human beings, but the best journalism is the best compelling stories when we feel that we are being moved. When we cry. When we laugh. But if you look at 95% of climate journalism, you don’t laugh, you fall asleep. So that is the problem. We need to find really good, compelling stories.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Oct. 17, 2023, 11:04 a.m.
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