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Jan. 4, 2024, 9 a.m.
Reporting & Production

“Find your mango,” and 13 other things we’ve learned about how to report on climate change

Newsrooms can prepare for recurring climate events in the same way they prepare for elections or the Olympics.

This piece originally appeared at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

What could you learn if you put more than 400 journalists and editors from all across the world together over the course of nearly two years to talk about climate change?

Quite a lot.

Since the Oxford Climate Journalism Network (OCJN) kicked off in January 2022, reporters, editors, photographers and fact-checkers alike have gathered week after week, talking to fellow reporters and to science and policy experts about how to understand the ways climate change is reshaping our world.

We have published some of those early lessons already and launched a series of essays from our alumni. And if quantitative data is more your style, our second annual climate audience report was just published in November 2023.

We wanted to offer 14 ideas on how to rethink and push forward climate journalism, whatever your role.

1. Climate journalism is spreading beyond the climate desk.

When the Reuters Institute set up the OCJN, we pitched our tent beyond the traditional domains of climate teams. Everyone was welcome. In the past two years, journalists from all parts of the newsroom have accepted our call, both reflecting and expanding the evolving nature of climate journalism.

We do have climate-focused journalists joining our cohorts, from Bloomberg Green managing editor Sharon Chen to Phil Watanabe, an environment reporter at Folha de S. Paulo. But we’ve also had the likes of Taimas Szirniks, transport correspondent at AFP, Giulia Sadelli, political correspondent at Deutsche Welle, and Agatha Gichana, a reporter covering gender at Nation. We’ve had photojournalists, heads of news and political editors, sports reporters, and TV presenters. The scope of climate journalism is truly growing beyond its usual silos.

2. Yet climate teams still remain an anchor in many newsrooms.

We have found that the most successful organizations are those that broaden the tent, but keep it grounded with fully trained climate reporters in the newsroom. Szirniks works within the top-tier AFP’s Planet Hub and Gichana counts the Nation’s climate editor and reporters as her colleagues.

Climate reporting often includes complicated carbon accounting filling corporate reports, intricate UN negotiations, and hard physical science. And when business editors or sports producers report on complex climate stories, they often fall back on the expertise of specialists.

Some of them are veterans, like alumni David Fogarty at The Straits Times or Zia Wiese at Politico Europe. And we’re thrilled to also see OCJN alumni in new climate-related leadership such as Oluwatosin Omoniyi, the new climate editor at Premium Times, and Jill English, the first international climate producer at the CBC.

This combination of steady hands and fresh blood allows climate desks to move beyond their siloed past into a strategic position within newsrooms, combining expertise with collaboration.

3. Climate journalism is, above everything else, a team sport.

The combination of newcomers and specialists makes climate reporting a collective endeavor. Collaborations are easy wins: a veteran of 10 UN climate conferences might struggle to understand corporate filings or housing policies, but other reporters in the newsroom will.

Most news organizations have people doing climate reporting, even without a dedicated team. Health reporters, agriculture reporters, or journalists on beats like energy, breaking news or local news often are regularly covering climate already. OCJN members are leading the way articulating this: a good example is Catalonian newspaper Ara, where alumna Sònia Sánchez and social issues editor and climate expert Elena Freixa teamed up with other colleagues to create a climate hub within the newsroom.

4. Meteorologists have played a starring role.

In many newsrooms, broadcasters, weather presenters, and meteorologists are crucial climate communicators. Alumni like the BBC’s lead weather presenter Ben Rich have used the science of climate attribution to help explain to audiences when and how scientists can link extreme weather to climate change.

Weather presenters aren’t just good climate communicators. They often have a science background and a good relationship with audiences, who are used to seeing them everyday on TV. We have seen this repeated across the world, from meteorologist and reporter Seigonie Mohammed at Trinidad and Tobago’s CCN TV6, to Carl Parker at the Weather Channel in the United States, to meteorologist Anne Borgström at YLE in Finland.

5. In case of an extreme weather event, turn to an OCJN journalist.

Until recently, editors and reporters had to wait months, even years, after a hurricane or drought to answer a simple question: Was it made more likely or stronger by climate change? With the development of the field of attribution science, led by Dr Friederike Otto and the World Weather Attribution team, the wait is now often days.

The topic is still tricky. Before each one of our cohorts starts, we ask our members how confident they feel reporting on 17 different topics, from the concept of net zero to how UN negotiations work. Unsurprisingly, extreme weather attribution regularly ranks near the bottom.

Following our course and our keynote seminar with Otto, this changes significantly. In our recent post-course survey earlier this year, members reported a massive jump in self-confidence when reporting on this topic. They are now more comfortable talking about it than about their country’s unemployment data or healthcare system, two topics we also track as unofficial “control” groups.

You can see this in coverage across the world, as our members regularly publish stories following her seminar: Emilia Delfino published a quick turnaround piece about climate change-driven drought in South America for elDiario.ar, Tosin Omoniyi wrote an overview of the field for Nigeria’s Premium Times, and Janine Peralta covered the topic for CNN Philippines.

6. Newsrooms can prepare for recurring climate events in the same way they prepare for elections or the Olympics.

In much of the world, fire “season” is becoming a seasonal fixture of national coverage, lasting for months and testing the endurance of journalists on the ground. Same goes for drought, flood or hurricane season: We know it’s coming.

This year, in a closed session with Australian and Canadian journalists to compare notes on fire coverage, one conclusion emerged: You can now plan out what your newsroom should expect before, during, and after covering fires.

The same can be said for extreme heat. Journalists often say they’re caught short looking for images to accompany stories about the dangerous health risks of extreme heat that aren’t just photos of people having fun on the beach. But after a session with our speaker Dr. Saffron O’Neill, members said that news outlets and photo agencies can and should think ahead of time about how they photograph the risks of hot weather.

7. To make climate change less abstract, “find your mango.”

Egyptian editor Suzy Elgeneidy, from our second cohort, pushed OCJN members to consider what topics hit close to home with their audiences. It began as a discussion about Egyptian mangoes and why the fruit wasn’t as tasty as the year before. We all started sharing what the “mango” was in our respective countries: that beloved food or activity that everyone in your country or region seems to care about, and seems to capture attention when impacted by climate change.

In Costa Rica, it was coffee. For South Africa it had to be wine, said News24’s Lameez Omarjee. And in Singapore and Malaysia, try the durian, said Business Times ESG correspondent Wong Pei Ting. Every semester, we keep asking members the question: What is your “mango”?

Going beyond food, the best way to write a climate story is to focus on everything else that we care about: healthenergy billseducationconflict and securityworkers’ rights, and religion. It all connects back to what Omarjee argues in her essay: Journalists have to connect climate change to what audiences care about.

8. Culture and sports are crucial tools to talk about climate change.

We know that climate change is impacting sports and culture: dictating when and where athletes can train for sporting events, and recently turning a Taylor Swift concert in Brazil into a deadly event for young fans. Yet we don’t see much coverage that connects the dots.

In the past two years, we have run sessions highlighting that connection and have members now make the link. Climate and culture reporter Greg Cochrane (now part of the OCJN team) gave a hugely popular workshop on how climate change is reshaping music festivals. Lou Albano, alumni and lifestyle editor at GMA News in the Philippines, also started integrating climate into lifestyle and arts coverage, including an interview with the Filipino who became the first climate change curator at a British museum.

Our members are also leading the way in connecting climate and sports: From TV reporter Hilary Christelle Tolo Kpadonou in Benin to producer Chris Clark in the United States. We only expect this to grow in coming years.

9. Embracing the “climate paragraph” as a key tool for climate journalism.

In stories beyond the traditional domain of the climate desk, climate journalism doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing subject. Many of our members have threaded climate context through their regular beats or stories by favoring “climate paragraphs” when a full climate story might not work.

Covering floods or drought? Why not add a section on the link between extreme weather and climate change? Following a politician in a campaign? Make sure to add the relevant context to their pledges.

This can also be business news coverage of the palm oil business in Malaysia, or reporting on scandals over a state energy provider. It might add extra nuance to stories on the knock-on impacts of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, or the transformation of the German car industry. Or it may be part of a political battle over water use in the Spanish agriculture sector.

About half of our members aren’t climate, science, or environment-focused journalists. Often their editors won’t take a climate story every week. But using this tool helps them integrate context that helps explain their beats and inform their work, but not always the topline subject.

10. Magic happens when newsroom leaders are involved.

Most of these points are within the reach of individual reporters, but we’ve found that real change in newsrooms must also come from the top. Senior newsroom leaders must be fully engaged in the creation of climate strategies, or journalists can end up hitting a wall when it’s time for a climate story to break onto the homepage or top of the news bulletin.

In our cohorts, we have seen the value of having fully engaged senior editors. The experiences of people like VoxEurop editor-in-chief Gian Paolo Accardo and the managing editor at Fiji Sun, Rosi Doviverata, have added depth to our discussions.

But we’ve also seen the value of connecting senior editors in our newsroom leadership programs, in which we invite leaders from media organizations around the world for a two-day course with our team. To build collaboration, we have often invited editors who lead different teams — say, a business editor and a climate editor.

11. Great climate stories are often about scrutinizing power.

So many great climate stories around the world focus on the big themes at the heart of good journalism: Power, money, and bad behavior.

Over the past two years, as climate action has become more central to economies and political debate, we have seen some newsrooms strengthen their climate investigations and fact-checking teams. OCJN members and alumni have produced many of these meaty stories: Deep-dive investigations about illegal logging in Cameroon, coal projects in Cambodia, how collagen products are fueling deforestation in the Amazon, and how green finance sometimes funds deforestation.

12. But great climate stories are also about “people doing things.”

One of our most popular seminars is on climate and psychology, with Dr. Kris de Meyer, a neuroscientist at UCL’s Climate Action Unit in London. Dr. de Meyer shows how behavioral psychology explains why a lot of climate coverage seems hard to stomach: how fear and guilt tend to cause audiences to freeze, dig in their heels, or look away.

He argues that the only way people change is by seeing others change, and so “agency” should be at the heart of climate communication.

Many journalists don’t see their role as making people change. But this idea of “agency” really goes back to the basics of storytelling: we all agree that the most engaging climate coverage tends to feature “people doing things,” even if the outcome is far from uplifting, let alone fluffy.

Many of our members have used these ideas in their coverage, including Philip Bromwell at RTÉ for the Climate Heroes series, and Yarden Michaeli at Haaretz, who used these ideas to help shape a feature about the UN Heat Officer.

13. Covering climate change requires mental health support.

When we talk about trauma in journalism, we are still often talking about war or conflict reporting, or sometimes reporting on disasters.

But we know from the last two years that journalists who are working on climate stories, whatever their role, are often struggling with the mental impact.

Some have covered traumatic weather events such as droughts in northern Kenya or wildfires in Brazil, where lives and livelihoods have been destroyed. Or they are struggling to feel hopeful after covering another year of record-breaking heat, as climate change struggles to gain attention amid yet another conflict.

Often, journalists are simply struggling with climate anxiety — just as audiences say they are. OCJN has hosted sessions with Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist who specializes in journalists and trauma, and with The Self-Investigation, a group that helps journalists cope with burnout. Discussions about the mental toll of covering climate change now appear through our whole program. Giving journalists a community that understands them, and acknowledging that this anxiety is common, can often help.

14. Great climate journalism is contagious.

After just one cohort, we realized how helpful having a community could be for journalists, both long-time climate expects and those merely interested in the topic.

But members also gain inspiration from each other. After a workshop on covering climate and oceans — led by members Jennifer Verma, in Canada, and Kweku Afedzi, in Ghana — a business reporter in Mauritius, Alexandre Karghoo, was inspired to write a story about overfishing in the Indian Ocean.

In Uruguay, Miguel Dobrich, founder of Amenaza Roboto, and his colleagues were inspired by his time in the OCJN to produce an award-winning data investigation into how climate change will reshape Montevideo.

These connections are key to how our Network continues to develop. Story ideas cross-germinate and often reappear in very different countries, showing just how many climate themes are universal.

Research from the Institute on climate coverage and audiences has shown a clear link between following climate news and being informed, as well as a belief that the media have a strong influence on climate policy across health systems, business, and governments. Our audiences need this information, and two years of the OCJN has given us hope for the future, that there are increasingly clear lessons on how to do this job well.

Diego Arguedas Ortiz is associate director of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford. Katherine Dunn is content editor of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network.

“Mango Season” by Gary J. Wood being used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 4, 2024, 9 a.m.
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