When Neela Banerjee and her colleagues at InsideClimate News set out to report on Exxon’s knowledge of the dangers of burning fossil fuels, they began with a question: “What did large fossil fuel companies know about climate change, and when did they know it?” That inquiry grew into a 2015 exposé that prompted states and cities to sue fossil fuel companies for their knowing role in causing climate change. Journalists around the world began digging into similar questions about how much other fossil fuel companies knew about the havoc they were wreaking.
“All of those articles taken together have changed our understanding of the responsibility that fossil fuel companies bear for climate change,” Banerjee said, recalling the investigative series during last week’s KSJ Science Editing webinar, “Covering Climate Change and the Environment.” The anecdote underscored a recurring theme of the 90-minute session: That climate journalists have an opportunity — and a responsibility — to speak truth to power.
Banerjee was joined at the event by Fenwick Montaigne, a senior editor at Yale Environment 360, and Lyndsey Gilpin, founder and editor-in-chief of the award-winning magazine, Southerly. Hosted by Joshua Hatch, co-editor of the Knight Science Journalism Science Editing Handbook, the webinar provided an illuminating crash course in climate reporting. (A recording of the event is available here.)
Montaigne kicked off the session with a recap of the state of climate-related science. He reminded the audience that the science on the climate crisis is settled. As such, he encouraged journalists to disregard skeptics, unless the skepticism is part of the point, as it is in stories about climate-change-denying politicians or articles describing public opinion in the US, for example. Otherwise, he said, there’s no reason to give airtime or credibility to deniers.
Montaigne also emphasized the importance of covering local climate stories, politicians, and the private sector, focusing on how climate change affects people, and situating stories within the context of global changes and the unprecedented rate at which these changes are occurring. He cautioned against sensationalizing developments in climate research. Being straightforward is imperative, he said, as he advised against putting too much weight on any one new study.
It’s important not to exaggerate promising developments in technology, either, Montaigne said.
This last statement came with another note, though: the climate beat is a bleak one right now, and it’s helpful to cover solutions in a responsible and measured way. “Keep hope and keep the faith,” he said, “because it is, right now, a pretty grim story.”
“Keep asking questions of the powerful people and institutions in your communities that are responsible for cutting emissions and keeping us safe from climate change.”
During her presentation, Banerjee focused on investigative climate journalism. She talked about finding stories and using journalism to hold those in power accountable. “The best stories are just lying in plain sight,” she said, adding that “the most interesting questions about climate change have to do with accountability.” Banerjee defined accountability, insofar as it relates to the climate crisis, as “the gap between what scientists and independent experts recommend we do to reduce emissions or adapt to climate change, and what politicians, government agencies, and corporations are actually doing.” Right now, she said, that gap is enormous. “Keep asking questions of the powerful people and institutions in your communities that are responsible for cutting emissions and keeping us safe from climate change,” she urged.
The last presentation of the event came from Gilpin, who spoke about the importance of taking a collaborative and intersectional approach to climate and environmental reporting. “A climate story is about power and equity and justice and race and class and gender and healthcare,” she said. “We have to give context to what other systems are at play that cause a certain population to be affected by a storm …. We have to talk on race and class in all of those ways.”
Gilpin also had a suggestion for getting people to care about climate change: Write place-based stories that meet people where they are; connecting the changes someone sees in their own surroundings to the effects of climate change can help people acknowledge and begin to understand the issues. Find out what people are observing in their communities and build partnerships with people who are familiar with local issues, Gilpin suggested. “People are experts of their own lives.” Whether or not they are able to talk about climate change or environmental policy, she explained, they are aware of changes affecting their communities. Gilpin argued that journalists need to make a concerted effort to include local people in the process of finding and telling climate stories about their communities. “More listening on that front can lead to better stories that are really serving the population that you’re trying to reach,” she said.
Climate change is real, but current policy isn’t proportional to the magnitude of the threat we’re facing, the panelists argued. And climate journalists can hold people in power — from politicians to polluters — accountable for protecting the public through investigations and consistent coverage. Another takeaway message: By telling stories at a local level and listening to community members, climate journalists can reach a wider audience and capture the urgency of the global changes that are unfolding in communities around the world.
Anna Blaustein is a research associate with the Knight Science Journalism Program and a student in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing. You can read more of her work at annablaustein.com and find her on Twitter @annablaustein.