Should journalists become climate change campaigners?

Global warming is a threat, but subject matter and lack of regular climatic events makes covering it a challenge

By Ed King

Should journalists campaign on climate change?

That was the provocative title of a debate held in London last week, hosted by Jon Snow, anchor of the UK Channel 4 news, and a purveyor of colourful socks and ties.

I say provocative because journalists are not – typically – expected to be campaigners.

It’s our job to report the news in an accurate, fair and engaging fashion. This is especially important in a time where, with a Twitter account, anyone can start or become a story.

Take this weekend, when the death of legendary 1980s children’s artist Tony Hart went viral on social media. Six years after he died.

Impartiality means not taking sides in a debate, but it’s equally important to offer a sense of what the arguments are.

So how to balance that when covering climate change, at times a politically toxic issue with well organised lobby groups pushing contrasting views?

The views from the panel were an intriguing mix. Here’s Tom Chivers, one-time Daily Telegraph hack now working for Buzzfeed.

“The word campaigning is a tricky one. This is a complex and difficult subject. You yourself are not an expert but you’re taking the words of experts and in a complex subject… and full of uncertainty. And with climate change you’re talking about something which has the added problems of an existential threat to humanity.”

Chivers made the point – and it’s one I agree with – that if you firmly “nail your colours” to one side of the debate, you end up demanding a form of “ideological purity” – excluding others with slightly contrasting views.

Tom Clarke, science editor at Channel 4 news and one time entomologist, argued that the mere selection of a story could be seen as campaigning.

Why, he suggested, run a news item on the melting of the Greenland ice caps when there are other – equally compelling – science stories to focus on?

He also explained why it can be tricky for mainstream news organisations to focus on – outside major events like the IPCC climate science report, or UN negotiations.

“It is the greatest threat facing humanity – I think you could look at it that way – it’s a big story. Yet because it hasn’t changed much in the past 10 years, there’s not much new to say about it. That’s one of the challenges I face as a news reporter.”

In depth coverage of the UN climate talks would be a challenge to sell to a wider audience, Clarke said, given they move so slowly.

Chivers, for good measure, added: “It’s not a sexy story.” (James Murray at BusinessGreen does his best to set him straight here).

These – I would say – are mainstream views of how a journalist should operate. Present the facts and let the audience make up their own minds.

Fence sitting

At the same time, everything can be seen through the lens in some way as an opinion or a campaign.

Here’s Guardian columnist Zoe Williams:

“Professional neutrality is pandering to the status quo. If you let that stand for journalism you’re making a much bigger ideological mistake.”

She added that different traditions in the media have their own notions of what is pure and what is respectable.

Everything in some way is political. Whether you’re inside or outside the tent depends on – yes, obviously – who owns the tent.

And then there’s Jon Snow – an institution on UK TV sets in the same way John Stewart is or Dan Rather was in the US – and a man not without his critics, who usually say he’s left wing.

He entered journalism as a career because he wanted to change the world – in some small way – he said.

And he revealed the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen was the “most distressing political event” he had covered, citing the weak agreement and explosion of climate scepticism.

Judgement call

So what’s a journalist to do?

This is an incredibly tough issue to grasp precisely because the stakes are so high, not just for the world but also the economic growth of nearly 200 countries.

If scientists are right, then the world has around 30 years of business as usual emissions before long term warming of above 2C is locked into the system.

Then it’s likely to be a case of how high is your seawall.

Does that mean that journalists should be writing about climate change every day? And does that mean they should “campaign” for climate action?

At RTCC, we are not climate scientists, and that means we make a judgement on who to trust.

On balance, I’m happy to take advice from my doctor when I’m not well.

Equally, as editor, I’m reasonably happy to take the advice of the major scientific bodies who say climate change is a real and present danger.

I think the best value we can offer is to cover the global climate talks in as impartial and accurate way as possible.

We’re approached by green groups and climate justice campaigners on a weekly basis, offering a perspective of the global negotiations or pushing their clean energy agendas.

It’s not our job to campaign for them, or to push their perspective. That frequently irritates some NGOs, who assume we’re part of the same team.

But we can – and we should – write about these developments as they are of interest to our readers.

Declining trust

At the core of this debate is trust. It’s a sad fact that – according to a 2014 poll on YouGov – over half of British people now trust Wikipedia more than journalists.

In the US it’s worse. A 2009 paper for the Pew Research Center revealed only 29% of Americans believe news organisations report in an accurate fashion.

Another report in 2009 from the same organisation said that 76% of scientists believed journalists “fail to distinguish between findings that are well-founded and those that are not”.

These are damning statistics, and a warning for media organisations who – deliberately or otherwise – deceive their readers.

In a week when the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator quit the paper, accusing it of a “form of fraud on readers” by not covering a banking scandal, questions over journalism and journalists will only grow.

I would add to that and say that routinely ignoring the potential impacts of climate change is failing the audience.

Falling oil prices, Russia’s aggressive diplomacy, Boko Haram and the collapse of order in the Sahel all have climate change spin-offs that are increasingly relevant to people around the globe.

Hell – there’s even a link between climate change and Disney’s Frozen. Anyone with a young daughter can look away now.

This doesn’t mean media organisations have to don their hemp shirts and hand out carrots to all correspondents.

But it should – increasingly – mean that editorial teams ensure they are aware of what climate risk entails, and think about it when writing, tweeting, or broadcasting.

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