Not too long ago, I had the chance to see Interstellar in theaters. The movie is set years into the future and Earth is on its last legs of being able to provide for mankind. While the plot focuses on the search for a new sustainable planet, it’s the story line on earth that I found so notable, especially the subtle notation that the population was vastly smaller as a result of global devastation. Even in the time line the audience sees, the movie raises terrifying realities of an unsustainable earth such as famine and illnesses. I bring up the movie because I left the theater somewhat jealous of the film industry. What fun it must be to take creative freedom over the end of the world and turn it into a Hollywood blockbuster.
Unfortunately though, the role for journalists is far more complicated and challenging when it comes to reporting on environmental issues, and even more so when it comes climate change. While it’s not a simple task, now is not the time for mediocre coverage or reporting. From the industry as a whole, to each individual story written, we must do a better to help educate the public so they can be informed when it comes to the legislation of public policies.
First, media corporations must accept that climate change is real and is worth covering in a fair and accurate way. One of the biggest ways media outlets are hurting the conversation is by systemically annihilating it from their coverage (or trying to discredit the science). Regardless of any corporate sponsors, or of any negative feedback the network may get from viewers- the coverage still needs to happen. I understand that it’s easy to weigh the breaking news of now against the events climate change could bring tomorrow. However, the fact of the matter is that the more organizations put off coverage, the more the public will: a) not be informed, period; and b) not recognize the urgency of addressing this issue before it exponentially gets out of hand.
This means giving reporters the resources needed to cover climate change thoroughly. There is no reason why any credible organization shouldn’t have an environmental beat at the top of their web page. As Eric Pooley, author and journalist, stated “ideally, a climate policy team would include an environmental science reporter, an energy/business reporter, and a political reporter. The science reporter typically understands the climate threat but not the economic costs or the political barriers that block passage of legislation.” If reporters were given the resources needed to cover the issue in depth, the network wouldn’t be disappointed since the return would be a topic dissected from 360 degrees rather than the topical shallowness of daily reporting from one angle.
The biggest problem for networks (and reporters) is to stop treating it as a partisan issue, since doing so is as as toxic to the conversation as perpetuating misinformation. It only takes a few seconds to look at public opinion polls to see the biggest divide about believing in climate change is along party lines. Once media organizations stop allowing the subject be linked to Conservatives or Liberals, it allows the conversation to move beyond petty labels the true issue at heart: how are we going to save our planet? Instead of using politicians to emotionally charge the conversation, simply use other sources. Scientists can weigh in and explain whether or not specific legislation is what we need environmentally, economists can examine the cost, and working class people could be used as sources since the legislation will affect them directly.
Which leads me to our responsibility as reporters. We need to be conscious of how we are framing our stories. Good framing starts with good sources. 97% of scientists who take a stand on climate change say that it happening and mankind is the driving factor behind it. With that being said, why are reporters giving any validity to the three percent that say otherwise? If, for some reason, you must give any real estate in your story to one of these people, be sure to give the readers context about who this person is. Are they qualified to be giving an opinion? Who is funding their research? Do their statements even hold up against the science? Does featuring these people add to the conversation, or do they detract? A good report realizes that being objective and balance are not the same things, which means the source are given the weight and validity that they deserve (or don’t.)
Be sure to write your story well. I know that sounds like common sense, but it is pertinent to publish stories that are understandable, and with an issue as complex as climate change, it can be a challenge. Give as much context and background information as possible. From weather systems to ice caps, there is so much to comprehend. On the best ways to help people understand is by giving them supplemental media. NASA has an entire section devoted to educating people on climate change. Along with articles, they have videos, photos of climate change in action, and an interactive “Climate Time Machine.” The Guardian has a data set to see how hot it’s projected to get in your lifetime. Using supplemental media helps people conceptualize the information better.
Another reason why using data is useful, beyond explaining the topic better, is that it gets people involved. In the online game My 2050, players use sliders to cut carbon emissions back in the United Kingdom by using choices that range from affecting their home to their country. It’s a way to get people thinking about the solutions, and how the decisions we have to make today are going to affect our lives tomorrow (rather than some generation down the road). While we might not have the answer to Pooley’s question “how does one put a price on rising sea levels, flooded coastal cities, mass extinction of species, widespread drought, famine, and the forced migration of millions of climate refugees?” We could still try to answer it. National Geographic created a map to show potential locations where climate change could affect. But what if we took that map further and could speculate damages? Would we be so far from the truth to show people what it would cost to relocate an entire city, after damages, and inflation? I would suspect it would be a powerful image. Possibly what would be needed to increase awareness of the issue.
Like so many people out there, I don’t want to be known as part of the generation who did nothing and let it go to hell in a hand-basket. So while, my little blog post is definitely not the be all and end all to what we could be doing better as reporters, one thing is sure, and that is it’s time we step up or shut up.