Media organisations have an 'ethical' duty to inspire and mobilise readers to take action on climate, according to a new report by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).
The 'Climate Journalism That Works: between knowledge and impact' paper is a qualitative study with 40 news leaders, researchers and experts around the world. Its key question is: how should climate change coverage be managed?
It suggests that the goal of climate journalism should be nothing less than helping to fulfil the Paris Agreement created in 2015. This legally binding treaty was adopted by 196 parties who set out to limit global warming to 1.5°C and for greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest and decline 43 per cent by 2030.
The media's role in all of this is to inspire everyone to do their part, from key stakeholders to individual readers, without compromising journalistic values. Doing so will result in more effective audience engagement and healthier business models, the report claims.
It points to the pandemic as a period where trust towards the media increased as people appreciated the value of journalism during the crisis. This was a time when the media prioritised clear explanations and updates about the latest guidelines, and tough grilling of elected officials to ensure their decisions had public scrutiny.
Climate journalism should be no different. The media industry has come a long way since days of denying climate change, prompted by its heightened prominence in the political agenda.
The report says the media must now concentrate on being educators and translators of complex science, and communicators between the elected and electorate on decision-making. And while the vehicles and methods of journalism might change, the media must remain watchdogs of those in power.
Climate has traditionally fallen to the back burner in the news agenda due to time pressure and limited expertise. That is not to mention the complexity, negativity and slow pace of progress leaving newsroom staff and audiences drained.
There can be a temptation for newsrooms to dramatise climate reporting because of the lack of apparent or visible progress. It has also become something for the climate desk to cover - many organisations think they are doing a good job because they are stepping up climate journalism or because they have climate teams and strategies.
However, climate reporting must shift from a beat to the background in any news story, says Wolfgang Blau, co-founder of Oxford Climate Journalism Network, in the report.
"Climate desks are important, but they carry the risk of creating a new silo in the newsroom. There is not a single area of journalism that will not be transformed either directly by climate impacts or by humanity’s efforts to mitigate climate change or adapt to it."
There are some innovative ideas about how to reimagine climate journalism, make it more widely accessible for the masses, and leave users with practical insights and actionable takeaways. Good examples include the Financial Times' Climate Game or RTEs climate dashboard. Deutsche Welle (DW) has also been targetting young audiences through climate videos on TikTok and YouTube.
DW's editor-in-chief Manuela Kasper-Claridge says this is also a way to attract younger talent who constantly yearn for purpose and impact in their work.
"When people apply for a job at DW, they often quote our environmental coverage as the reason why they chose us. We have trainees from all parts of the world," she says in the report.
"Climate journalism is definitely a way to attract talent. People keep telling me: If an organisation produces something like that, I want to work there."
TikTok journalist and senior news reporter for VICE Media, Sophia Smith-Galer, extensively covered COP26 on the platform, notably calling out sponsors guilty of greenwashing. She continues to use the platform for hard-hitting climate journalism, like polluted Italian beaches.
"The kind of journalism I do emphasises wrongdoing, holding power to account. This is different to previous roles I held. In my personal TikToks I tend to focus on solutions journalism," she says in the report.
Climate journalism with a solutions lens - by virtue of taking a longer-term and deeper view on the topic - will force a newsroom to pivot from pursuing clicks to facts. The price of doing this reporting is that it will likely ruffle the feathers of audiences who do not want to be challenged on their own behaviours or powerful forces confronted on policy reform.
Investing in sustainability journalism can also lead to more sustainable business models. It encourages strong local community ties, and if news organisations can lean on that, they offer practical value "in a world of global noise."