Credit: Karsten Würth on Unsplash

2020 has been dominated by stories about covid-19. But whilst we are fixated on transmission rates, economic damage and the search for a vaccine, there are many other important topics which still require attention.

One of those is climate emergency. Just like the coronavirus pandemic, global warming is hard to cover. There are scientific studies to unpick, politicians to hold to account and audiences who become disillusioned by negative reporting.

How can we report it well? At the Asian American Journalism Association's N3Con last weekend (29 August 2020), a panel of journalists and editors gave their best advice on covering environmental issues.

Find support and resources

Newsrooms are stretched at the moment. The first step might be simply having the resources in place to get the ball moving.

Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) is a non-profit media development organisation that offers training and webinars, fellowship programs, grants, story stipends and wider support.

Content co-ordinator for EJN, Imelda Abano, said the network wants to share its experience with journalists and help news organisations’ build their capacity to report on climate change.

While EJN supports exclusively news organisations from developing countries, initiatives like the Pulitzer’s Rainforest Journalism Fund also provides crucial funding.

The human face of climate change

Climate change is a topic dictated by complex policies - if you want to get readers attention, you must not lose sight of the human angle.

Crystal Chow is a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist. After getting her Masters degree in energy and climate policy, she now investigates environmental issues.

Chow said she always looks for stories which are connected to the environment but touch on hot topics. For example, she wrote a piece about the environmental impacts of a popular South African delicacy in Asia.

Abano added that one way to give climate emergency a "human face" is through solutions journalism stories, like her piece on seaweed farming to combat global warming.

Make it relevant to readers

If climate emergency is not your publication’s specialist beat, it can be difficult to get your audiences interested.

Audrey Tan, science and environment correspondent for The Straits Times newspaper in Singapore, focuses on "ground-up efforts" to tackle environmental issues which helps the broadsheet to engage a wider audience without making people feel disillusioned.

As part of the paper's series on climate emergency, one story saw Tan learn how her readers could survive on 15 per cent of their current water usage.

"The hope is that individual action is not totally useless because it sends a signal to your government that people are willing to do more, and to companies that customers are concerned about what they buy."

Look at both the micro and macro

As well as the micro issues, reporters must also focus on the macro problems and be aware when the two blur, according to Joydeep Gupta, South Asia director of Third Pole, an environmental news website focusing on the Himalayas.

"The moment you talk about using solar and wind, you are going into macro," he explains. "Even though you are talking about putting it up on your rooftop, you are affecting the entire electricity system without realising it."

In that sense, even small efforts need to be placed carefully into a wider context.

Drill deep and look for connections

Climate emergency is complicated and has wide-reaching impacts. Chow said there were many stories to be found by drilling deep into different intersections.

For instance, it is possible to narrow in on how women are disproportionally affected because of climate-driven migration crises.

Gupta added that journalists should in many ways "forget the environmental tag" because climate emergency affects so many different field and industries.

"It's a political story, a business story, a human rights story, a diplomatic story, a health story - it's even a sports story in many cases."

Find the right experts

So you have an idea about what you want to investigate and write about. How do you know who to talk to?

The panel offered many resources, such as The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for international experts, ICIMOD for specific expertise on mountain communities and Women4Oceans for representation of women voices.

But Tan said that local scientists, in her case in Singapore, must not be excluded from the conversation. In fact, in her experience, doing this can often help make overseas contacts in other fields.

"It’s important to give scientists in our region a voice to speak up and share their views with the international community," she explains.

Avoid activism

Gupta stressed that you must be careful about having the right balance of experts, and giving all interviewees the same level of scrutiny, or otherwise risk coming across as an advocate or activist.

Interviewing activists is fine for stories but they must be cross-checked just as you would for companies or politicians.

"As an editor, I would never accept a story just because a reporter told me it was a climate change or environmental story," he says.

"For me, the news value of that story is of paramount importance. I do not want activist journalists and it’s very important to keep that line intact."

Avoid sensationalism

The best way to achieve balance is to be as neutral as possible in writing and pitching your story. Tan said you cannot go wrong with just "sticking to the science" and avoiding all use of superlatives like 'highest growth on record' unless the data backs it up.

As for pitching your story to an editor, she advised to simply show how the issue affects society or different livelihoods.

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