Climate change: the topic that brings more criticism than any other to environmental journalists

Journalism is a very public profession. Journalists keep watch on government officials, shining a light on their missteps and poor decisions. In return, the work of journalists is subject to constant public criticism, as it should be. For most journalists who have reported about environmental issues over the past two decades, no topic of coverage has prompted more critical comments and complaints than climate change.

Many environmental journalists find climate change to be the most important and yet the most difficult story on our beat. Why? Here are some links that may help us formulate a response to that question.

This story from the Washington Post quotes a professor who says climate change is the hot-button political issue of the moment, like partial birth abortion was a few years ago.

This Popular Science article chronicles attacks against climate scientists, showing that journalists aren’t the only ones who are criticized for what they say about this issue.

James Powell, a scientist appointed by both Reagan and Bush to the National Science Board and current president of the Physical Science Consortium, has done a meta-analysis of almost 14,000 peer-reviewed climate articles since 1991 and found that only 24 reject the idea of human-caused climate change.

About 70 percent of Americans seem to believe that the climate is changing, according to this article from Bloomberg News. But still there’s no agreement — at least in the U.S. — on how to address the issue.

That’s why some, like journalism critic Steve Outing, are urging journalists to adopt more advocacy-oriented reporting on this issue.

Bill McKibben is a prominent organizer on behalf of action against climate change. He started learning about the issue as a journalist and book author.

How do you think journalists could do a better job covering climate change?


About emiliaaskari

Journalist, teacher, news game designer. Promoting digital literacy and content creation in the public interest.

12 Responses to “Climate change: the topic that brings more criticism than any other to environmental journalists”

  1. I think climate change is such a difficult issue to cover because it is still so controversial. Many people still believe that the science behind climate change isn’t valid or strong enough to prove anything. This makes covering the topic difficult because since journalists write for the public, they may not want to do anything to upset or put off their readers.

    When I’m reading about an issue, I often like to look up certain facts and information behind the story. I think that when covering climate change, journalists should always provide solid information to support what they, or other people are saying. This would make it easier for readers to understand everything that is going on in a story, in my opinion. Do you think that journalists have the power to sway the non-believers about climate change? Is there something they can do to make them realize there is evidence that humans are having an impact on the planet? If so, how can they do this while still attempting to remain unbiased?

  2. I agree with Jenna here. This issue is still so hotly contested after years and years of debate between experts. I think that is definitely what makes it so hard for journalists to cover. Another factor is that the American public is extremely interested in this topic, so journalists cannot simply stop writing about it since it’s been going on for a long time, but instead have to try to scrounge up new sources and new angles to come at the issue from.

    This issue can be broadened greatly. How do journalists pursue a story that already seems to be beaten to death, without beating it down even further? Obviously they can try new angles, but with such a hot topic like climate change, how many angles are there? Are journalists simply re-reporting the same news in a different fashion? I’m not sure how journalists can report on climate change better. I think that the topic itself is what is creating the difficulties for journalists. Honestly, maybe they should take a break and wait for something groundbreaking to surface that may actually change public opinion. Just my thoughts, of course, but definitely an interesting topic.

    • I agree with Adam and Jenna that the issue is still too hot of an issue to stop covering, but I thought that Steve Outing article raised some interesting points. Would climate change still be an issue if reporters completely stopped covering the story? I know that I personally do not seek out scholarly articles about global warming, rather rely on the news for the updates, so what if it just stopped being covered? Would there really be more or less acceptance of the article? Could this happen for other articles? I guess the main question are journalists the main factor for why global warming (or other similar issues) is not considered fact yet?

  3. I agree that the controversial nature of climate change makes it difficult for journalists to cover. That being said, I think it’s important for journalists report based on science, not what they think their readers want to hear. The science should inform the story. I thought Outing’s call to action article was particularly interesting.

    Do you think the “advocacy journalism” that Outing mentions in his article will alienate readers? Could it cause readers to think that journalists and the stories they are presenting are not credible and based more on opinion rather than fact? Do you think the issue (like climate change for example) makes a difference in how credible and effective advocacy journalism is/can be?

  4. I’d have to agree with my classmates: climate change still remains a controversial subject and subsequently a difficult subject for journalists to cover. However, like Kendalle, I still believe that it’s important for journalists to remain diligent to covering issues of climate change. Whether through science-based reporting, advocacy journalism or data driven journalism, journalists should seek to relay information not only about climate change, but also about the social reactions, opinions, and actions surrounding the issue of climate change.

    On that note, I thought that Tom Clynes’ article, The Battle Over Climate Change, did a wonderful job in not only highlighting the scientific advances that have proven climate change, but also argued for the exposure of climate change skeptics’ use of intimidation and scare tactics. This specific angle seeks to provide more perspective and insight to a story. In sense, I think that Clynes sought to show relations of power between scientists and skeptics, something that I believe isn’t always discussed in articles about climate change.

    Is this an effective way at covering climate change, or does it muddle the science? Is it still credible if journalists use this perspective in their reporting?

  5. Through these articles, its seems that there is an overall consensus that climate change is in fact occurring but the controversy lies within the reasoning for it. I feel like there is an overwhelming focus on the cause of global warming and people are too concerned with who is right and who is wrong. Regardless of the causes for climate change, humans can only do so much to prevent it from occurring or progressing and that is through reduction of pollutants. Even if this is a natural cycle of climate change, as many people seem to believe, we cannot control nature, but we can control the stresses that we put on it. That being said, I think that journalists should stop focusing on the debate of what is causing climate change, and rather focus on the ways that we can limit change of climate. Maybe installation of fear would be a beneficial method – showing the people the consequences of continued change.

  6. My biggest question after reading the articles for this week is why do journalists still cover or present the opinions of climate change deniers? With one article stating that roughly 70% of people believe in global warming, I think journalists don’t have to worry about alienating a large number of people.

    I also really liked Steve Outing’s article that called out journalists for their “objectivity” and listed ways for newspapers to improve their coverage of climate change. I loved the idea of holding contests to see which reader has the smallest carbon footprint or providing an online tracker for readers to see how much they contribute to pollution. I think it’s very important for journalists to get audiences involved. With an issue like climate change where it is hard for some to see its effects, small things like these can demonstrate to people the role that they play in the problem and its solution.

    Why don’t more newspapers or news sites use interactive tools like these? How effective would they be at educating the public or changing people’s habits?

  7. The graph shown in James Powell’s analysis piece really caught my attention. To visualize how many scientists believe that global climate change is partly because of human activity really put human influence into perspective. Additionally, Steve Outing’s comments about newspapers being able to do more with their opinions section also resonated with me. Objective stories tend to be bland at times. A topic like global climate change is relying on people to take action in reducing the carbon emissions they produce. People need persuading.

    How do you think journalists can put together images/graphs with their opinions to persuade the public about taking action against global climate change? Should this even be a part of a journalists job?

  8. The Bloomberg article was particularly interesting to me because of the vagueness behind polling. The article said, “in a comparison to a similar poll” and this threw me off because shouldn’t the same poll be conducted for comparing results. The poll was conducted by the University of Texas, so arguably the sample size isn’t including enough variety on top of the lack of polling question specificity. I can’t take this as is without a lot of questions in my mind. So my question for the class this week is how do poll numbers effect perception of a news story? Should it be a requirement to include the poll question in the article? What problems do readers face when determining what numbers to believe and what numbers to question? Lastly, is there a point when including too many polling statistics muddle the message of a story with such an important topic like climate change?

  9. On a personal level, I really enjoyed the piece by Outing. I thought it was very thoughtful and as he intended, inspirational. I think too often journalists and writers for the public forget or are unaware of the reach and influence their writing has. Advocacy in writing then becomes functional for an ideal. Interactive writing and formats allow to create a dialogue and actually create change, socially and environmentally. The issue of climate change may be the most conducive and appropriate topic to do this with. Because climate change advocacy requires large scale initiatives and individual behaviors are very involved, this topic, more than many others, could benefit from public display, and most of all a public forum. However with an issue so controversial, would a dialogue and discussion be counter productive because of all the conflicting opinons?

  10. One of the things that strikes me about the climate change issue is that when politicians such as Rick Perry and Michelle Bachman (referenced in the WaPo article) deny climate change, journalists don’t call them out on it. They don’t ask them hard enough follow-up questions or to prove why they don’t believe it. It’s something I’d be fascinated to hear, and I think that hearing their explanations would be a really insightful look into their real views and personality, and would better inform their constituents. Of course, journalists who might do this would be chastised for their bias. So how does a journalist — who is presumably well educated one climate change if they’re questioning a politician on it (or any hot button issue) — ask a follow-up without being accused of bias? Or do you take the risk knowing you’re making the sacrifice for a greater purpose (the public’s education)?

  11. One of the problems with this kind of reporting is that there is so much research that seems to contradict itself. There are “statistics” and studies that back up both hypothesis, either proving one theory or another. It makes it hard to report on because journalists, who usually do not have a thorough scientific knowledge base, have to rely on the research of others to analyze events and write stories. The subject seems beaten to death perhaps because most journalists who write about it don’t know the expertise to determine what’s news and what’s not. I’m not sure if there is a way for journalists to do a better job of reporting on climate change until that 70% goes up to 100%.
    My question is, how can journalists (who are trained as journalists and not as scientists who decided to start writing articles) make sure that they are doing thorough enough research when covering an issue they don’t fully understand? How can we bridge the gap between climatologists and the public so that more people “believe” in climate change thus making it an easier and less “bias” issue to report on?

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