Covering Climate Change: on “Exxon: The Road Not Taken”

“Exxon: The Road Not Taken”  is a series of nine articles published from September to December of 2015 by InsideClimate News.  As described in the “About this Series” portion on the linked site, a team of writers formed this exposé from over eight months of research – no small feat of journalism considering their research “spans four decades.” It follows that the piece received 33 awards for its outstanding journalism.

From just these facts, we can deduce that the writers at InsideClimate News provided the public much-needed insight on the inner workings of Exxon through the company’s controversial climate change research and assertions from the late 1970s until today.

But let us consider the drawbacks of this type of journalism:

It’s long.  This series cannot be consumed in a single sitting; a characteristic preferred, if not required, by the 2015 general public.  Do the benefits of providing a comprehensive story on Exxon’s actions outweigh the risk of losing readers?  Was such length necessitated by the expanse of the topic?  What might the writers have done to circumvent this problem?  Could a summary article (one possible solution) adequately portray this story?

It was published serially.  Was this a result of continuing research?  Was it a device used to increase suspense?  News consumers in 2015 often happen upon articles, online or in print, as opposed to following publications over time.  Did this further reduce readership?

Looking into the future: Should more teams of writers address long-term company-specific controversies with serial journalism?  How might this form add to or detract from the climate change discussion?

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8 Responses to “Covering Climate Change: on “Exxon: The Road Not Taken””

  1. People who are interested in the topic will appreciate this type of reporting even if it entails extensive reading and dedicated following of the publications. In order to get the full story, the length might have had to be that long in order to incorporate every aspect of the story. If the journalists chose this extended method of reporting, they must have had reasoning behind it as to why it couldn’t have been summarized in an article. They wanted viewers to read it more of as a story, with a complete beginning, middle, and end as opposed to a just being another headline in the stream of news.

    Journalism does not aspire to obtain viewers, but rather communicate information necessary for the public to know. They wanted to use this method of conveying the story as opposed to more succinct way because they wanted to include a lot more details they think are relevant to understanding the topic.

    For the future, it would be advantageous to follow a prolonged type of news reporting concerning company controversies because it would be interesting to notice the changes in responses and occurrence of events that led to the final outcome. This method doesn’t distract from the climate change issue, but strengthens it considering that climate is a long-term phenomena.

  2. It can be assumed that the team of writers from InsideClimate News knew that investigating Exxon would be a large task. Conveying a story that explained the whole truth of why this company was investigating a problem that they themselves were contributing to would take more than a short article.

    I like how this series is written by a team of journalists, and you are able to hear several voices. I don’t think the writers were concerned about readership, but rather providing a thorough comprehensive story. I don’t think they would have been able to share all of their findings in the decades of Exxon research they investigated in one article.

    I think the series format adds to the ongoing conversation of climate change and the fact that it covers a side unseen before brings something new to the table. As I read through this, I wondered if the intended audience was the public or rather people that are already following this topic.

  3. I agree with @homkate. It seems like the kind of journalism that these journalists were focused on was to expose Exxon’s actions rather than retain readership. The topics they were discussing were deep and required extensive research. I do not think they could have had the amount of impact they did without the time they took. However, I do understand your point that in order to reach the more general public this kind of exposé does seem to be drawn out. There is an interesting balance between appealing to the masses with vibrant stories that are quick and understandable and thoroughly researching a topic. Maybe this is something we need to consider when we discuss climate change because it is such a large idea.

  4. I think when a research project of this size is conducted, the only way to do it justice is by writing a large and extensive project such as this one. I think this truly shows that the reporters were doing this to highlight the story and get their report out there than it was for the views, which is almost a novel thing in today’s climate of clickbaiting. For a project such as this, it is likely that the target audience may also have already been people interested in the topic, and not the general public.

    I think serial journalism could be something that may expand in the future, with people becoming more interested in specific topics and wanting to follow them more closely with a more in depth look. Although I don’t think that there will be a massive demand, it’s certainly an interesting take on a new format of internet journalism.

  5. There are many types of news articles and the ways those articles are written certainly vary from topic to topic. For this type of topic that involves many events, research, and perspectives, it is almost impossible to give a credible report without containing extensive concrete evidence. A thorough presentation does not necessarily increase the risk of losing readers since this type of article itself will have some target audience and its audience may prefer this kind of comprehensive reporting. For those who don’t care about the topic, they can choose the topic they like to read and this article will not reduce their interest.

    The research on this topic takes very long time. These journalists certainly didn’t gather and refine all the valuable information in a single period of time. Before publishing each news, they need time to digest some information and this process can be considered as a part of the continuing research.

  6. It’s always an interesting question—whether digestibility is more important than thoroughness. It depends on the audience and the purpose of the piece. This is an investigative project, and I think it’s very appropriate that it is therefore long and thorough. The authors have to communicate context, research, and impact of findings all at once. It’s not part of a constantly developing story; it’s examining a certain problem from start to finish. The purpose is not to communicate a small amount of information quickly to a large amount of people the way most news is, it’s to bring awareness and inform to as many people as possible (or are interested) a specific and focused issue.

    I like that they obviously took this into consideration by making it a 9-part series. This balances the problem and allows for feedback from the public about the research. It also makes sure the conversation continues over a long period of time rather than a one-and-done type of situation. It seems like there is an emphasis in the industry on “clicks,” how long people scroll until they navigate away, and to be constantly generating content rather than taking time to report quality stories. I think, however, that this is a problem with the way journalism is done now, and not necessarily with the way this piece was written.

  7. Although unable to fully grasp all that the series of articles offers in just one sitting, the thorough and comprehensive investigation that is presented in the series brings credibility to the narrative. Targeted at an invested audience, the series produces thought-provoking and stimulating detail that draws readers in to continue and evolve their understanding throughout the series. Because of the intensive details of the subject and story, the series of articles does justice to the complicated nature of the topic. Although there it can be tough to find the balance between including all necessary facts and information and keeping readers interested, this series of articles was able to prevent confusion and monotomy by offering alternative perspectives and aspects to highlight its importance to the readers.

    Moving forward I think this style of journalism is important and useful when dealing with extensive and influential topics, like the one presented in this series. It is important to maintain legitimacy when dealing with controversial topics, even with the risk of losing the indifferent audience. Those that are committed to the issue have the ability to learn and gain more from reading a series of detailed articles rather than a short summary.

  8. I think long form, serial journalism actually presents a very new and exciting platform for conveying the news and engaging new audiences. Look back on the first season of the podcast “Serial”, part of what made it so popular was the suspense and anticipation of each new weeks episode. Listeners were also engaged by the in depth reporting and investigation that the show was able to display with it’s drawn out format.

    Instead of costing journalists their readership, I think the serial form of reporting has the potential to pull people in to the news. I think we’re so used to immediacy and a 24 hour cycle of short news clips, that many people would be excited and attracted to a the idea of exploring a well researched, provocative topic. Many people complain about having to wait, but aren’t excitement and anticipation just a little bit fun?

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