Climate Change: The “Story” of our time

(THIS IS AN ACADEMIC PAPER, NOT A JOURNALISTIC REPORT)

An NBC News correspondent once told me Covid-19 is the story of the year, but climate change is the story of our time. Journalists across all mediums use the word “story” as a synonym for report. Although this may sound like semantics, the distinction between report and story can be quite profound, especially when it comes to climate change coverage. Scientists and journalists have been attempting to communicate the harrowing facts surrounding climate change since the 1980s. They’ve had substantive knowledge, but “coverage by climate journalists has never spurred a comprehensive social response, nor has it reshaped journalism itself.” All too often, journalists lead climate-related reporting with statistics, scientific jargon or the latest environmental regulation news from the White House. For many news consumers, however, facts alone do not constitute an engaging enough report to inspire empathy or action. What, then, is the missing ingredient? According to Pulitzer Prize-winning climate reporter Dan Fagin, “people don’t believe in figures, data and graphics. You need more to get their full attention and make them understand you. You need to create a story.” By immersing readers, listeners, or viewers in a poignant climate change story — not merely a report — journalists are capitalizing on an opportunity to reshape what is considered good or meaningful journalism. More importantly, they are educating and engaging audiences on a topic that requires imminent action.

Climate change stories innately have all the makings of just that — a good story, one that just happens to be entirely truthful. If a journalist scratches just below the surface of a climate change incident, they will find characters, conflict after conflict, and an abundance of mystery. In fact, mystery is the perfect place to start in regards to climate reporting. Why are fire seasons getting deadlier and deadlier? What can be done to solve this pressing problem? Journalists should approach those questions via story. They can provide audiences with all the necessary information and use characters who are impacted by said deadly wildfires to capture attention and inspire reactions. Despite, however, this recipe for a rich story, coverage of climate change is no guarantee. A study from Media Matters for America says climate change coverage on the major networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox — fell by 45 percent between 2017 and 2018. This should be a wakeup call for journalists across all mediums. The climate-story nexus offers journalists a prime opportunity to engage and motivate audiences. 

Giving climate change more air time and a larger word count is an excellent start, but it’s not enough. Infusing climate coverage with narrative is the key to success. Journalists don’t need to look for never-before-seen climate stories from the deepest depths of oceans or highest peaks of mountains. They merely need to tell affecting, well-narrated stories of the people, places and things impacted by climate change in their communities and beyond. 

As previously mentioned, climate change stories lend themselves well to this noble mission of journalistic storytelling. Journalists need only to positively exploit these riches. Storytelling techniques, including imagery and character development, are completely accessible for environmental journalists. Climate stories, more often than not, have a visceral hook. Print journalists should take the few extra moments to vividly describe the scene, drawing audiences in and giving them a sense of place. By taking the time to describe the haunting scene of an ash-covered Golden Gate Bridge, illuminated by a blood orange sky, the journalist intrigues the audience and forces them to care. This tactic can be employed with anything noteworthy or sensory a reporter has seen in the field, from tidal waves reaching rooftops to people bathing in shallow, grimy water. That first image catalyzes the story, and serves as an access point for audiences. Embedding several images or moments of a visceral nature into the story can keep the audience engaged and make a reporter feel less aloof. The reporter can use those images as touchstones and infuse them with facts. It is, afterall, a journalist’s responsibility to communicate accurate and timely information. But there is no rulebook that claims said information cannot be conveyed creatively in the best interest of the audience.

One excellent example of a climate story comes from the New York Times. In an article about India’s “ominous water future,” reporters gracefully pepper their story with images that erupt in the audience member’s mind. The story is presented through a magnificent multi-media display of high-quality images, but if it were stripped of those pictures, the story would have the same earnest impact on its readers because of its illustrative imagery.“In Chennai, where kitchen taps have been dry for months, women sprint downstairs with neon plastic pots under their arms when they hear a water truck screech to a halt on their block.” Most readers probably have never visited Chennai, or could even locate the coastal city on a map. However, this moving image offers them a crucial glimpse into the struggle of daily Chennain life, and says a lot more than a basic description about the city could. This story also masterfully blends hard facts — including, notably, numbers — into the narrative. “The rains are more erratic today. There’s no telling when they might start, nor how late they might stay. This year, India experienced its wettest September in a century; more than 1,600 people were killed by floods.” The imagery and mystery offered in the first half of this quote make the second half all the more hard-hitting. Furthermore, readers already care about the drastic rainfall because they’ve been introduced to characters (farmers, mothers and children) who are impacted by the extreme climate events.  

Thoughtful, organic writing also translates seamlessly from proper storytelling to climate journalism imbued with journalism. Just like oral storytellers, journalists should have a powerful first and last line, so they hook the audience and leave them on a thought-provoking note. Efficacy in writing can complement descriptive (yet unbiased) language. 

Scott Pelley acutely and keenly writes and broadcasts about climate change in a story-charged 60 Minutes story from 2019. Although journalists often feel compelled to remove themselves from the story, Pelley takes us on a narrative journey of discovery alongside him. Climate change is, after all, a story that is personal to each of us. He sits in the classic 60 Minutes chair, leaning forward, engaging the audience with the facts and narrative tendencies that make this story stand-out. He writes masterfully, with a storytelling tone: “our trip took three days, and our final leg in an adventure of geoscience.” He has a propensity for power words, like “gutted,” which keep the audience utterly engaged. Finally, he champions mystery, slowly revealing facts and plot points in a story structure that embraces curiosity. His main character, a quirky Siberian scientist, is himself a mystery, although Pelley’s skillful writing reveals who this man is and why the climate work he’s conducting is high-stakes.  

Perhaps the most germane storytelling technique in journalism comes in the form of characters. The best journalists have sources and characters. Sources provide the critical, official information, while characters put a human (or, in the case of climate change, animal) face to the story, making it resonate with readers or listeners. Interesting, reliable characters –according to the American Press Institute — are one of the basic tenets of good reporting. “When interviewing someone, give them the opportunity to reveal something about themselves and their character.” In climate coverage and all other journalism, character separates an insightful story from a superficial report. 

Story in journalism is not a nebulous, revolutionary idea. Many journalists, commendably, consider storytelling the primary function of their job. Transitioning more wholeheartedly into a storytelling approach for climate reporters would take some buy-in from news corporations and editors. There is a historical precedent that proves story is useful in composing the first draft of history, especially in times of crisis. When Walter Cronkite was reporting on the Vietnam War, he did not sit in front of the camera and rattle off numbers for the people at home. Just like climate change, the facts alone should have been enough to incite action and enrage the American people, but they ultimately were not. Although reporters had been reporting daily death counts, the American people were largely idle. Cronkite aptly used his airtime to tell vivid stories of the atrocities he witnessed in Vietnam. This stirred the public. He used vivid, powerful language and took the audience on a journey with him. The stories were inherently personal, because he had been on the ground reporting. He was a trustworthy, beloved character, but his narrative was hardly about him. His truthful, entirely accurate stories — 30 minutes worth — of Saigon in rubble shaped public opinion. In another parallel, there was often conflicting information (and misinformation) coming from the highest echelons of American government during the Vietnam War, so journalists had a heightened role. Journalists should learn from Cronkite’s great public service and adapt similar strategies for climate reporting.  

Climate change discourse is plagued by misinformation, which journalists are constantly combating. When journalists rely too heavily on numbers and lack context, they run the very real risk of feeding the climate-denying frenzy, and there’s very little chance they will get the people who most severely need the information to engage critically. If a journalist employs story, however, they might reach a broader audience. Journalists who embrace the mystery facet of climate narratives, especially, can teach a valuable lesson, without immediately losing credibility amongst those who hold false and troublesome beliefs. Journalists, for the sanctity of their jobs, should leave political convictions at the door, and lean heavily on the side of climate stories that strike a human chord. “If you talk to someone who denies the human impact on climate change and you give them a lot of information about this topic, they will use that same information to reinforce their beliefs,” said Dan Fagin, the Pulitzer Prize-winner. With an enterprising story, however, reporters have the potential to achieve a different outcome. This method is tried and true, but is not yet widespread. “We no longer believe that if we just report climate change data, then everyone is going to agree with us… the journalists that are having the greatest impact on their work on climate change have chosen to tell true stories of people impacted, presenting them with empathy.” 

Journalists have a responsibility to deeply consider empathy as they tackle climate stories. They should extend sincere empathy to their characters, many of whom will inevitably be victims of a tragic impact of climate change, and consider best practices to inspire empathy amongst audiences. The notion of a “universal theme,” which is so prominent in the world of professional storytelling, is quite prescient when it comes to climate reporting. All climate stories have a common theme and grapple with a (literally) universal issue. When granted “a more enriching experience to be able to report on climate change and environmental issues first hand,” reporters can use their first-hand experiences to internalize empathy and put that energy into their work. More pragmatically, journalists can use climate change storytelling as a mechanism to introduce their audiences to characters and experiences that differ from their own. By letting characters drive the story, and using facts to support each character’s experiential claims, empathy will manifest amongst audiences naturally. 

Reporters need not be Cronkite or Pelley to shrewdly invoke story in their climate reporting. Local reporters or conventional news reporters have this capability, as well. Local reporters can target an even more deliberate, familiar audience. In a two-minute spot for NBC Nightly News about the West Coast wildfires, California-based correspondent Steve Patterson mingles facts and fact-based narrative, complete with strong, relatable characters. He presents facts through the lens of his character’s, carefully using their journey as an informational tool. He is careful to make sure his audience doesn’t feel like intruders, rather observers and listeners. This story and Patterson’s portfolio of wildfire/climate change coverage all evoke visceral reactions given his penchant for descriptive, dramatic (and entirely factual) writing. 

The three examples examined in this paper are not anomalies, but they are certainly not the norm (yet). Many climate reports barely tap into story, halting instead at a headline followed by the latest updates. In a recent Los Angeles Times environmental story about desert tortoises joining California’s endangered list, the reporter misses an opportunity to paint the picture and perhaps even find a character. Reporters are constrained by facts. They cannot invent a turtle whose home is lost due to climate change. However, they can set the scene for audiences using expository language entirely rooted in fact. Telling a story about animals from a journalistic perspective poses an additional challenge, but should not be an insurmountable obstacle. Journalists can talk to animal experts or caregivers and help audiences understand the arduous journey the California desert tortoise has endured via a chronological, descriptive, accurate narrative. Naturally, given deadlines and resources, reporters cannot always go the extra mile. However, it is evident that reporters who envelop story into their work develop a much more charismatic, engaged audience. 

Climate change reporting is in its infancy, leaving journalists — especially young journalists — a lot of room for experimentation, including the involvement of storytelling. This will require great dogma and ingenuity on behalf of journalists and newsrooms. For example, a headline can hardly convey a whole story, but it can entice readers with some mystery, or even some sensory detail, either in words or multimedia. Instead of saying “Waves reach record heights in South Florida,” a reporter might find more success with “Waves crash outside her fifth-story window, as a South Florida mom wonders what’s next.” Journalists should also be focused on the process, not just the product, of reporting and crafting a climate change story. Modern technology and social media open journalists up to eager audiences, and taking time to tell a story or share an anecdote from the field can get people to care not just about that isolated story, but climate change as a whole. When it comes to climate change, journalists have the opportunity to make a difference in the world. Compelling, truthful storytelling in climate journalism can inspire compassion, action and further education. Journalism is a public service, and the public is best served when they want to know more and do more.

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