Mainstream reporting is struggling to grasp the biggest issue of the age, it is time for reporters to recognise the context climate change provides
Do journalists have a responsibility to campaign on climate change within their reporting? That was the deliberately provocative question posed this week by those heroic enviro-scamps/eco-terrorists at Greenpeace and wrestled with by a panel featuring Channel 4 News' Jon Snow and Tom Clarke, the Guardian's Zoe Williams, Buzzfeed's Tom Chivers, and Greenpeace's Li Shuo.
The general consensus was that "campaign" is too strong a word to describe how journalists should approach climate change. Politicians campaign, polemicists campaign, campaigners campaign; journalists do something different, if related.
But it's more complicated than simply answering Greenpeace's question in the negative and moving on. As Williams pointed out journalists of all stripes do campaign, in so much as everything is a campaign. Everything is political. Journalists campaign through the stories they select and reject, the primacy they give those stories, the words they use, and the angles and sources they opt for. You do not have to subscribe to a neo-Marxist critique to acknowledge all texts are political. The status quo is definitely not apolitical.
However, leaving aside that truism for a moment, campaigning is typically regarded as anathema to journalists, which makes things more than a little uncomfortable for someone like me who surfs the line between reporter, editor, and (I hate this oxymoronic phrase) campaigning journalist.
This understandable reluctance to take on the mantle of "campaigner" raises an important question. If journalists should not campaign on climate change, what should they do about it? Because what they are doing at the moment sure as hell isn't working.
The panel offered an at times brutal assessment of mainstream climate change reporting, from Snow's admission the Copenhagen Climate Summit was the most dispiriting political story he had ever reported on, as hopes were dashed and the media chased the wrong story by giving legs to discredited climate sceptic arguments, to Clarke's honest appraisal of how climate change is too slow-moving and unsexy to grab editors' attention, and Chivers' acknowledgement that the sheer complexity of climate change debates do not lend themselves to easy and accessible reporting.
How can a media that is so critical to business and public understanding of climate change and the green economy overcome these challenges?
As someone who is lucky enough to write about these issues all the time I'd argue journalists should not necessarily "campaign" on climate change, but they do have a responsibility to detail the context climate change provides for countless other stories. You don't have to campaign on climate change, just stop ignoring it.
This context is crucial because climate change impacts almost everything in some way or another. I am heartily sick of mainstream energy or economic or environment stories that fail to provide a single sentence on the direct relevance climate change has for so many of these stories.
To take just a few recent examples, if you are going to report on the impact of the collapse on the oil price on North Sea investment, you should probably mention that from a climate change perspective reduced oil exploration is a very good thing. If you are going to report on a politician forgetting to mention the deficit in speeches, you should also report when politicians forget to mention climate change, particularly if said politicians admit climate change poses an existential threat. If you are going to introduce Ed Davey, he is the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, not the Energy Secretary - the distinction matters.
If, like BBC Breakfast this week, you are going to report on the falling cost of heating oil making heating homes in this way more attractive it would be remiss of you not to mention that from a pure climate change perspective this is an appalling development. A single sentence would improve any one of these stories no end. Just an acknowledgment that there is an underlying issue that needs addressing would make a world of difference to wider understanding of what climate change means and what can be done about it.
There was a big story about eight or nine years ago where the context was not provided. Cheap money flooded global markets, complex financial products metastatised, and sharp practices became commonplace. In retrospect, everyone kind of knew something was up, but the failure to provide the true context to the business stories of this era helped usher the global economy off a cliff.
How do you go about delivering this context? Snow's proposal that journalists should be provided some kind of climate awareness training in the same way war correspondents get battlefield training is a good idea. But it is about more than that. It is about editors grasping the bigger picture - and climate change is one of the biggest pictures there is - and trusting that the audience can navigate the complexity.
It is also about recognising that there is some pent up demand for these stories. It is about balance - not the false, 'let's have a debate when an issue is all but settled', kind of balance, but the balance between light and shade, good news and bad, that the media is so reluctant to provide. Move past the banal "debate" about whether climate change is happening and there is an abundance of fascinating stories to explore, stories about politics, and communities, and technology, and scandal, and business, and tragedy, and hope, and life itself.
I'd argue there are countless great stories out there around climate change, there are even 'sexy' stories arising from the green industrial revolution we are in the midst of. As Buzzfeed demonstrates there is an audience for news that balances the good and the bad, the inspiring and shocking, if you package it in an innovative way and have a good sense of what your audience responds to. I'd wager there is huge untapped interest in currently unreported developments in everything from clean technology to potential climate catastrophe.
Should journalists be campaigning on these issues? No. They should be doing what good journalists always do, providing accurate and balanced reporting on the biggest issues of the day. Some people will call that campaigning. Well, so be it.
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