Climate change journalism is having a moment. Earlier this fall the flood gates opened as hundreds of international news outlets cranked out thousands of climate stories. But will this mass messaging moment evolve into a sustained messaging movement? I’ve bet my career that it will.
It was a Sunday afternoon in November 2016. The Atlantic Ocean was inundating roads up to the top of car tires, turning my residential neighborhood along West Avenue on Miami Beach into a wading pond, backing traffic up for miles.
Residents were startled at the sight of an octopus and small schools of fish swimming through garage floor grates of a building I once lived in as ocean water gushed upward like a water fountain through the sewer system.
All around South Florida, king tide flooding, even on calm weather days, had become a routine part of life, inundating beach roads with saltwater, threatening the city’s viability and property values.
From 2007 to 2018 I worked as a TV meteorologist in South Florida. In this capacity I was keenly aware that humans had become a force of nature, spewing heat trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, warming the planet, melting ice and swelling seas.
Evidence mounted: Climate change in overdrive
Surrounding me, in my life and work, evidence piled up that human-caused climate change was entering overdrive. Yet at the same time, public concern was lukewarm, at best, and my business, the media, were basically ignoring what was becoming one of the most important stories of all time.
The public deserved the opportunity to understand the magnitude of the changes, I was in a position to help this happen, and I felt a responsibility to try. So last year I took dramatic action.
I quit my stable, high-paying job as a chief meteorologist in South Florida, with no prospect of employment in sight. My wife and I uprooted our lives and moved to New York City. I planned to help address the lack of TV news coverage of climate change by immersing myself in that intersection.
‘The real, scientifically predicted consequences of global warming are now being seen all over the world,’ says Al Ortiz of CBS News. ‘The realization hit many journalists here over the last two years that climate change is the beat of the future – and one that will affect almost every aspect of human life.’
Fourteen months later, I’m working on climate and weather coverage for CBS News while finishing my graduate degree at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. From these posts, just in the past few months, I’m witnessing a dramatic shift in media coverage.
According to a Pew Research Center poll, the global public now perceives climate change as the biggest global threat, with 67% of respondents agreeing that “climate change is a major threat to our country.” In the U.S. that number is slightly lower, but still significant, at 59%. Still, TV news coverage of climate change registers nowhere near the top.
Media Matters, a liberal U.S. media watchdog, calculated in 2018 that only 55 of 16,000 total minutes of evening news airtime on ABC, CBS and NBC was dedicated to climate change – that’s a measly 0.3 percent. In contrast, 28% of evening news minutes were dedicated to President Trump. That’s 83 times more coverage.
CJR editor: ‘biggest story of our lives’, but a media ‘failure’
Climate change is “the biggest story of our lives and we – the media collectively – has not treated it as such,” said Kyle Pope, editor-in-chief and publisher of Columbia Journalism Review, a standard-bearer for the journalism industry. “That’s a failure.”
The list of excuses for the lack of coverage is extensive: politics, high costs, difficulty of making a complicated, once-abstract issue compelling and concrete. But for years, perhaps the biggest obstacle was said to be lack of audience interest.
“Almost without exception. Every single time we’ve covered [climate change] it’s been a palpable ratings killer,” MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes wrote in a July 2018 tweet that has echoed throughout newsrooms. “So the incentives are not great.”
Dan Shelley, Executive Director of Radio Television Digital News Association, attributes the lack of coverage partly to the climate contrarian community’s success at “weaponizing the issue from a political and ideological perspective.”
Al Ortiz, CBS News’ VP of Standards and Practices, agrees: “I think climate change science has been linked to politics in the country for decades, and that’s what has contributed to the relative lack of coverage of it for a long time here.”
Politicization has left public, some media confused
The politicization of climate science, as disingenuous as it may seem, can leave the public, and even some news outlets, with the perception that media reporting on the issue crosses a slippery slope between objective journalism and advocacy.
CJR’s Pope says that dividing line has been mischaracterized and that the watchdog role is squarely in the service of journalism. “For as long as good journalism has been around, it’s been about righting wrong, holding the powerful to account, calling out lies. Good journalism often makes things happen.”
The failure of the media to respond to the climate challenge has prompted Columbia Journalism Review to do something Pope says it has never done since its founding in 1961: “launch an unprecedented, coordinated effort to change the media conversation.” CJR, along with The Nation’s Mark Hertsgaard, signed up more than 350 news outlets for the Covering Climate Now initiative, an effort Yale Climate Connections participated in.
It was a big success. During the week of coverage centered around September’s UN Climate Summit, partner outlets produced 3,640 original stories garnering nearly two billion impressions. Both the number of weekly articles produced and the number of readers doubled, showing that if you write it, they will come.
As a direct result of events covered by the initiative such as the climate strikes and an IPCC oceans report, the week of September 22-28 featured the largest number of searches for the term “climate change” globally in the Google Trends record dating back to 2004.
From the inside, let me explain why Covering Climate Now was pivotal. The interest and enthusiasm in newsrooms to cover climate had been building for years, but this initiative provided a specific impetus for action. Also, the support of Columbia Journalism Review imparted a greenlight of sorts, allowing outlets to cut through any apprehension over complexity or perceived ethical concerns.
“The real, scientifically predicted consequences of global warming are now being seen all over the world,” Ortiz says in explaining why CBS News decided to join the initiative. “The realization hit many journalists here over the last two years that climate change is the beat of the future – and one that will affect almost every aspect of human life.”
Various news outlets pick up the pace on climate
As a result, there has been quite a shift at the network, which I’ve experienced firsthand. For the past two years, CBS News’ 24-hour streaming service, CBSN, has been running a daily segment called Climate Watch and investing heavily into CBSN Originals documentaries, some focused on climate.
In recent months this dedication has spread to the TV side with major resources now dedicated to a frequent Eye on Earth segment, which airs on CBS This Morning and CBS Evening News, focusing on Earth’s environmental challenges. The pace at which they are producing climate-related content is surprising even to me.
And it’s not just CBS. On September 4, CNN put climate change front and center for an unprecedented seven hours straight with its Climate Town Hall. In June, the network named veteran reporter Bill Weir to the role of chief climate correspondent.
During Climate Week, NBC announced the creation of a climate desk. MSNBC has also stepped up its game recently, hosting a two-day Democratic presidential candidates forum on the environment. Remarking for an article in Variety, Rashida Jones, senior VP of specials for NBC News and MSNBC said, “We are not just going to do a week on this and then won’t be talking about it again. This is the biggest story of our time.”
This trend is also evident among U.S. print media giants. Since 2000, the Center for Science & Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado has tracked the number of climate change articles published by the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Los Angeles Times.
Combined the outlets ran a record 797 climate change articles in September 2019, six times more than the 10-year low point in 2012. The vast majority (524 articles) of the increase came from the New York Times, which now has a dedicated climate desk of a dozen members. According to Hannah Fairfield, New York Times climate editor, establishing a climate desk has increased readership. “Climate stories at the New York Times are read by millions of readers each month and in 2018, readership was up 41% over the previous year,” Fairfield says.
The recent uptick in coverage has not gone unnoticed by media watchdogs. Ted MacDonald, a climate and energy researcher for Media Matters, was impressed by Covering Climate Now and says he is cautiously optimistic, “Broadly, media coverage of climate change has increased in 2019, with some of the main drivers being the Green New Deal, disastrous global extreme weather events, and growing awareness of the issue among Democratic presidential candidates.”
Youth mobilization key in piquing media interest
But among the most prominent development shaping coverage as of late are the grassroots youth climate mobilizations. On September 20, four million people took part in the largest worldwide strike on record. As a Media Matters analysis found, “Overall, there was a huge increase in TV news coverage on the latest strike as compared to reporting on the strike in March.”
Now that Covering Climate Now’s intense week of climate coverage has ended, some in the climate-concerned community are worried so will the news coverage. And there’s reason to be cautious. During the October 15 Democratic presidential debate on CNN, no climate questions were asked, leaving many of the climate concerned fuming.
While it’s clear that the intense pace of climate reporting during the U.N. Climate Summit week is not sustainable, overall, I’m not so concerned. Speaking from my seat at CBS News, I observe career journalists continually driven by a sense of duty, as eager as ever to report the stories that are crucial, like the climate challenge. “I don’t know a lot of reporters who would still be doing what they do if they thought their work made no difference,” Pope says.
“CBS News’ decision to commit to more climate change coverage is not a play for ratings – the public will decide whether this turns out to be a ratings winner or a ratings loser,” Ortiz explains. “It has become clear to us – in part through polling – that younger people are keenly interested in these stories because they’re the ones who have to live with the consequences.”
Given escalating environmental impacts and grassroots advocacy, the ethical greenlight from prominent standard bearers like Columbia Journalism Review and that collective sense of duty and journalists’ desire to make a difference, I’m confident this climate coverage moment is just the beginning of a growing media movement.
Time will tell, but I’ve got my career path riding on it. And I’m optimistic.
Jeff Berardelli is a meteorologist and climate contributor to CBS News in New York City.
Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.