Climate change is one of the world's most pressing issues, and how to best cover it is one of journalism's major challenges. The Bonn Institute is happy to share an article by former Constructive Institute fellow and science journalist Kristoffer Frøkjær about approaches the industry can take to better meet the demand of news consumers when it comes to climate reporting.
Good news: The scepticism of the early 2000s toward climate change journalism has given way to the present-day consensus that climate change is a major issue that requires serious, dedicated, well-informed coverage.
However, climate journalism hasn't kept up with the evolution; it is still largely based on journalistic formulas such as conflict, drama and frequency, with disasters and doomsday prophecies accompanied by photos of storms, floods, heat waves and people fleeing. This portrayal may give readers, listeners and viewers a sense that climate change is important, but it can also leave them with a crushing sense of disempowerment and hopelessness, and consequently a feeling of "why bother to engage…"
As users have moved on from "is this really true" to "what can we do now", their wishes for coverage have changed. They are demanding guidance and solutions that show how we can get involved to solve climate problems. Climate journalism needs to keep up. Fortunately, small changes can improve climate reporting, better aligning it with public awareness of problems and providing information in the best possible way so people can form their own opinions.
Here's a starting point: 10 good pieces of advice to make more people read, watch and listen to climate journalism.
- Talk about solutions to specific climate problems to avoid
climate-news fatigue. Has anybody solved the problem you're reporting on, or something similar? How?
- Climate change can seem distant to many people. Tell climate stories from your local area to make your story more relatable. Use these to introduce the bigger picture: the global consequences of climate change.
- Cover nuances to heighten credibility and avoid polarization. Few people believe the world to be just black and white.
- Connect your story to people's everyday lives.
- Use soft language and imagery. Alarmism in imagery and language is thought to desensitise audiences. Charged language, words like "emergency", "death", "doom" or "catastrophe", could create news fatigue and stop people from reading, watching and engaging.
- Consider the extent to which your climate coverage could appear "activist". The boundaries between activism and journalism can be fluid. But if your journalism has the clear and apparent goal of getting your reader, listener or viewer to think or act in a single, specific way – instead of just informing them – it might lose credibility.
- Be transparent to heighten credibility. Share resources and link directly to reliable scientific sources instead of other news outlets or NGO/think tank papers.
- Be clear about what knowledge is scientifically established and what is less established. How recent is the knowledge? How many scientific articles are there on the subject? Have they been peer-reviewed? Has the scientist making a statement done research in the field they are commenting on?
- Be aware of timescales in your coverage. It's difficult to understand something that is going to happen in 30 years. Telling a story about the present or the near future can overcome such
- Think carefully about graphic material. A story can be made stronger by using pictures that directly represent your story's core without sugar coating. However, while dramatic, sensational, fearful or shocking images attract attention, they can also
feed a sense of personal disempowerment and climate-news fatigue.
This text is an abridged version of a paper by Kristoffer Frøkjær. The suggestions are based on reports, scientific papers and real-world examples. To read the entire paper and view the sources and journalistic examples, please contact the author.
For more than 20 years Kristoffer Frøkjær has strived to bring the latest knowledge from science and research to a Danish audience through writing, television and radio. He has spent 10 years as an editor and radio host at the Danish Broadcast Corporation. He has also helped create several digital platforms including Videnskab.dk and Sciencereport.dk, lectured about science and media at The University of Copenhagen and written several books in the field of popular science.
From 2021-22, Frøkjær was a fellow at the Constructive Institute. During this time he examined how constructive journalism, research and facts can be united to facilitate better-informed decision-making among citizens with respect to climate change.