Covering Climate Now, an initiative that comprises media outlets committed to improving their climate journalism, provides an innovative model of how news outlets can collaborate and report on the climate crisis with the sustained attention and urgency the issue deserves.
According to metrics provided by Covering Climate Now about its inaugural effort, 323 media partners published or broadcast at least 3,640 original stories to a combined audience of more than 1 billion people from September 15-23, the week leading up to the United Nations Climate Action Summit.
As Mark Hertsgaard, the executive director of Covering Climate Now, told Media Matters:
Our hunch from the start was that there was a critical mass of journalists who knew that the press should be doing better climate coverage, and if we could highlight that critical mass, we could grow it. And that's what happened.
To assist partners in meeting the goal of publishing as many good climate stories as they were able to during that week, lead media partner The Guardian and 184 other media outlets provided free, high-quality climate content that resulted in more than 1,000 climate stories reprinted or rebroadcast.
Making the content free enabled news outlets that may not typically produce climate stories to bring this reporting to their audiences. This unique, collaborative effort leveled the playing field for outlets with fewer resources and less expertise on climate issues.
Covering Climate Now also elevated stories and voices too often ignored and produced stories that resonated
Beyond increasing the audience for climate journalism, Covering Climate Now generated stories that would not normally have been told and localized issues around the climate crisis for their target audiences. Many outlets moved beyond typical climate stories to cover impacts to communities that are largely ignored, resulting in some exceptional reporting about how the climate crisis will harm localities and how environmental injustice has worsened these consequences for low-income communities and communities of color.
Some of these stories include a Charleston Gazette-Mail article about how climate change will result in more intense rains for West Virginia and what the means for the state, while a DCist story focused on how climate change and environmental injustice will harm the city’s historically black neighborhoods.
Other notable articles include The Philadelphia Inquirer’s reporting on how climate change is hurting Philadelphia residents’ health, while The Seattle Times published a piece on how climate will threaten the health of residents in the Pacific Northwest.
The foundation for Covering Climate Now’s success was, in part, built on ground-breaking climate journalism in 2018
Before Covering Climate Now formalized the effort to get media outlets to do a better job reporting on the climate crisis, there were some innovative collaborations and bold editorial choices in 2018 that illuminated a new path forward for climate journalism.
In February 2018, The New York Times and The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate formed a “first-of-a-kind partnership between the newsrooms … to take on the most critical environmental issues facing the country: coastal erosion and sea-level rise, as experienced at its epicenter in South Louisiana.” The partnership showed that larger newspapers can support local journalists covering important climate stories with a national interest.
And, in May, a group of South Florida news organizations launched The Invading Sea project -- a collaboration involving the Miami Herald, The Palm Beach Post, the Sun-Sentinel, and public radio station WLRN -- that aimed to increase awareness of sea-level rise in South Florida and galvanize action to address it.
Later that year, in August, The New York Times Magazine dedicated an entire issue to climate change for the first time (it dedicated another issue to climate change this past April). The following month, the BBC issued formal guidelines about how its journalists should report on climate change.
As lead partner of Covering Climate Now, The Guardian continues to set an example for other news outlets to emulate
In May of this year, The Guardian announced changes to its style guide “to introduce terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.” Since the United Nations Climate Summit in September, the Guardian formalized those editorial changes and formally pledged to “give the climate crisis the attention it demands.”
In addition to these editorial changes, the Guardian also hired a dedicated environmental justice reporter, Nina Lakhani, for its U.S. edition, and the paper launched a year-long series titled “Our Unequal Earth” to investigate environmental injustice, specifically, “how ecological hazards and climate disasters have the harshest impacts on people of color, native tribes and those on low incomes.”
For far too long, stories about those who have been harmed by environmental racism and climate injustice have gone untold. Along with ramping up the language it uses and the frequency with which it covers the climate crisis, the Guardian is telling the stories of those already impacted by our increasingly warming world -- and setting the gold standard for climate reporting.
Major media outlets should follow its lead -- and some already are. In June, a top Spanish-language news provider in the United States, Noticias Telemundo, announced it would begin “using the term ‘climate emergency’ instead of ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming.’” CBC, Canada’s national public broadcaster, is also encouraging its staff to use stronger and more accurate language when applicable when reporting on the worldwide consequences of global warming.
Reporters at The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have also taken note of The Guardian's new editorial approach to climate journalism.
2019 has been a breakout year for climate journalism
The year has seen a marked improvement in climate journalism due to the efforts of multiple climate and environmental progressive groups, individual activists, and journalists to push the media to do a better job of reporting on how global warming is making our planet unhabitable for the human species.
In addition to the Covering Climate Now effort and the blazing path set by the Guardian, one of the biggest successes has been the shift by major television news networks toward using more accurate language to characterize climate change. An October study by the nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen about network news’ use of the terms “crisis” or “emergency” in relation to climate change found that usage increased from 3.5% in 2018 to 29% between May and September, which represents a 700% boost. Additionally, CNN and MSNBC referred to climate change as a crisis or emergency in more than 80% of segments covering the issue during September. (Note: Allison Fisher, a co-author of this post, previously worked for Public Citizen and contributed to the referenced study.)
Public awareness and interest in climate change, as measured by Google Trends, peaked in September -- the month of the historic Global Climate Strike. Searches for the term were higher than they had been in the search engine’s history. Media also reported extensively on the strike, among other important climate stories. Thirty-six of the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation featured a story about the strike on the front page of their print editions on September 21, the day after the strikes began, while 12 of the top 15 U.S. newspapers by circulation covered the dire U.N. climate report on the world’s oceans, ice, and marine ecosystems in their print editions on September 26, the day after the report was released.
Also notable, in response to voters making climate change a top-tier issue and activists calling for a dedicated climate presidential debate, both CNN and MSNBC hosted generally well-received presidential forums devoted entirely to the climate crisis.
The culmination of a broad array of environmental organizations, activist groups, and journalists, among others, working to improve the media’s reporting on the climate crisis helped lay the ground work for Covering Climate Now. However, while 2019 has marked an important shift in climate coverage, there is still much work to do. Many of the largest newspapers, broadcast TV news shows, and corporate TV news networks still inconsistently report on the climate crisis, barely connect the dots between our warming world and extreme weather events, and rarely treat the issue with the urgency that it deserves.
Covering Climate Now and its lead partner, The Guardian, have provided an important model for climate journalism in the age of climate emergency that other media outlets will hopefully follow. Research shows that one of the most important drivers of climate action is public awareness. It is vital that more news outlets commit to shared, sustained, and substantive reporting that not only details the science behind the current and future consequences of the climate crisis, but also informs the public about potential solutions that could mitigate global warming’s worst effects.