Survey of environmental journalists reveals good and bad news about local climate reporting

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

A new survey of environmental journalists finds strong interest in reporting on the local impacts of climate change, but a number of factors are making it difficult for reporters to cover such stories, including newsroom downsizing and a lack of time for field reporting.

The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) survey, which was conducted in collaboration with the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, received responses from 617 SEJ members and found, “Nearly all SEJ survey participants say they are at least slightly interested in reporting local climate impacts stories, with nearly 7 out of 10 saying they are very interested.” And encouragingly, 69 percent of journalists surveyed replied that they had reported on, or supervised a journalist reporting on, a local climate change story in the past 12 months. Of that group, approximately half reported on up to four climate stories, while the other half reported on five or more climate stories.

The majority of survey respondents were employed by newspapers (51 percent), while others worked for solely digital publications (25 percent), radio (11 percent), or TV (3 percent).

Despite this strong interest among environmental journalists in covering climate change’s local impacts, the survey found that numerous obstacles made it hard for them to do so: 

Two-thirds of SEJ survey participants identify lack of time for field reporting as an important obstacle to reporting on climate change, making this their most common obstacle. Half also identify lack of time or space in their news outlet as an obstacle.

Nearly 6 out of 10 SEJ survey participants think downsizing in their news organization has created or exacerbated obstacles to reporting on climate change, with about 2 out of 10 saying this has occurred “a lot” in their news organization.

This shouldn't be a surprise given the struggles the local news industry has faced for many years. Last year in particular was disastrous for local news. As the Columbia Journalism Review put it:

It won’t come as news to many of you that local journalism in our country is in dire shape. Pick your metric—numbers of reporters, newspapers, readers—and nearly all the trendlines veer downhill. It’s not a happy story.

Nonetheless, it’s an especially worrying trend considered in light of climate change. The impacts of climate change are becoming ever more clear and present in communities all around the country, manifesting in more damaging storms, wildfires, heat waves, and droughts. Indeed, 2017 was a record year for weather and climate disasters. Last year the U.S. had 16 such disasters that each did at least a billion dollars of damage, a tie with 2011 for the most-ever in a calendar year. And 2017 set a record for the cumulative cost of those disasters: $306 billion.

Local media sources, which are more trusted by Americans than national ones, should be connecting the dots between weather disasters in their areas and climate change. But it’s not a promising sign that even journalists who want to cover local climate stories are finding it hard to do so. The Climate Matters in the Newsroom project, which was involved in the survey, is trying to remedy this problem by offering resources and training to help reporters do localized climate reporting.

The help is certainly welcome since national media outlets are not getting the job done. They have frequently failed to mention the link between climate change and weather disasters, as Media Matters and others have documented.

Despite the challenges it highlighted, the survey did have some encouraging findings: Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they receive or expect positive responses from their audiences when they cover climate stories, and nearly all respondents said they feel that climate reporting will be beneficial to society. Hopefully these takeaways will encourage publishers, as well as editors and news directors, to continue to support reporting on climate change, knowing that doing so will satisfy both their audiences and their reporters.