Climate Reporting: Tips from Our Newsletter
Last Updated September 2023
The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on the climate crisis published in our weekly newsletter, Revisions. The information is presented in roughly chronological order, has been edited for clarity, and is updated where necessary.
Language & Word Choice
December 3, 2021
What’s the best term for a journalist to use, climate “crisis,” climate “emergency,” or something else?
This is a complicated one, because the question here is not just one of accuracy but also one of urgency. Terms like “global warming” and “climate change” don’t correctly describe the varied and vast human impact on the environment, and they also don’t match the urgency of the moment that journalists should seek to communicate. And what is the point of matching urgency (or journalism, for that matter)? Eliciting action, yes?
Though both “crisis” and “emergency” accurately address this urgency, as Grist recently reported, research shows neither term is enough to prompt action among audiences by itself. In fact, among some audiences “crisis” elicited the least concern while climate “disruption” performed better. So, while all are accurate, the real lesson from this research is that, while this treadmill of terms may continue to update, labels alone cannot spark the change we need to mitigate damage done to our environment. What audiences really need is reporting that supports this urgency by emphasizing what solutions are available and how we can act on them.
June 23, 2022
As climate journalism expands, so does the research into how it’s done best. Here are a few tips I’ve found among this research.
- Accurate climate reporting can shift audiences’ viewpoints, but only briefly one study shows (The Guardian). That means we need to repeat, repeat, repeat!
- Television is, globally, the most popular source of climate change news (Reuters Institute).
- Climate is now part of every beat. Newsrooms should act like it! (Covering Climate Now)
- Too much jargon in science reporting makes audiences tune out (The Grist).
- The terms “climate emergency” and “climate crisis” do convey urgency, but they don’t have much of an impact on story engagement, and they may even make audiences skeptical of an outlet’s credibility (Climate Change).
- “Those who reject mainstream climate science” is a longer but more accurate term than “climate change deniers,” but “deniers” is still better than “doubters” (Inside Climate News).
- Environmental justice, which focuses on the marginalized populations who are the most impacted by climate change, must be prioritized in coverage (Covering Climate Now).
- Avoid doom-and-gloom stories to keeping people engaged. Focusing on threats and disasters desensitizes us; focusing on solutions empowers audiences to make change (The Solutions Project).
- Photos are key to accurately framing climate journalism. Images shouldn’t depict heat wave coverage as “fun in the sun” (CJR) and the impact on people should be front and center over cliché images of polar bears (The Guardian).
September 29, 2022
It’s hurricane season and, as Hurricane Ian continues its damaging path just weeks after Hurricane Fiona devastated Puerto Rico, it’s worth revisiting important reporting guidance. Check out the resources below to brush up on hurricane coverage best practices.
- Covering hurricanes and tropical storms: Key resources for journalists — The Journalist’s Resource
- Hurricanes and Tornadoes — Journalist’s Toolbox
- Covering Hurricanes: Resources for Journalists — Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma
- Keep Your Notebook Dry: What Times Reporters Learned From Covering Hurricanes — The New York Times
- Here’s what you need to help you cover hurricanes — Poynter
February 9, 2023
Reporting on disasters is challenging and can be traumatic. The resources below were created to help reporters tell these important stories safely and ethically.
But first, an important language note: avoid the term “natural disasters.” An earthquake or tsunami is a natural hazard, to be sure. But what turns dangerous hazards into disasters that devastate entire communities is the human factor: where we live and where we invest (and don’t invest) our resources for mitigation and recovery. “Natural disaster” obfuscates how we can improve the impact of environmental hazards through human-made policies and decisions.
- Interviewing in the aftermath of trauma from the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma
- The Journalist Security Guide’s Natural Disaster chapter from the Committee to Protect Journalists
- “Journalism can help communities with these five pillars of ethical disaster reporting” from Poynter
- “Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise,” a Nieman Lab prediction from Sonali Prasad
March 16, 2023
The FrameWorks Institute is an organization that studies how people communicate about social issues. Their research is often designed for clients looking to make specific social changes — which, to some journalists, might be dismissed as advocacy right off the bat.
But hold on!
Their new guide to writing effective stories about climate change is something any journalist can learn from. After all, climate change is real and society uses news media to inform itself of collective problems and their potential solutions. Learning how to frame this monumental task in a way that doesn’t alienate our audiences is a critical skill for the industry.
And yes, that is your job as a journalist. Because if you know that “Word Choice A” will make your community feel helpless and despairing but “Word Choice B” will keep them engaged and hopeful, there is no “objective” choice. You’re either creating a positive or negative impact — and you get to choose.
April 27, 2023
An important new study on how people react to climate change communications should change how journalists approach the topic. Until recently, conventional wisdom (that’s been shared in this newsletter!) has held that the key to climate stories that spur engagement and action is localizing the impact. The idea was that too many people believe the effects of climate change are distant from their own lives.
But as the Grist explains, research has not born that “wisdom” out. It turns out we do understand that the impacts of climate change are hitting home already. We just think no one else thinks it’s a big issue. That’s quite a framing backfire.
As always, journalism’s job is to provide the info that our communities need to understand and solve our collective problems. With this new research in mind, here are some tips on framing climate coverage:
- Don’t give oxygen to climate deniers. The evidence is clear. Spreading bad-faith arguments against the impact of humans on the climate undermines audiences’ trust in science and your newsroom.
- Move climate action into the “sphere of consensus.” Take for granted that the need for climate action is a premise your audience accepts. Sound like activism? We do this all the time in the news for issues with popular support, like childhood education and the health of local businesses.
- Localize the solutions, not just the impacts. We may not need to convince our communities climate change is here, but we do need to highlight how their neighbors are already taking action. Humans are social creatures who like to fit in and a little “FOMO” goes a long way.
June 8, 2023
In a bit of very prescient timing, last week journalist Katie Myers published a new guide to reporting on disasters where you live. She wrote on Twitter, “During the 2022 [Eastern Kentucky] floods, I realized most guides for trauma-informed disaster reporting assumed you were a parachute, not a resident. So I made this.”
It includes tips on what to do while the disaster is occurring, in the days and weeks after, and in the long-term.
June 22, 2023
Journalists should stop framing migration as a “crisis”
Last week, the Grist published a look at new research on how audiences react to stories about climate migration. The results weren’t great:
- “Both Republicans and Democrats reported colder, more negative feelings toward migrants after reading a mock news article about climate migration, according to research published this spring in the journal Climatic Change. ‘There’s a real potential of stories invoking a nativist response, making people view migrants more negatively and possibly as less human,’ said Ash Gillis, an author of the study and a former psychology researcher at Vanderbilt University. Depending on how they’re told, stories about climate migration might not only provoke xenophobia, but also fail to rally support for climate action, research suggests.”
With this knowledge in hand, what are journalists to do? Many people will continue to view climate migration as a crisis, and politicians will almost certainly continue to use that frame. But with research like this at our disposal, by framing the issue this way we continue to foment negative views of migrants trying to survive.
Suggestions from the Grist’s report include:
- Use phrases like “welcoming crisis,” to suggest “that the real problem lies with how countries respond to the inevitability of migration.”
- Say migration is “part of the solution” and a “resilient, adaptive, response to crisis.”
- Avoid distancing and dehumanizing terms like “mass migration,” “flood,” or “invasion.”
For further suggestions, check out the language and framing guide “How to Communicate About Climate Linked Mobility,” created by a coalition of environmental activist groups.
Coverage of the ‘code red’ climate report was good. Here’s how to sustain it.
Andrew McCormick, Columbia Journalism Review
For more advice on climate coverage, check out this preview of what’s coming up on the climate beat, including a crucial UN conference.
Emily Atkin Talks about Objectivity and Covering the Climate Crisis
María Paula Rubiano A., The Open Notebook
The ongoing objectivity discussion is crucial for the well-being of the news industry and thus our communities. With this Q&A with Emily Atkin, The Open Notebook adds an important chapter. Atkin, a climate journalist and creator of the newsletter Heated, will change the way you think about the power dynamics in climate crisis journalism and the origins of climate denial.
Stop calling them “accidents”
Marin Cogan, Vox
Jessie Singer, author of new book There Are No Accidents, sat down with Vox for an interview about the way we brush off accountability for fatal consequences with one simple word.
The audacious PR plot that seeded doubt about climate change
Jane McMullen, BBC News
BBC News has dug into a public relations campaign that may have changed the course of history 30 years ago by convincing public officials not to limit fossil fuel emissions. It is a must-read for journalists since placing stories, quotes, and opinion pieces in the news media was a linchpin of this damaging plan.
The world as we know it is ending. Why are we still at work?
Anna North, Vox
This Vox article may sound like a bit of a downer — and frankly, it kind of is. But it’s also a realistic, incisive look at how capitalism rules all when it comes to the many crises humans currently face. Awareness of worker exploitation and the iron grip work has over our lives is the first step to creating change.
There must be something in the water
Deena Winter, Minnesota Reformer
I came across this incredible investigation from the Minnesota Reformer thanks to reporter Deena Winter’s gripping Twitter thread on the topic. The two-part story of how a 3M chemical plant in Cottage Grove, Minnesota has gravely harmed members of the surrounding community for decades is stunning.
The Real-World Costs of the Digital Race for Bitcoin
Gabriel J.X. Dance, The New York Times
The environmental impacts of Bitcoin and the enormous amount of electricity required to mine it have been exposed before. But the New York Times’ recent report on its literal cost to U.S. residents makes Bitcoin’s negative effects incredibly clear.
Cheat Sheet: Climate Solutions Reporting Guide
Covering Climate Now
The Covering Climate Now initiative published an in-depth guide to solutions climate reporting earlier this year. Now they’ve released a shorter “cheat sheet” version for the on-the-go set.
Boots on the Ground
Zoya Teirstein, The Grist
In partnership with HuffPost, the Grist has published a startling story about how extremist groups are taking advantage of climate disasters to stoke anti-government sentiment. While they assist with rescue and clean-up, groups like the Oath Keepers are recruiting.
Atlanta Police Arrest Organizers of Bail Fund for Cop City Protesters
Natasha Lennard, The Intercept
If you’re invested in democracy in any way, you should be paying attention to what’s going on in Atlanta. In an unprecedented move, in May 2023 a SWAT team raided the home of and arrested three residents on the board of a nonprofit bail fund. Police have charged them with money laundering and charity fraud for supporting protesters. The raid follows the charging of 42 activists with domestic terrorism as they protested the razing of a forest for the construction of a massive police training facility. A report from the Intercept puts this latest development in the context of the Atlanta police’s escalating tactics.
Climate Crisis Is on Track to Push One-Third of Humanity Out of Its Most Livable Environment
Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica
ProPublica reports on new research that says, “By late this century…3 to 6 billion people, or between a third and a half of humanity, could be trapped outside of that zone, facing extreme heat, food scarcity and higher death rates, unless emissions are sharply curtailed or mass migration is accommodated.”
As climate change accelerates refugee crisis, experts stress the need for a shift in social attitudes, global cooperation
Alena Kuzub, Northeastern Global News
“The World Bank estimates that by 2050 climate change will uproot 216 million people. The Institute for Economics and Peace approximates that during the same period about 1.2 billion people could be displaced because of natural disasters.” This summary of a recent conversation between experts at Northeastern University explains what the world will need to do in order to overcome the collective challenges presented by our changing climate. This is a conversation we should all be having.
“This stuff” MSNBC host Chris Hayes refers to is the climate crisis and specifically Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition to instituting a carbon tax in the U.S. It’s a worthy reminder to anyone reporting on climate legislation that the stakes are much higher than frames that pit lobbyists against activists might suggest.
An absolutely brutal example of our misplaced priorities, courtesy of NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus. Why isn’t this front page news??
For those of us used to Fahrenheit, writer and podcast host Nicky Woolf, is referring to temps of 109 degrees in the UK. Woolf is right: this is not “beach weather” and thus this news should not be accompanied by pictures of fun in the sun because it inaccurately depicts the harmful effects of this heat.
What should take its place? Follow the story. That might mean people seeking shelter from the sun indoors or purchasing air conditioners and fans. It might mean people seeking medical attention. It might mean wilted crops. If a stock image is really necessary, might I recommend one of climate protests?
Folks, listen to NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus. Reporting on disasters like the wildfires and their smoke means nothing if we don’t get to the root issues for our audiences.
November 18, 2021
This New York Times headline about the Build Back Better plan has been, for lack of a better word, roasted on Twitter. That’s largely due to it referring to programs that support sustainable transportation, pregnant people, local journalism, and fighting the climate crisis as “niche interests.” But using scare quotes around tree equity — an admittedly buzzword-y phrase that refers to planting trees in neighborhoods that aren’t receiving the climate- and health-related benefits of tree cover — deserves special attention.
Scare quotes are the rhetorical equivalent of an eyeroll. One could argue that they’re used here to denote an unfamiliar phrase, but what is journalism’s job if not to educate the public about new ideas and events? This small punctuational flourish sets up those learning about tree equity for the first time to think of it as silly and dismissible. Think what you want about tree equity programs, but a headline is no place to editorialize this way. A more straight-shooting headline might look like:
Biden’s Social Policy Bill Funds Support for Electric Bikes, Tree Equity, Childbirth
February 17, 2022
The headline above, from the Washington Post, is much like dozens of other headlines announcing a report on sea level rise that was released February 15, 2022. Many used the phrases “rise one foot” and “by 2050.” I honestly didn’t think much of this headline or the news it carried (beyond, “more bad climate news, got it”) until I read CNN’s different take, below.
What does one foot of sea level rise in 30 years look like, really? How fast is that in comparison to the sea level rise we’ve experienced in recent years? To me, the phrase “will rise rapidly” hints at the answers and paints a much more urgent and accessible picture than “rise one foot.”
Similarly, “in the next 30 years” also felt more specific and real than “by 2050” which sounds impossibly far away, but isn’t. The next 30 years is simply a doubling of my personal lifetime, which hasn’t felt very long at all. That reframe really struck a chord with me. It’s important that journalists keep in mind that a slightly different word choice can make important news that much more relatable or salient to a reader.
July 21, 2022
A high-pressure weather system led to massive heat waves across much of the Northern Hemisphere in July, with its effects being keenly felt in the U.S., Europe, and China. It seems like every news outlet has a story with a variation on the CNN headline below. But the people experiencing a heat wave don’t need to be told it’s hot.
What do they need? Most immediately they need information on staying cool and finding local resources and support, like the report below from WHDH in Boston.
Secondly, they need to know whether their locality is prepared for future heat waves (the New York Times headline below says that’s a “no” for London) and, if not, how they can be.
Finally, they also need to know both the cause (humanity-driven climate change) and the impact (death and displacement) of this extreme weather. Reuters tackles the cause in the headline below. A mix of these tactics helps audiences get the full story beyond “it’s hot.”
September 1, 2022
Jackson, Mississippi is experiencing a significant climate emergency after flooding of Pearl River exacerbated an already stressed water system. Residents have been under a boil water advisory since July and now many are without water at all. The failing water system is nothing new. As the NPR headline below describes, this most recent crisis is the result of years of neglect.
But that’s not the full story. The neglect of the Jackson water system is a direct result of white flight in earlier decades and disinvestment in infrastructure in Black communities. The Slate headline below tops an interview with environmental and climate justice activist Catherine Coleman Flowers and addresses this head-on. Though the NPR story does mention that a shrinking population and lack of political will led to this crisis, it doesn’t name the elephant in the room.
Looking at other Jackson headlines, I also wanted to point out how slightly different framings can go a long way in humanizing this crisis. The first headline below is from the BBC; it’s not inaccurate and describes two pretty stark consequences for Jackson residents.
But the Buzzfeed headline below goes the extra mile by noting just how many people are impacted. It also translates what the “no water to drink or flush toilets” really means: it’s a matter of survival. This urgency feels appropriate to the crisis.
September 8, 2022
The flooding of Pakistan. Record-breaking heat and wildfires in California. A water crisis in Mississippi. Extreme droughts in the southwest U.S., southern China and Iraq. It’s been a scary few weeks for climate crisis news and the headline above from The Guardian makes that all too clear. Then the phrase “another week” adds a droll tone that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in solutions to this most dire threat.
It can be easy to get caught up in the fatalism and depressing nature of climate crisis coverage. But there are still things we can do as a species to mitigate the effects of manmade climate change — and it’s journalists’ responsibility to make that clear to audiences.
The headline below from NPR has the best of both worlds. It doesn’t deny the deluge of difficult news, it embraces it and promises solutions. I love this combination of addressing the psychological effects of this news so that one can help create change, too. It’s a great service for audiences.
March 16, 2023
The headline above is from an Associated Press story announcing the Biden administration’s approval of the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska. The headline below, also from the Associated Press, is about the same thing.
The big difference between the two is the consequence they attribute to the approval. The first goes with the “ire of environmentalists.” This is certainly true; environmentalists have protested Willow. But framing the fallout of such a project as simply the negative feelings of activists is climate journalism’s version of “bothsidesism.” This allows the headline writer to hint that the move will have an environmental impact while maintaining plausible deniability for the “climate change is liberal fake news” set.
Empirical, replicable science tells us such drilling projects have a negative impact on the environment. We don’t need to, as an industry, pretend that environmentalists’ feelings are somehow subjectively biased beyond these facts. We can instead state plainly that the Willow approval will add to the ways we are harming the climate, like the second headline from the AP does below.
June 1, 2023
As part of the negotiations to lift the debt ceiling and avoid economic turmoil, U.S. House Republicans wanted to sweep away legal hurdles for the Mountain Valley Pipeline — and they got their wish. The fossil fuel project had been held up by court challenges due to its plans to cut through the Jefferson National Forest and hundreds of waterways and wetlands, NPR reports. The headlines below, from The Washington Post and The Guardian, refer to this surprise announcement.
Both of these headlines use a common tactic for reporting out the impact of a controversial policy from a “neutral” stance. Instead of simply describing that impact as factual — in this case, the impact is a significant threat to the environment, predicated on a long history of U.S. pipeline accidents that damage people, animals, and land — it is attributed to “critics” or “activists.” This framing turns the negative impact of such a policy into a matter of opinion rather than fact.
The attempt to be “objective” here is misplaced. Policymakers and activists may have different opinions on whether a policy should be made law due to its impact. But where that impact is observable and/or provable, its existence is not up for debate. In other words, it’s not just that “critics say” such a deal would imperil the environment — empirical fact and logic says it would. Whether that should stop such a deal from being made, however, would be a matter of opinion suitable for journalists to present via opposing viewpoints.
A fairer, more accurate headline would treat the risk this new pipeline poses to the environment as self-evident. The headline below from the Hill doesn’t quite get there, but it does at least point out that the deal makes this possible due to its changes to environmental law.
The example below, from Slate, is a bit better. It is a little too clever for my taste, but it does manage to get across the inconsistent message of the deal: the MVP has a greenlight, but last year’s climate and energy bill remains in tact.
June 8, 2023
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have a lot to say about headlines today and it all revolves around using headlines to entice instead of to inform.
News media is a business, I know that. Digital outlets rely on pageviews to make the money that supports their journalism. It’s a (debatably) necessary evil. But a particular pet peeve of mine is turning a headline into a question when the answer is known.
Questions-as-headlines when the answer is unknown don’t bother me. That’s a reasonable use of the format, because the writer is telling the reader that the answer is being debated inside the story. It’s like a big “Unknowns Ahead” sign. It’s good wayfinding and it has the side effect of bringing a sense of mystery and thus clicks to the story. Win-win.
When the answer is known, however, using a question in a headline still signals “Unknowns Ahead.” It primes the reader to expect debate where there is none, preparing them to greet the information inside with skepticism. It leaves readers who only see this headline in passing open to misinformation elsewhere, because they will also believe this topic is up for debate. And, most importantly, it keeps people from seeing important information they may need. Here, the question format only benefits the newsroom who published it, because it creates that sense of mystery that will make people click.
I get especially frustrated when I see this technique used during emergencies. I want to scream at news producers: “Your audiences deserve to see life-saving information as soon as possible, including in headlines. Sharing life-saving information is more important than your click-through rate.”
So you can guess how I feel about this headline below from Healthline. Frustratingly enough, Healthline only used this headline for social media and search; the story page itself is topped with the straightforward answer, “Here are the Face Masks That Will Protect You From Wildfire Smoke.” That means the version below was likely chosen for search engine optimization purposes, to prey on people searching for helpful information at a critical time.
On the other hand, I appreciate the examples below for their specificity and directness. The HuffPost headline, in blue, immediately tells us which masks do help. Syracuse.com’s headline is search engine-friendly in that it’s formatted like an inquiry but it also provides the answer.
Now my pet peeve takes a turn from “this is annoying and could be better” to “this is destructive to our shared reality” when the not-unknown answer in question is only considered up for debate because of politically-driven denialism. Take, for example, the headline from USA Today below about climate change.
Informing audiences of the connections between individual climate disasters and the pattern of human-made climate change is mission-critical to saving the planet. In the case of the Canadian wildfires, describing this connection should absolutely be a story. But as this and other similar stories say inside, we do know the answer to, “Are they related?” and it’s “Yes, a thousand times yes.” Journalists need to get to the point without falsely implying that this question is up for debate. ABC News does it right, below, by being declarative about the facts while again using an SEO-friendly “how” format. Win-win.
July 13, 2023
In an ideal world, when research about how certain messaging influences audiences is disseminated, communicators like journalists would take this into account. For instance, we know that research has shown reporting that focuses solely on climate impacts without presenting potential solutions or actions increases fear and decreases hope in the audience. We also know news about solutions and action increase news engagement and optimism. These are both needed for communities to take action on our collective problems.
Let’s face it, these are scary headlines. The quote in the Grist’s headline sounds like a line from a disaster movie, and the Post literally uses the word “scaring.”
Don’t get me wrong — the climate crisis is scary and we should be talking about its impacts and how to solve for them. But we also know that headlines like these push people away. The headline below, from CNN, I feel does a better job at using a serious but not scary tone and directly addresses the cause and effect of recent extreme weather.
It’s also critical that we in the news industry make clear to audiences how science predicts these events will continue. The New York Times took that angle this week in the headline below — though its tone is a little condescending and fatalistic. The idea of a “new normal” implies inevitability, despite there being much we can do to mitigate the impact of climate change and natural hazards.
The PBS headline to an Associated Press story, below, gets the same point across without brushing aside the possibility for intervention. This is the straightforward (not flippant or defeated) tone audiences need on this topic.
September 14, 2023
As I’ve mentioned in a previous issue, the term “natural disaster” is a misnomer in many ways, one journalists should consider avoiding. The earth presents humans with many “natural” and hazardous weather events. They only become disasters when and where humans are particularly vulnerable to their effects due to a lack of preparedness and/or resources for rescue.
In the case of Libya, years of political conflict made the impact of Storm Daniel significantly worse by keeping the two dams that broke, sweeping thousands into the sea, from being repaired. In the case of Morocco, the New York Times reports that, “Despite the government’s efforts in recent years to impose higher standards to help buildings survive earthquakes…many builders continue to flout regulations to cut costs.” The Moroccan government has also been slow to accept international aid.
There’s nothing “natural” about these outcomes; they’re the result of choices made by individuals in power. In this way, the phrase “natural disaster” is in itself a news frame — it presents the ensuing damage as inherent and unavoidable. But we know this isn’t true, and correcting this frame will become more and more important as we continue to face escalating climate change-related hazards.
For example, the headline above from CNN does a good job of teeing up this story. It tells the reader there’s a long history that left Libya and its residents “unprepared” for this storm.
The headline from the Guardian, below, is a bit clearer though. It references that same “turmoil” as CNN, but adds in the extra context that climate change is also behind the worsening of such disasters.