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How to change the way we report on climate change


How to change the way we report on climate change

Picture of Linda Vecvagare
Linda Vecvagare — Marketing and Communications Manager
October 11, 2019

Main takeaways from “A New Era for Climate Change Reporting”, the News Impact Summit in Birmingham

Extinction Rebellion protesters took to the streets of London this week demanding climate justice across the world. Their actions raised public concern on climate change to record levels. Meanwhile in Birmingham, journalists, scientists and experts came together at our News Impact Summit to explore the future of climate reporting, and how to deal with a topic that evolved from niche to becoming transversal to every news beat ranging from health and infrastructure to science and human rights.

One thing is clear — this new era in climate change reporting brings a set of new questions for the journalism community. How can we best report on the issue? How can journalists help the audience understand the urgency and complexity of the situation?

We looked for answers to those challenging questions and this is what we learned.

1. Bring the worlds of journalism and science together

It’s crucial to report climate change based on evidence, science and data. “There’s not much excuse anymore. We need to improve our ability to cover complex issues,” said Elisabetta Tola, science and data journalist at Formicablu and More than ever, it’s necessary for journalists to learn how to evaluate sources and work with data.

“Every single day in English language journals there are around a hundred papers published related to climate change,” said Leo Hickman from Carbon Brief. The challenge for journalists is to pick and choose which new climate science we communicate to our readers.

Reaching out to scientists can help make sense of complex reports. However, “it’s important to get scientists to understand that when you’re talking to a journalist you can’t demand them to use your language,” emphasised Elisabetta.

“Before we had scepticism and now we have alarmism,” said Leo, “talking about an objective subject as climate change requires journalists to be grounded in what the scientists are saying.”

Elisabetta Tola, Formicablu &, David Gregory-Kumar, BBC and Leo Hickman, Carbon Brief
Elisabetta Tola, Formicablu &, David Gregory-Kumar, BBC and Leo Hickman, Carbon Brief

Newsrooms are still figuring out how to fit such a complex and ongoing topic as climate change in the fast-paced news cycle. Many are still reluctant to adopt terms like “climate emergency” or “climate crisis”; some believe it’s a step too far while others fear their audience might mistake their journalism with activism. Birmingham-based David Gregory-Kumar said it can take a while before we hear him saying ‘climate emergency’ on-air while reporting for the BBC.

At the end of the day, science and journalism can be two peas in a pod. “I see the role of science to ask and try to answer technical questions, but the job of journalism is to put those answers into context to say why those answers matter and to tell stories about them. Journalism is human in the way that physical science can’t be,” said climate scientist and journalist Adam Levy.

2. Unite and conquer: collaboration is key

To impact the audience and tackle issues as complex as climate change, newsrooms need to switch their mindset, leave traditional boundaries behind and collaborate.

While this may seem like a daunting task, collaboration does not have to be a burden to the newsroom, explained Jon Allsop, who presented Covering Climate Now. The initiative was co-founded by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review to increase the volume and quality of climate change reporting in new ways ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Summit on September 23 this year in New York.

“Collaboration can be a simple thing,” Jon noted. The newsrooms who joined Covering Climate Now stayed authentic to their own voice and audience and kept their engagement with each other loose as long as everyone agreed on a common action. The result: an international collaboration that brought together over 300 news outlets worldwide with a combined audience of over one billion people.

It’s also about time that collaboration goes beyond the limits of the newsrooms. For instance, Financial Times worked with science experts as well as a local theatre to create a powerful video exploring inaction on climate change.

3. Consider climate a dangerous beat

Journalists across the world are facing threats, prison, or even murder for the work they do. Forbidden Stories is a network of journalists whose mission is to continue and publish the work of other journalists who can no longer do their job. “You can try to kill the messenger, you can’t kill the message,” said Laurent Richard, the founder of Forbidden Stories.

In the past ten years, at least 13 journalists have been killed after working on environment-related stories, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “Investigating environmental scandals means confronting powerful organisations,” said Laurent, “when a journalist gets killed for the story it means the story is extremely important for the public”. That’s exactly why Forbidden Stories recently published “Green Blood — Environmental scandals” — a transnational project that pursued the investigations of reporters who faced threats when covering abuse by mining companies in India, Tanzania and Guatemala.

Mat Hope from DeSmog UK also believes that “climate change is a story about politics and society”. DeSmog works on investigating and mapping connections between climate deniers and governments. His advice is to talk about the characters in the climate stories and connect the dots between the people and organisations involved. There is a range of tools, starting from social media to open government databases, that can help journalists find out information about people, funding, connections, and help them “follow the money”.

4. Make it personal

“Climate change is everywhere, so it can feel like it’s nowhere,” added Adam Levy. If the research finds that climate change makes a heatwave 100 times more likely, journalists need to convey to the audience what that means for them. He emphasised that the role of a journalist is to tell stories the audience can relate to.

While climate change is a global issue, boiling it down to a specific person or community can help overcome issues of scale and proximity, explained Viktorija Mickute, senior producer at Al-Jazeera’s immersive storytelling studio called Contrast VR. They are using VR technology to amplify stories of unrepresented communities. “Our expert is not a cameraman, it’s the local community who take matters in their own hands and are trying to find solutions,” said Viktorija.

When it comes to being personal, BBC is going one step further by talking directly to the readers and allowing them to impact their editorial agenda. Their climate bot gives users the sense of having their own personal journey — they can choose the topics they want to explore and learn more about how their daily decisions fit into the global picture of climate change. It helps journalists talk and listen to the audience, with these interactions helping to shape their future editorial direction.

5. Innovate on the format to reach new audiences

“Climate change affects everyone so we need to discuss it in any way we can. That means doing it on every medium we can, and in every tone we can,” explained Adam Levy. According to him, we need online videos, podcasts and social media as much as we need traditional forms of journalism. Adam decided to turn to YouTube, where he is known as ClimateAdam and for explaining the environmental science in a playful and accessible tone, despite the serious nature of the topic.

The goal is to spark an emotional response from the audience. “Emotion does cut through the noise, especially on social media,” said Juliet Riddell, head of new formats at the Financial Times. She produced a video about climate change dystopia harnessing emotion to spread the message and make people understand its massive effects. “Sometimes facts don’t matter as much as emotions, emotions are what moves actions further,” emphasised Viktorija from AJ Contrast.

Extinction Rebellion launched “The Hourglass”, a newspaper printed on recycled paper, to showcase what climate reporting should look like from their point of view and, more importantly, to reach people who are not on social media.

Extinction Rebellion’s newspaper “The Hourglass”
Extinction Rebellion’s newspaper “The Hourglass”

6. Write stories with solutions

“Now everyone wants to talk about climate change, but we haven’t changed the approach as to how we report on that,” explained Elisabetta Tola.

Instead of focusing on the science behind climate change, she is reporting on solutions, trying to show how it’s influencing different aspects of our lives. “We’re not trying to push the idea of looking at solutions because we’re falsely optimistic, but because that’s what we have to do,” she said.

“I wanted to tell a solution story because the problem story was already told,” said Akshat Rathi, senior reporter for Quartz. He launched the weekly newsletter “The Race to Zero Emissions”, that is focused on solutions and actions that readers can take.

When selecting stories, it helps to listen to your audience. “One of the readers was saying — we’re overwhelmed by information and news we can’t act on,” shared Hazel Healy, co-editor at the New Internationalist. Based on that, they decided to focus their content on pointing out actual tools that would give readers a chance to avoid climate breakdown.

“We spelt out a clear course of action, and we were also very clear what actions won’t work. We also pointed out where people can find their own information,” Hazel explained.

Join our next News Impact Summit in Lyon

The next News Impact Summit takes place in Lyon on 15 November to explore covering politics in the misinformation age.

How can journalists provide clarity in a sea of information, misinformation and data? During this summit, experts will tell us how to make the most of digital tools to cover elections by sharing experiences that range from creating new apps to delivering election results in real-time to smartphones, to experimenting with platforms that flag and debunk misinformation during elections.

The event is free, register here to save your seat.

Further reading

  • Making climate science a human story
  • How a chatty bot is engaging audiences on climate change
  • What’s new in climate, politics and local reporting? Join our free News Impact events and find out


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