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What News Gets Wrong When Covering Climate Change

Posted October 06, 2023
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The other night I turned on NBC Nightly News. One of the last stories was about a summer of natural disasters in Greece caused by climate change including wildfires and flooding. The segment was predictably structured. It started with an introduction from Lester Holt with a throw to a correspondent who rattled off statistics and figures under b-roll of fires and floods, a soundbite from a victim, and a long interview with a climate scientist in Greece who discussed more statistics and figures and a political call to action. After that, it was back to Lester in the studio who went on to the next segment. 

Climate change is one of the biggest global stories. The way the news covers it is as an extended weather segment. It’s a tragedy if you ask me. 

Time and time again these kinds of stories come up on the news. This summer alone we had wildfires in Canada, smoke from those wildfires turning New York City orange, record heat in Western Europe, golfball-sized hail in Minnesota, fires and floods in Greece, monsoon and flooding in India and Pakistan, fire in Maui and many, many more. Whether these stories make most news broadcasts is unlikely, but when they do they are always covered in this way: a flown-in reporter, b-roll of damage, quick soundbite, and then a nod to climate change in the end. It is no surprise that in the United States, like many other countries, there is a general apathy towards this major global story with these events generally seen as weather stories first with an emphasis on damage to property and anything related to climate change as an afterthought. 

Here in New York this past month the UN held its General Assembly which if you are from New York you know means you acoid Midtown. At the UN there was a stated focus on addressing global climate change (not for the first time) as the word record as we set the hottest year on record this year. Looking at the top ten hottest years on record they all come from 2010 and later. 

While this was going on in Midtown, Uptown at the Columbia Journalism School they held a multiday conference looking at the way that the news organizations cover this big story. The takeaway: they needed to do better. This is definitely true but what it will require is a completely new approach to the way that they report on the story. 

What climate coverage needs is a completely different strategy.

There is one major thing that all stories on climate are missing and that is a character. 

News organizations have made climate change a faceless story. They just spew statistics and scientific figures that go over pretty much every viewer’s head. 

At the heart of the story of climate change are the people around the world who are affected by it, and they are left out of every story — simply reduced to a soundbite before throwing to a scientist. The science is important but that is not what will get people to resonate with the story. Most people don’t seek out scientific reports. What they do on a regular basis, though, is seek out stories about people.

Around the world every night people turn on Netflix or HBO and watch stories about people. You’ve never gotten a text from a friend about that great statistical report on Netflix. No you tell them about this great series or movie you’re watching, and at the heart of those series and movies are stories about people. 

Humans love stories about people and feel a connection with the characters they watch. There is no reason that this model of character-driven storytelling cannot be applied to the story of global climate change. News organizations can tell the story of what is going on around the world with climate change through the stories of the people who are being affected. 

Rather than fly in a reporter to stand next to a bunch of rubble, get one soundbite from someone who lost a house, and then interview the local university’s environmental professor, a much more compelling story can be told of the people. 

This is what will get people to pay attention and care that we had the hottest year on record, or that wildfires are at an all-time high. This is what the coverage needs — a face, or many faces. Characters will be what makes the climate change story finally resonate with people. 


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