Framing Climate Change as News: Lessons from The Guardian

In 2015 the outgoing editor of The Guardian decided to change how they reported on climate change.  

Convinced they were not doing enough, they devoted a regular section to climate change reporting. As a result they’ve experimented with new ways to consistently cover a slow-moving (though ever-important) story. The result is a model for all of us looking to educate and spur the population into action.

Let’s start by reminding ourselves of the challenge for journalists. The editor explained:

Journalism tends to be a rear-view mirror. We prefer to deal with what has happened, not what lies ahead. We favour what is exceptional and in full view over what is ordinary and hidden.

There may be other extraordinary and significant things happening – but they may be occurring too slowly or invisibly for the impatient tick-tock of the newsroom or to snatch the attention of a harassed reader on the way to work.

What is even more complex: there may be things that have yet to happen – stuff that cannot even be described as news on the grounds that news is stuff that has already happened. If it is not yet news – if it is in the realm of prediction, speculation and uncertainty – it is difficult for a news editor to cope with. Not her job.

For these, and other, reasons changes to the Earth’s climate rarely make it to the top of the news list. The changes may be happening too fast for human comfort, but they happen too slowly for the newsmakers – and, to be fair, for most readers.

Since then they have devoted millions of words to climate change and its impacts. Here are the different strategies that they are trying to get readers interested in the story, which can be helpful to us as we consider different ways to pitch stories to reporters. (Read more about how to design news-worthy actions.) 

1) Cover new studies/reports

Reporters are looking for what’s “new”. Studies and reports count as new things that reporters can cover, especially if they have a dramatic “hook” or surprising finding.  This can then connect to bigger climate change narrative.

  • Many car brands emit more pollution than Volkswagen, report finds: Diesel cars by Fiat, Suzuki and Renault among makers emitting up to fifteen times European standard for nitrogen oxide
  • New York pension fund could have made billions by divesting from fossil fuels – report: Moving money out of fossil fuels and into environmentally-friendly tech could have made members of the state’s pension fund an extra $4,500 each
  • Arctic sea ice shrinks to second lowest level ever recorded: ‘Tremendous loss’ of ice reinforces clear downward trend towards ice-free summers due to effects of climate change
  • Polar bears losing crucial sea ice: Life-sustaining sea ice needed for hunting, resting and breeding is declining in all 19 regions of the Arctic inhabited by the species
  • August ties with July as hottest month on record: August continued the remarkable streak of record hot months in 2016, equalling July as the hottest month on record

2) Find connections between already mainstream news stories and climate change

People “click” on headlines connected to already major news stories. Reporters need new angles to cover these stories — and climate change can be that angle.

  • Trump and the Republican Party are doing Big Oil’s bidding: The fossil fuel industry is dictating Republican Party actions on climate change in attorney generals’ offices, Congress, and for its presidential nominee
  • Climate change made Louisiana’s catastrophic floods much more likely: Human-derived rising temperatures increased the risk of the natural disaster by at least 40%, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study found
  • Flooding: UK government plans for more extreme rainfall: National review prompted by severe flooding in recent winters anticipates 20-30% more extreme downpours than before
  • Climate change is a racist crisis: that’s why Black Lives Matter closed an airport:  Recent BLM protest at London City airport makes perfect sense: whether it’s via air pollution or police detention, race inequality is alive and kicking in Britain

3) Find unusual/unique spokespeople

Journalists know that people click on stories about unique or famous people. Therefore, with the right spokesperson, we present climate change as an issue that’s highly relatable even outside the “usual suspects.”

  • ’No time to waste’: climate changes for films on global warming: Rob Callender, who appeared in Sherlock and Game of Thrones, discusses The Incentive, his environmental call to arms
  • Lives in the balance: climate change and the Marshall Islands: The numerous atolls that make up the island nation are now regularly swamped due to sea level rise. But as more people flee for the US, many fear their culture will be lost to a country that has already taken so much from them
  • Edward Burtynsky on his ravaged Earth shots: ’We’ve reached peak everything’: The great photographer’s awesome images – taken from drones, propellor planes and a 50ft selfie stick – show how industry has drilled and drained our planet

4) Report activism or solutions work

This is straightforward: cover what activists are doing. This means our actions have to be dramatic and news-worthy.  Since climate change news can be so depressing, solutions work is a welcome unusual angle with its sense of hopefulness and future-orientation.

  • Adani Carmichael coal mine faces new legal challenge from conservation foundation: Foundation appeals against ruling that endorsed mine’s approval by the commonwealth
  • City of Sydney council to divest from fossil fuels regardless of election result: Council unanimously passes motion calling for policy that would remove more than $500m from banks that invest in fossil fuels
  • Development and indigenous peoples: creating community-owned solutions:  How do you navigate the boundary between participation and manipulation in community-led development? Cobra, an EU-funded project, has been working on just this problem
  • World’s first large-scale tidal energy farm launches in Scotland: MeyGen tidal stream project leads the way in tackling climate change and providing jobs, says Nicola Sturgeon
  • Switching banks: nearly half of all Australians would consider move over climate change: Poll findings released as prominent Australians call on big four to withdraw backing for fossil fuel industry

5) Report on “slow-burn” news stories with something people care about

This type of news story grabs the reader with something personal. By giving concrete, specific examples, this draws readers into bigger news stories via something that affects their day-to-day.

    • Global investment in energy falls but renewables remain strong: Energy investment fell 8% in 2015, reflecting low oil and gas prices, but falling costs and government policy shift spending towards clean energy, data shows
    • An American tragedy: why are millions of trees dying across the country?: A quiet crisis playing out in US forests as huge numbers of trees succumb to drought, disease, insects and wildfire – much of it driven by climate change
    • Climate change is threatening the world’s coffee supplies: what can we do?

6) Report how politicians/governments are doing on climate change

Journalists are generally interested in covering political decision-makers. Climate change is a global story and therefore how it fits into the current landscape of governing makes for an interesting story.

    • Malcolm Roberts to discuss climate science with CSIRO: One Nation senator asks for briefing to see science agency’s proof that carbon dioxide affects climate ‘because they’ve never provided it before’
    • Corbyn pledges to ban fracking as part of Labour’s new green agenda: Labour leader announces plans to massively increase renewable energy and phase out coal power earlier than currently planned
    • G20 reaffirms climate commitments – but dodges deadlines: Leaders back rapid implementation of the Paris agreement and ramping up of green finance, but fail to set timeline for phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies