Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

A New Beginning for Climate Reporting

Insights + Opinion
A New Beginning for Climate Reporting
The 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg speaks during her protest action for more climate protection with a reporter. Steffen Trumpf / picture alliance / Getty Images

By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

It's been 30 years since Bill McKibben rang the warning bells about the threat of man-made climate change — first in a piece in The New Yorker, and then in his book, The End of Nature.


For most of that time, the response from most quarters of the media, especially in the U.S., has been either silence or, worse, getting the story wrong. Reporters and their news organizations sidelined climate stories as too technical or too political or too depressing. Spun by the fossil fuel industry and vexed by their own business problems, media outlets often leaned on a false balance between the views of genuine scientists and those of paid corporate mouthpieces. The media's minimization of the looming disaster is one of our great journalistic failures.

It is heartening, then, to report that the press may at last be waking up to the defining story of our time. At the end of April, Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation launched Covering Climate Now, a project aimed at encouraging news organizations, here and abroad, to raise their game when it comes to climate coverage. We weren't going to tell people what to write or broadcast; we just wanted them to do more coverage, and to do it better. Close the gap, we urged them, between the size of the story and the ambition of your efforts. Try it for a week, then report back on what you learned.

We had a hunch that there was a critical mass of reporters and news outlets that wanted to do more climate coverage, and hoped that by highlighting that critical mass, we could also help to grow it. That's exactly what has happened. Our initiative has been embraced by more than 250 news outlets from across the U.S. and around the world — big outlets and small, print and digital, TV and radio — with a combined audience of well over 1 billion people. Their response has been amazing, and gratifying.

We believe that Covering Climate Now is the biggest effort ever undertaken to organize the world's press around a single topic. (You'll find a list of partners here, and you can follow all of us on Twitter at #CoveringClimateNow.)

Our week of focused climate coverage began Sunday and will continue through next Monday, Sept. 23, the day of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York. And there's more to come after this week is over; the climate story is not going away, so neither are we. We'll be talking to our newsroom partners about what they learned this week, what they need to continue the momentum, what they can learn from one another, and where we go from here.

We are thrilled that Covering Climate Now has flourished. Yet what has also become clear in the five months since we began this effort is the enormous amount of work that remains to be done in order for the media to get this story right. In talking with dozens of reporters, producers and editors, we've learned a lot about the ambitions that newsrooms have for improving their climate coverage, but we've also seen where roadblocks remain.

As the scientists have been telling us with increasing urgency, humanity's window to transform our world is shrinking fast. Transforming the news media is fundamental to achieving that goal.

What misconceptions remain? What's keeping newsrooms from doing more? Here are some roadblocks that stood out in our conversations.

We don't know where to start.

One of our most sobering conversations came during a meeting inside one of the world's biggest news organizations, with a group of people asked by their boss to improve their climate coverage. These people were eager to embrace our project and had the resources to do it. But they had no idea how to begin:

Where do we come up with story ideas? Who should our sources be? Can you help us think this through? Their response stunned us, given the size of the newsroom around us, but it reminded us early on in this process that in many cases, we're starting from scratch. We've written before, critically, about why this should not be the case, about how the media's avoidance of the climate story has been an epic fail. Going forward, our focus will be on helping this newsroom, and others like it, get better.

Our viewers will think we're activists. 

Many journalists and news executives continue to see climate coverage as political and worry that more coverage will be seen as activism.

We heard it from numerous newsrooms, and not just in those places where climate-denying politicians still hold sway. We think this concern distorts what newsgathering is about. Journalism has always been about righting wrongs, holding the powerful to account, calling out lies. It is in our best traditions to shine a light on our most vexing problems, in order to help fix them.

It's too late; the problem is too big for us to make any difference. 

Good journalism often makes things happen, though not always on the timeline we'd like — if at all. The public doesn't respond; readers feel powerless; entrenched players outmaneuver reporters. That is part of how it works, too. But few reporters would still do the work if they believed it made no difference. It's our journalistic responsibility to convey what is happening and why, as well as who is trying to fix it, and how. That's our job as storytellers.

Readers will find this depressing and tune out. 

News organizations that have embraced climate coverage find that audiences — particularly younger viewers, listeners, and readers — are, in fact, enormously engaged in the coverage. They may get angry or energized or organized by climate stories, but they don't tune them out. It is a strange time when journalism's leaders argue against covering a subject that's undeniably important simply because they're worried their audience may find it challenging. Is this really where you want your newsroom to be?

We're already pulling our weight.

There are a number of media outlets — not enough, but a number — that already are producing excellent climate coverage. (Our lead media partner, The Guardian, is at the top of that list.) But others declined to join this effort because they didn't see how it would help them; they already know the climate story, and believe they are covering it aggressively. We found those responses disappointing.

This is a chance for big media organizations to lead, and to help others along. The climate story stretches across all journalistic beats; it demands that we dismantle the usual silos. Covering it well may require a bit of cooperation and collaboration that is antithetical to how we usually work. Take this on as a problem that is bigger than your own newsroom.

All of these challenges are surmountable. Throughout this week, you'll hear from hundreds of newsrooms that have overcome them. Two hundred and fifty media organizations, more than 1 billion people. Those are big numbers. And they are just the beginning.

Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation's environment correspondent, has covered climate change since 1989.

Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

This story originally appeared in The Nation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Sustainable t-shirts by Allbirds are made from a new, low-carbon material that uses a mineral extract from discarded snow crab shells. Jerry Buttles / Allbirds

In the age of consumption, sustainability innovations can help shift cultural habits and protect dwindling natural resources. Improvements in source materials, product durability and end-of-life disposal procedures can create consumer products that are better for the Earth throughout their lifecycles. Three recent advancements hope to make a difference.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

Trending

There are many different CBD oil brands in today's market. But, figuring out which brand is the best and which brand has the strongest oil might feel challenging and confusing. Our simple guide to the strongest CBD oils will point you in the right direction.

Read More Show Less
Financial institutions in New York state will now have to consider the climate-related risks of their planning strategies. Ramy Majouji / WikiMedia Commons

By Brett Wilkins

Regulators in New York state announced Thursday that banks and other financial services companies are expected to plan and prepare for risks posed by the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less
The left image shows the OSIRIS-REx collector head hovering over the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) after the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism arm moved it into the proper position for capture. The right image shows the collector head secured onto the capture ring in the SRC. NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona / Lockheed Martin

A NASA spacecraft has successfully collected a sample from the Bennu asteroid more than 200 million miles away from Earth. The samples were safely stored and will be preserved for scientists to study after the spacecraft drops them over the Utah desert in 2023, according to the Associated Press (AP).

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch