Alan Rusbridger: ‘we not only need more positive news, but also more positive views!’
As the climate emergency intensifies worldwide, the line between reporting and campaigning needs to be redefined.
With the ravaging fire in the Amazon rainforest on one hand and thousands of planned walkouts from jobs and schools worldwide ahead of the UN Climate Change Summit on the other, the pressure is mounting from all sides to tackle the climate crisis. What is the line between campaigning and reporting? How have news media changed their coverage and tactics in recent years? GEN spoke with Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, who helped launch the 2015 “Keep it in the Ground” campaign for fossil fuel divestment. He is hopeful about the role of news media in addressing the climate crisis and shares some tips of his own.
GEN: In 2015 you helped launch the “Keep it in the ground” campaign at The Guardian to advocate for the fossil fuel divestment. Can you tell us more about this campaign and why you initiated it?
Alan Rusbridger: The climate crisis is the most important story of our times and some editors and journalists just forget that. At The Guardian, we considered we were downplaying climate change issues and that, six months before the COP 21, there was a momentum for having an impact on our readers/users, but more globally on the public opinion. The best way is always to empower people and to give them more influence. We said in very practical terms “you have the choice, you can continue to turn a blind eye to oil, gas and coal companies or you can — as a responsible citizen — ask them to ‘green’ their business model and influence their investors, such as banks and pension funds”. In the long term, a fossil free world is possible, and at the time there was no reason for us to wait more, so we helped launch the “Keep it in the ground” movement in May 2015.
(Disclosure: The Global Editors Network participated in the initiative by setting up the Climate Publishers Network with 40+ news organizations republishing each other’s climate change stories in order to expand their coverage of the issue)
Four years after the launch of the “Keep it in the ground” campaign, do you consider it was a success? How did you measure its impact?
The Bank of England and Prince Charles supported the campaign, but the impact was mostly on churches, universities, foundations and pension funds, as they took a more critical look at their investments. Suddenly, executives realized they couldn’t continue doing “business as usual” and that we were literally burning our natural resources with no respect for future generations. I was happy to not only cover the climate crisis issues, but also campaign for a noble cause. We had a debate within the newsroom if campaigning was outside of the journalistic realm, but the approval rate was massive. We also received some negative comments from US journalists, the backlash was much stronger than in the UK.
How do you explain that in the following years there were no similar campaigns launched by media?
Too much campaigning could kill campaigning, but after this initiative, we could see more stories and more coverage of the climate crisis. I also consider that readers/users asked more of their news media: instead of being passive, they asked them to be the agents of change — easy to say, but harder to implement on a day-to-day basis.
Another explanation is that innovative NGOs such as 350.org, move.org and Greenpeace are at the forefront of the battle. Today, they have a key role in influencing people through their activities, both offline and on social media.
Do you consider that news organisations were more innovative — and maybe more aggressive — before the COP 21 than today?
It’s getting better, but climate change has not been easy to cover for legacy media, even if you can find some excellent experts. I consider there have been five major obstacles:
- Journalists are good at reporting what happened yesterday, not what will happen tomorrow
- Traditionally scientists have had a kind of mistrust of journalists and did not want to participate in televised debates or other media initiatives
- It is not easy to translate the different metrics/figures or make complicated data visualisations user-friendly, but these are essential for illustrating the climate crisis
- Journalists like to present different angles, the pros and the cons, so they turn to climate deniers in order to provide a balanced view, but sometimes with no justification…
- The climate emergency concerns the whole humankind, but too often, it is still presented as an ideological or political issue. We must break these barriers.
During the last European elections, green parties were able to win many votes, but it seems that the media didn’t anticipate this result. It gives the impression that the public is now more forward-thinking than the media. Do you agree with this assertion?
Not really…more efforts must be made by news media, but there are some good news, such as the way tabloids are now starting to cover the climate crisis. Five to ten years ago, it was not the case.
Do you think the media organisations missed some opportunities between 2016 and 2019 to effectively raise awareness about the climate crisis?
I prefer to answer a question on what must be done by editors today. I consider we need a better understanding of the climate crisis, which is affecting every aspect of our life: what we eat, what we consume, our holidays and travels, as well as public health, immigration, security and defense. Environment is no longer a journalistic domain or field — all journalists must be trained on how climate crisis will impact their expertise. So newsrooms need to be more transversal when they decide to cover a specific issue.
The second evolution is that we definitely need to be more focused on solutions — we not only need more positive news, but also more positive views! Presenting the new zero-carbon economy, changing the mentality and behaviours are exciting challenges for the media.
Last suggestion: better use of social media, particularly for legacy media. At the moment, what we share is scary and the message is that the world situation is not sortable. This strategy is not useful or helpful for our audiences. On social media, the young people are looking for more practical and positive solutions. We have to think about the impact on users.
What do you think about the media coverage of Greta Thunberg and her work?
Well done Greta, well done young people. I think it’s ridiculous that some media focus on aspects of her private life, instead of what she stands for. I’m very optimistic about the movement she created, and I consider it is here to stay and grow in our democracies. It shows that the young are much more anxious than we expected and they cannot wait for solutions.
Alan Rusbridger was editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media from 1995–2015 and now is Principal of Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford. His book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now documents his decades working in the news industry while it went through a period of immense change. A keen amateur pianist and clarinettist, Rusbridger has been chair of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and the Photographers’ Gallery in London.