Journalists have a duty not to be impartial when it comes to climate change

Journalism and climate change insights from Alan Rusbridger, now principal of Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford and former editor-in-chief at the Guardian.

Climate change is a catastrophe in slow motion. Its effects are not always immediately visible, making it a lot less exciting to watch than Trump’s Twitter account.

According to Yale research, only about 43% of Americans say they hear about global warming in the media once a month or more frequently. More than 37% of Americans say they hear about it in the media only several times a year or less, and an additional 7% say they never hear about it.

How can we give climate change the coverage it needs?

The European Forest Institute and the Global Editors Network joined forces this year to experiment on Lookout360°, the ‘6-month Climate Change Immersive Story Accelerator’.

The pilot project focused on publishing a 360-degree story in just a few weeks (you might have recently spotted one on the El País homepage!). Using immersive technologies, the aim of the programme was to make the impact of climate change more relatable and to place it firmly in the here and now.

Ice crack on an Antarctica ice shelf in 2016 — NASA photographs by John Sonntag — Public domain

As part of the programme, the participants were given the opportunity to ask Alan Rusbridger, principal of Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford and former editor-in-chief at the Guardian, questions related to journalism and climate change.

Below are some highlights from the conversation, including the danger of creating climate change story ‘ghettos’, the importance of collaboration between newsrooms to tackle a global issue, and the idea that editors need to believe that climate change is the most important story in the world. The conversation has been edited for clarity and a full audio of the conversation is included in the article.


Alan Rusbridger, on climate change and journalism

‘In the last six months of being an editor I was thinking, ‘What will I miss? What could I have done while I was an editor that I didn’t do?’ It wasn’t that we hadn’t taken climate change seriously at the Guardian. I thought we had covered it well. But nevertheless, I thought I was likely to be asked by my children or grandchildren ‘What were your regrets?’ and I think the answer would be climate change.’

‘If we believe that this is the biggest story of our lives — which it probably is — and then you look and see how that translates into how the media covers it, there’s a terrible mismatch between this immensely important story and the way the media deals with it now.’

How can we engage the public in the ‘very science-heavy’ coverage of climate change?

— Question by Lucy Sherriff, freelance multimedia journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia

Alan Rusbridger: ‘We have to ask ourselves why so many readers just switch off when they see a climate change story. There’s a lot of work that’s done now by psychologists who say that the brain can’t cope with something of this magnitude: it’s too frightening, people close down and can’t really bear to read about it.’ […]

‘I had a conversation with Bill McKibben (from 350.org, former journalist at the New Yorker), and he is very good at thinking about journalism climate change. He took me aside one day and said, ‘The mistake you’re making Alan, is to cover this as a climate change story. It’s not. We know about climate change. The science has been established and by having it covered by your environmental desk, all you’re doing is putting it into a ghetto of climate change stories.’

‘Everything is a climate change story now so you ought to be pushing that into your newsroom.’

‘It’s about immigration, it’s about security, it’s about food, it’s about economics, it’s about politics, and whatever it is that you have specialists in. Climate change ought to be part of their beat. […] Instead of putting climate change into the headline, [you should] almost surprise people by writing other kinds of stories in which climate change comes in.’

How should journalists cover climate change to get the attention of policy makers?

— Question by Sonia Narang, multimedia at Public Radio International (PRI)

AR: ‘If we believe that climate change is the most important story in the world, maybe the job has to begin in newsrooms with editors believing that. If editors don’t believe that, then you’re never going to be able to get the public to take notice.’ […]

Alan Rusbridger

‘Some newsrooms are becoming dominated by metrics. We obsess about what our readers read, or will pay for, or what turns them into subscribers. If that’s the guiding principle in your newsroom and if your readers are switched off from reading about climate change, then that is not good news. This is one of those areas where we have to assert our judgment and say ‘we believe this is an area that you certainly should be interested in’.

‘If we have that conviction and we’re not going to be guided by metrics, then I think we have to use all our skills as journalists to project this, to dramatise it, and to make our reporting unshakable, because we will come under attack.’

‘We have to gain the trust of the scientific community so that they will work with us on this. […] It has to be very prominent on our websites and in our social media feeds, so that the readers then can understand that this is something of enormous importance.’

‘Another thing: What we, as journalists, have to do is to win trust.’

‘We have to face up to the fact that there is declining trust in all media. I can’t help thinking that we haven’t yet begun to think about what that involves.’
Image from the ‘Keep it in the ground’ campaign against fossil fuels on The Guardian, Rusbridger‘s last project as editor-in-chief — Read more

‘The news cycle — if you work with words — is that you write your story and you press send. And that’s the end of the news cycle, you go home. Whereas now, there are people who say that the most interesting moment in the news cycle is the moment at which you press send, because that’s when people start responding. Some journalists feel that’s an experiment that’s failed and they don’t want to respond. They think it’s a hostile space particularly when it comes to climate change.’

‘And yet, all the experience and evidence seems to be if you do respond, if you engage with readers, it’s a very good way of calming the debate down. It makes readers feel that you’re willing to engage and that you’re not in some ivory tower.’

‘Whatever it is in, whatever medium we work, whatever it is that’s going to build trust, let’s do it. But it may involve working in a very different way than we worked in the past.’

Should climate change journalism be more like activism?

— Question by Qing Wang, Europe Correspondent at Jiemian News

AR: ‘For the rest of us, those of us who don’t work for an organisation like the BBC [which is legally required to be impartial], if you believe as I do that the science is largely settled, that climate change is a terrible threat to the human species, and that if we get above 2 degrees in warming we get into real trouble, and if we get to 4 degrees we’re in desperate trouble, if we believe that and we believe that the overwhelming majority of science confirms that, then I don’t think that we have a duty to be impartial.’

‘In fact, I think we have a duty not to be impartial.’

‘We have a duty to embrace the opinion of scientists and not waste too much time arguing about whether they’re right or not.’

What kind of cross-border collaboration is needed when it comes to climate change coverage?

— Question by Rina Tsubaki, leading The Lookout Station at the European Forest Institute

Alan Rusbridger: ‘Climate is obviously not a nationalistic story or a national story. I think the climate is a story that is uniquely suited to collaboration.’

‘Because it is so global, climate change is a subject on which journalists should be collaborating. And I couldn’t be more pleased when I see journalists from around the world forgetting competition and saying ‘look, this is bigger than that.’ This is a subject on which we really have to get together and work together.’


Listen to the full Future of Journalism ‘Ask Me Anything’ session with Alan Rusbriger:


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. He is member of The Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian and the Observer and will take over as Chair later this year.


Lookout360°

The Climate Change Immersive Story Accelerator is a new 6-month media support programme for journalists who are eager to get started with producing immersive stories on climate change. The European Forest Institute and the Global Editors Network have launched Lookout360°, a pilot project that focuses on 360-degree video storytelling.

Climate change was already a key theme in previous GEN programmes: Editors Lab Final in 2015 on the theme of sustainable development, the coordination of the Climate Publishers Network initiative, and more recently, a hackathon around the theme of wildfire reporting.

This year’s GEN Summit will feature two main stage sessions on the topic:

Read more about Lookout360°