There has never been a better time to talk about climate change. The impacts and stakes have never been clearer. The political gap about how to deal with it has never been wider. We’re at a crossroads in human existence.
And yet more than three-quarters of Americans report they don’t hear about climate change on the regular from the media, according to polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. A new volunteer organization aims to change that by naming and shaming reporters who fail to bring up climate change and praising those that do. Long-term, the group’s plan is to give journalism students a crash course in climate change so that they’re prepared to talk about a problem and its solutions that touch every aspect of our planet.
“We’re asking reporters who are already talking about climate without even realizing it when they write about floods or wildfires or refugee crises or whatever the climate effects are to actually mention climate change explicitly in their stories,” Genevieve Guenther, a lecturer at The New School and the founder of EndClimateSilence.org, told Earther.
This may sound simple, but it’s proven surprisingly difficult for the mainstream media. Lisa Hymas, the climate program director at Media Matters, told Earther there wasn’t a single segment on the three major networks—ABC, NBC, or CBS—that covered climate change as a campaign issue during the 2016 presidential campaign. This year, just under a third of the 58 midterm debates the group has analyzed have included a climate question.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement here, to put it mildly,” Hymas said.
But the lack of coverage is just one facet of a much bigger problem. With few exceptions, Republicans have figured out how to game a media system that prizes false balance over objective facts. That weakness has been exploited by conservatives to launder climate denial, and it’s how you end up with stories brainlessly reporting Trump’s addled tweets.
Guenther envisions EndClimateSilence.org as one way to counter the prevailing narrative of zombie climate reporting. The group, launched earlier this year, has reached out to reporters through their favorite medium, Twitter, frequently threading tweets to show how climate change fits into the narrative of a story. While the focus has largely been on communication ahead of the the midterm elections, Guenther said next year they’d like to help connect journalists and scientists as well as get into classrooms.
“[We want to] get people who are future journalists to start thinking about this problem more explicitly,” she said.
That would be an expansion on work done by groups like Climate Central (where, disclosure, I used to work), which is trying to educate newsrooms and meteorologists on how to weave climate change into their reporting, and Climate Nexus, which connects journalists and climate experts.
“It’s great that #EndClimateSilence has gone from being a hashtag to being a whole dedicated group,” Hymas said. “This problem needs all the sustained attention and activism it can get.”
While the group has seen some success, its tweets have also led to people digging in their heels. Ian Livingston, a writer at the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, published a piece on the garbage autumn colors most of the Mid-Atlantic is seeing. EndClimateSilence.org argued climate change could’ve played a more prominent role in the story, which Livingston pushed back on.
“I was a little surprised that someone would have an issue with an article about leaves, but not shocked someone had an issue with something these days!” Livingston told Earther via Twitter direct message. While Livingston said he would likely follow the group to understand their viewpoint, the exchange does raise concerns about a boomerang effect, where pushing people to talk about climate change may turn them off from the idea.
It’s also worth noting that while the media’s climate coverage is by and large a wasteland, there are oases. The Weather Channel of all places is absolutely killing it. And in the wake of Hurricane Michael, Jake Tapper’s first question in a nationally televised Florida gubernatorial debate was about climate change.
Locally televised debates in Indiana and Colorado also featured climate questions, with moderators noting it was the top topic the public was interested in. “Some journalists think the public doesn’t want climate coverage, but they’re wrong,” Hymas said. “Individuals should make noise and let media outlets know that they want to hear about climate change.”
EndClimateSilence.org represents a digitally-focused way of amplifying those grievances in the hopes of further improving coverage. Of course, doing so would ultimately put Guenther out of business, but there are worse things in the world. For instance, catastrophic climate change.
This post has been updated to clarify climate coverage around the presidential campaign in 2016.