18 Aug 2019

Media's worldwide push for climate change coverage

From Mediawatch, 9:15 am on 18 August 2019

Last week the Sunday Star Times ran an article asking the question: Is the New Zealand media eco-friendly? It was more an environmental stock-take of the media businesses themselves than an analysis of their editorial commitment to reporting the environment.

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We learned that Stuff uses vegetable-based ink, RNZ has a sustainability working group, Mediaworks aims to cut office waste in half, NZME uses the most sustainable paper on the market, The Spinoff plans to become carbon positive and so on.

But in the scheme of things how the media reports climate change will have a far greater impact on the planet’s future than the actions of any single company.

Next month will provide New Zealand audiences with a rare chance to compare how our media organisations are tackling what many consider to be the most important story of our age with those in other countries.

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Photo: Covering Climate Change Now: screenshot

Seventy media organisations from around the world are taking part in Covering Climate Change Now - a week of climate change reporting, beginning on Monday 16 September, in the lead-up to a UN summit on climate change in New York.

Most of New Zealand's major news outlets - Stuff, New Zealand Herald, TVNZ, RNZ, Newsroom and the Spinoff - are joining the likes of the Guardian, Scientific American, CBS News, La Republica, and the Lancet in committing themselves to a week of special reporting on climate change.

Covering Climate Change Now co-founders Mark Hertsgaard (The Nation’s environment correspondent) and Kyle Pope (editor and publisher of Columbia Journalism Review) have said: “We’re not here to tell people what to write or broadcast. All that’s required is for each outlet to make a good faith effort to increase the amount and the visibility of its climate coverage – to make it clear to their audiences that climate change is not just one more story but the overriding story of our time.”

And it's a story that's all but been ignored by some mainstream news outlets in the USA. Media Matters, a US think tank,  reported in May that US television network “ABC’s World News Tonight spent more than seven minutes reporting on the birth of royal baby Archie in the week after he was born -- more time than the program spent covering climate change during the entire year of 2018.”

The other network channels weren’t much better.  Media Matters compared coverage of Archie’s birth with a UN Report claiming up to one million species could go extinct due to climate change which was published the same week as the arrival of the baby - who is eighth in line to the British throne - and found Archie won hands down on all the major networks.

It's not just the broadcast media that's been ignoring the story. Twenty-two of the US’s 50 largest newspapers failed to report the IPCC's special report last October which warned of the dire consequences of a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius. (The report was widely referenced in the New Zealand media.)

So, what do the New Zealand media outlets that have signed up to Covering Climate Change Now! Have in store for us?

Well – none of them were particularly keen to share any details at this stage. Spinoff editor Toby Manhire wrote in an email: "We're planning a series of pieces, including at least two substantial features which are under way and a bunch of shorter stories across a range of sections. The members' project means we can afford to commission on important subjects like this where before I just wouldn't have had the budget to do anything substantial."

Patrick Crewdson

Patrick Crewdson Photo: FAIRFAX MEDIA NZ

One news organisation that has significantly ramped up its climate change coverage in recent months is Stuff.

Back in November it launched Quick! Save the Planet.

Stuff editor-in-chief Patrick Crewdson wrote at the time: “Solving climate change – or at least averting cataclysm – isn't as simple as planting more trees, eating less meat, and swapping your car for a Lime. Individuals can make a difference and inspire a ripple effect of change. But considering the scale of this problem, that won't be anywhere near enough. We need systemic change that shifts communities, companies and countries.

"The classic Kiwi "she'll be right" attitude won't serve us here. Without urgent and comprehensive action, she won't be right," he wrote.

And Patrick Crewdson told Mediawatch Stuff's commitment to Covering Climate Change Now is an extension of what it's been doing with Quick! Save the Planet.

"We just want to really pound away at climate change coverage on a regular basis. Increase the intensity of it. And to make the problems of climate change feel urgent and tangible and unignorable," he said.

But is Stuff itself sometimes guilty of ignoring the problem? A couple of weeks back the Dominion Post filled most of its front page with a story on the possible move of the cruise ship dock to much closer to the city. The story explored all the angles - benefits for those on the cruise, increased tourism, cost etc - but no mention was made of the impact of the growing cruise ship industry on the environment.

"It's a really good point," Patrick Crewsdon said.

"It's something our readers have told us recently as well is that they don't want us to isolate climate change coverage or have it in a ghetto where this story is about climate change. They want to see climate change as an issue infused through other coverage," he said.

15,000 readers respond to Stuff's climate change survey

That reader feedback was in response to an online survey Stuff ran earlier this year.

Over a one-week period in June more than 15,000 readers responded to the survey on the type of coverage they would like.

Patrick Crewdson said it broke-down into seven broad themes:

  • People wanted to avoid being too depressed by the coverage. People need to have hope.
  • Information on how individuals can make a difference.
  • Holding the powerful to account.
  • Not to forget about farming (both its contribution to climate change and efforts to mitigate those effects.)
  • Increase the volume. More stories on front page. Climate change section etc.
  • Go back to basics. Simplify and restate the basic concepts.
  • Look into the future and describe what life could be like.

And what about the climate change deniers?

"Yes, there were some. They were a loud voice in the survey responses but not a disproportionate voice," he said.

"I think it's important to realise that climate change is very much a mainstream concern now. There was an Ipsos poll a couple of weeks ago that said 79 percent of New Zealanders were concerned about climate change."

A recent edition of the Dominion Post contained more than seven full pages of travel advertising, car advertising regularly take up pages of the paper. Does that put Stuff in a difficult position with its stated commitment to doing something about climate change?

"That's a conundrum that honestly I don't really have an answer to," Patrick Crewdson said.

"It's true. It's fair to say that companies that are large emitters advertise with us. It's also fair to say that Stuff is a commercial news organisation and we fund ourselves through advertising. So I would choose to say it's better that we continue to exist and can publish - not just on climate change but on all the other social good we deliver on our journalism - rather than cutting ourselves out of business by cutting off our advertising."