14 Nov 2021

All journalists are climate reporters now

From Mediawatch, 9:09 am on 14 November 2021

The climate talks in Glasgow are the big global story right now - but it doesn’t always feel like it in our news here. A climate change reporter tells Mediawatch every journalist should now be one too - and the lack of focus on this is a worry.

China's special climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua speaks during a joint China and US statement on a declaration enhancing climate action in the 2020s during the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow.

China's special climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua speaks during a joint China and US statement on a declaration enhancing climate action in the 2020s during the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. Photo: AFP

In the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, much of Aotearoa's media coverage zeroed in on political point-scoring over whether our climate change minister should be attending in person, with borders closed and MIQ spots at a premium.

As the talks got under way, daily reports switched focus on protest rallies, campaigners like Greta Thunberg, and the fly-in, fly-out visits of celebrities - especially who turned up in high-emissions private vehicles and aircraft. 

But for a summit billed as a 'last chance' and potentially a pivotal moment in human history, analysis of what would be discussed and what was at stake was harder to find.

Marc Daalder, a senior political reporter at Newsroom who also covers Covid-19 and climate change, told Mediawatch the process-oriented COP26 coverage showed how many of our media outlets are failing to cover climate change with the gravity it deserves.

“Journalists are people like everyone else. Very few of us have got a degree in physics or meteorology, or whatever else might be helpful to really understand the science of climate change,” he said. 

“But it's incumbent on outlets to create incentives for journalists to do climate coverage."

The reason most outlets don't have a climate change team is partly down to hard business reality - the subject doesn't get clicks.

Daalder said the sheer scale of climate change - both in magnitude and time spans it covers - can make it less appealing to audiences than more immediate crises like Covid-19, even though it's just as important.

“Maybe it's because climate feels like a far-off thing - like the frog in the pot. Once you can actually start to see the bubbles, that's when it's too late. So people are waiting for climate change to get catastrophic before they really start to worry about it. And by that time it's too late to do anything about it," he said.

"No-one cared about Covid when it was in China. Suddenly, it's in New Zealand and everyone is reading five times as much news as they were beforehand."

The market logic may be understandable, but it's an inadequate excuse for failing to maximise climate change coverage, Daalder said.

He compared the subject to the Covid-19 pandemic - an event of such global magnitude that it should be covered no matter the business implications.

"Some things are newsworthy and must be covered, even if no one reads about them. It's hard to imagine that if the audiences for Covid were as small as they were for climate, we wouldn't still be covering it to the same extent we are right now. Because it's an urgent pressing threat to the health and safety of the country."

Daalder credited organisations like Stuff for setting up a climate team. His own organisation also fundraised to send columnist Rod Oram to Glasgow for COP26.

But those sorts of efforts won't be enough to make climate reporting mainstream, Daalder said. He proposed another solution: infusing climate change into every reporter's daily round so audiences are hearing about it as they read the rest of their daily news.

"You have to expand beyond that into making sure that the journalist in the business team and the lifestyle team and the politics team are also doing climate coverage - or taking it into account as they write about it," he said.

"My firmly held belief is that if news outlets covered climate change more and filtered climate into much more of their 'non-sciencey' coverage, that would help change the way everyone thinks about climate. People would read more about climate regardless of whether they're intending to or not."

As if to make this point, Thursday’s Morning Report on RNZ - immediately after crossing to Climate Change Minister James Shaw for the latest from Glasgow - ran a report from Australia’s ABC about former Wallabies captain David Pocock taking a stand against a sponsorship deal that makes the players billboards for Santos, a major oil and gas company.  

The NZRU's similar deal here with Ineos which created a similar - if short-lived - controversy here.

Daalder said climate change is now impacting on every reporting round - from housing to sport - and should be treated as an ongoing event, rather than one that only crops up during major summits like COP26.

“COP is being covered as an event and there will be flurry of climate coverage around it. That will end next week and people will go back to not really covering climate change until there's another big reason to cover it.

“But climate change is happening all the time, always."