Our podcast: How to improve climate change coverage. Ideas from three reporters around the world

Members of our climate network from Brazil, South Africa and the Philippines discuss how to make climate reporting more effective
11th August 2022

The topic

In this episode of our podcast, we speak to members of our Oxford Climate Journalism Network (OCJN) on their experience participating in the network, what they have learned, how it has improved their understanding of the climate and how to improve its coverage, and the importance of solidarity and community among journalists covering climate change.

The speakers

Elisângela Mendonça is an award-winning journalist at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism specialising in climate breakdown and human rights. She is a fellow at the Pulitzer Center Rainforest Investigations Network. She is member of the OCJN.

Krixia Subingsubing is a journalist at the Philippine Daily Inquirer covering politics, social justice, human rights and the environment. She is member of the OCJN.

Ethan van Diemen is a South African data and investigative journalist based for the Daily Maverick. He writes about the intersection of climate change, energy and development in sub-Saharan Africa. He is a member of the OCJN.

Our host Diego Arguedas Ortiz Network Manager at the Oxford Climate Journalism Network. His work has been published by BBC Future, MIT Technology ReviewLe Monde Diplomatique, Univision and Anthropocene. He has covered several UN climate change conferences, the Panama Papers, and founded and edited Ojo al Clima, Central America's first climate news outlet.

The podcast

Listen on: Spotify | Apple | Google

A unique experienceHow the network has changed climate journalismThe importance of communityFavourite learning sessionsKey takeaways for improving climate change

A unique experience

Diego: Six months ago, the three of you were part of the group who joined us for the first cohort at the Oxford Climate Journalism Network. And between January and June, we held online events every two weeks with 100 reporters, including the three of you from all over the world. And we hosted dozens of informal calls online. And our mission together was to collectively attempt to make climate journalism better, more interesting, more effective, and more relevant to the audiences. And over the course of the six months, I think we managed to think a lot about that. And we've managed to really explore the way climate journalism works. We met with leading climate scientists and experts to learn how the crisis is reshaping our understanding of global health of climate justice and finance to name a few. And I think, more importantly, we also debated and brainstormed how to meet the challenge of covering these stories well, and what the climate-conscious newsroom of the future might look like. And I want to start by asking you, can you tell us about your experience at the network? How was it for you guys to have this six-month experience with the cohort? Maybe I'll go with Krixia and then Ethan and Elisângela.

Krixia: To be perfectly honest, I was so terrified at first. I was very scared at the start of the programme. You know, almost immediately, when we began our classes, I can already sense that most of my classmates have been covering climate reporting for years. So because I wasn't really an environmental reporter at the start, I felt like a fraud, you know, even being here. There was Steve, there was Jéssica, Steven, Joana, Sahana. And of course, my two classmates here, they already seemed very entrenched in climate reporting already. So I was very scared of being out of depth with the lectures.

But then as the weeks went on, I was very grateful that the Reuters Institute and Oxford kept true to their word, when they first called for applications for this particular cohort that classes in the workshops will be tailored, precisely so that people who don't necessarily cover climate change will be able to understand the issue as well. So it was very fascinating listening to how climate intersects with, for example, gender-based issues. So how women and children tend to be the most vulnerable during disasters, how it's linked to mental health. What I also noticed is that each lecture was very logically linked to one another and you never felt like this particular course was just shoehorned into the six-month course, just so you can fill up the schedule.

And what I also appreciated about the programme was that I've met people who I otherwise would not have met if I wasn't part of the cohort. So apart from Diego and Katherine and, of course, my classmates, I never would have imagined sitting in a lecture being headed by the likes of Dr. Anthony Feinstein, Dr. O'Neill, Lorena Gonzalez. So it's the kind of network that really provides you opportunities to be connected with sources and people that otherwise would not have been made available to you. But to be clear, though, the Philippines does not have a shortage of resources. We have a lot of brilliant scientists, we have a lot of community organisers and climate activists. But of course, it's very important to be linked with global experts so that you can be able to listen to what they have to offer, listen to the global solutions that they have and think about how it can be emulated and do local practices here.

Diego: Thank you very much. Yeah. The point about the local expert or something that you need, our colleague Janine at the network also made a lot. Ethan, how was it for you?

Ethan: So it's hard to follow that, that was pretty comprehensive! But I agree with most of those sentiments. For me, it's a unique situation where I come from a background where I was really a political reporter, parliamentary reporter. And then essentially I’d done only six months on the beat of just climate change, and the climate crisis and environmental reporting more generally. And I sort of went on a process of self-education, familiarising myself with the different terms and the science and understanding things. I'm just now at the end of my first year, so this second half was with the OCJN and in a sense, it was like a formal education just reiterating on what I had learned, and reinforcing it, but also expanding on what I thought I knew, in the best possible way. I always say that I had no idea about ‘attribution’, quite frankly. I had no idea that attribution science had evolved or progressed to the point where specific extreme weather events can be rapidly attributed as an impact of global warming and climate change. And that's just one example. I think it was just really good. It never felt too formal. I have nothing but good things to say, quite frankly, I think it was an education in the best possible way.

Diego: I'm really happy to hear that. And Elisângela, you are by no means a newcomer to environmental reporting. How was the experience for you?

Elisângela: Well, as my colleagues said, This course was a unique and fantastic opportunity to learn, with the training sessions to learn from colleagues from around the world and to network with them. I think this is a great benefit from the programme. But most of all, I think that this programme gave me some sort of binoculars to look into the future, at least the future that I really hope that we can have when covering the climate crisis. It's a future where journalists with diverse backgrounds, working in different beats, not only in science or environment, these journalists will try to embed the discussions and reporting on climate in everything they do.

So the most important lesson from this experience for me was that climate reporting can't be this add-on to our usual reporting. So the crisis is very much real, right. So as journalists, our mission should be to help everyone take it seriously. So it was very very energising to see my colleagues from around the world. So we were 100 journalists, from different places in the world, working tirelessly to meet this challenge. And this reality is the reality that I want to see everywhere, when when I use these binoculars. This is the inspiration that the network brought to me and I intend to continue to apply it to my work and everything I do.

How the network has changed climate journalism

Diego: That's really nice to hear, because if you have climate journalism, being in every desk of a newsroom is actually what we were aiming for when we started the network. And I would like to hear from you because Elisângela you mentioned about this, but from all of you, how did your approach to climate journalism change after six months of the cohort? What would change in the way you saw how journalism covers climate change?

Elisângela: Well, I am in a very privileged position at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. So as an investigative journalist I'm an environment reporter; my beat prioritises climate reporting. And I have the full support of my team and my editors, which is something that I could learn from this experience, that it’s not something that's common everywhere. So many journalists struggle with the lack of support and attention from their teams or their managers in different newsrooms. So our investigations try to shed light on the impact of global food production on the environment and, as we know, is something that's often overlooked when we talk about emissions, right, but this experience gave me perspective and made me think a lot about how we can convey the message, for example. So it really opened my eyes to the fact that we have to try and test and experiment with new formats to actually engage people and catch their attention in a world where well, attention is this golden coin. You know, that's not easy. We have so many stimuli everywhere and catching people's attention is increasingly more difficult. So I think my changed approach in the way I think about how to wrap up my stories and my investigations, how to deliver them. I think this was my main takeaway.

Diego: Thanks for that. Krixia and Ethan, do you have any thoughts?

Krixia: Sure, although it's hard to follow what Elisângela said. But, as she said, the course really got us to think about how we can experiment with the ways that we tell our stories. For example, I think, near the end of our six-month programme, we had an audio storytelling workshop, I think with Jéssica. That was very interesting to me, because up until that point, a lot of climate reporters have told us that, you know, climate change is first and foremost, a visual story. So often the way we imagined climate change is when we see photographs, or videos of disasters, floods, tsunamis, etc. So that workshop really opened my eyes in how we can use audio in being able to connect deeper with our audiences in ways that photographs or videos may not be able to do that. In fact, up until that point, I did not really think about how visually powerful audio can be, you know, hearing the voices of disaster survivors talk about their experiences and their resolve to move forward. The use of background music or natural sound to heighten effect in telling the stories. I personally have not yet explored audio storytelling. So moving forward, I plan to incorporate that in the climate reporting I will be doing with a newsroom.

Diego: Yeah, I love that. I loved that workshop as well. And I loved having Jéssica's voice coming in in Portuguese in a way that doesn't come into the conversations in English. And just seeing the variety of languages of people working in the network was brilliant. How about you Ethan?

Ethan: Yeah, I think I'd say once again, hard to follow with everything that has been said already, but I think I also have to take away that the climate crisis does intersect with so many other issues. In South Africa, we have political issues, corruption, energy security issues, rampant criminality, and all of these issues that would otherwise crowd out the attention. As Elisângela mentioned, you know, attention is a commodity, essentially. And it's hard to grab that, and especially with climate change in South Africa, it's seen as something that is a problem for future generations, maybe not so much recently. I think it is being appreciated more for the threat that it is today. But there's so many issues that are happening today, right now, that are visible. People are dying, children are dying in taverns. I'm sure you've seen that news, it's all over the world. There's so many things that people understandably would focus on, rather than this idea of the weather being more dangerous, or there have been these climatic impacts or farming in the future being unsustainable, impossible. So linking our activities of the day and the stories of the day into the climate nexus. And realising the importance, and that it's possible, and the possibility of doing that, I think has been really good for me. So now, we can write a story about our power load shedding, which is basically rolling blackouts that South Africa has, where we don't have enough energy and the power goes out. There's a political nexus, but there's also an environmental connection, because it's related to our coal power, and all of this. So I think the network has been really good in helping me to think of creative ways to claw back some of that attention that would otherwise be spread out amongst the myriad other issues South Africa has.

The importance of community

Diego: Yeah, I mean, an issue we had in the semester, was how do we connect climate coverage with, for instance, to the war in Ukraine, which was overtaking coverage in all newsrooms. I remember, like several of our members, including you Ethan, were relocated at some point to cover the war in Ukraine, out of your usual beats, because there was just too much going on there that needed our attention as newsrooms. And these tension issues just challenge, as we cover climate change, how we connect climate change with the other issues happening right now. You discuss, the three of you, the network and the members and I think, as Elisângela mentioned, also the community. And in the piece we published at the Institute, we discussed the value of positive communities in journalism. And I wanted to ask, in your view and your experience, why is having a community relevant or important when covering climate change for reporters?

Ethan: It's a tough one. I think that just generally, I think, if you mean like having community we can't operate in silos. First of all, I think this just goes back to my previous point about how interlinked these issues are, and then trying to take on all of this. All of the rigours and dealing with the stress of trying to process the complexity of the climate crisis. And just the general news environment, it's important to have these resources that you can refer to, for whatever your needs are, I am not sure exactly how I would be able to best articulate this, but I think it is important.

Diego: Great, thank you. Krixia, maybe you can go ahead.

Krixia: I think communities are important, you know, for obvious reasons, because they help provide support to journalists who are covering one of the toughest subjects in the world. We're living in a place where there are a lot of communities, other groups that believe that climate change is not real, that it's a conspiracy theory. And sometimes they go so far as to try to undermine the work that we do. And not to mention corporations or lobbyists that engage in greenwashing, those who wish to evade accountability for the climate crisis. And there have been many reports that environmental defenders and environmental journalists are often at risk in the line of duty because of this. So obviously, having communities is a big help, because then you'd have people who would champion your work, amplify and broaden the reach of your stories, and vice versa. And I think that such communities are not necessarily exclusive only to journalists. You can have environmental activists in that community, fellow environmental defenders, other community organisers who can also help champion the work that you do. So essentially, communities are great if you want to have people who have your back. And that can be a huge relief in the kind of work that we do.

Elisângela: Yeah, this is really important Krixia, I completely agree. I think as journalists, we have this mammoth challenge ahead of us, right. So covering the climate crisis is a high-stakes task. But we are also people, although some people would disagree, journalists are also people and we also feel helpless sometimes. We also feel frustrated with politicians and their ‘blah blah blah’. Sometimes the lack of engagement with our audience really hurts us because we feel powerless. So having a community and having peers who are there for you and help you find your centre, I think is key. So during this experience with the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, we had this brilliant surprise. Well, at least it was really surprising to me, that we had a session on mental health, for example, and it was a session where we shared our pains and our vulnerabilities to use openly. So it was an experience that really made it clear how, as journalists, we lack strong community and how this interaction and having peers to talk about the issues that we all face is so important. So what's the importance of community? It's the utmost important thing to have as journalists.

Diego: Yeah, the session on mental health was one of my favourites for this semester, it really brought home this sense of ‘this is a shared experience’ by many of the reporters in the network, all of them, I think, but it was so nicely grounded on science, Dr. Feinstein brought his evidence, and he was empathetic, but also very science-based. And I really liked it. And I wanted to ask you, what was your favourite session or moment or fireside chats? Because we had different kinds of workshops with fireside chats, with seminars? Out of the sessions we had in the six months, which one did you enjoy the most?

Favourite learning sessions

Elisângela: I think the mental health session was one of my favourites, but I really liked the engagement with the fireside chat that we had about politics and climate change. So the polarisation of climate change that we had, and everybody was very energetic and engaged with the discussion. So I learned a lot, because, you know, I could understand how different countries face similar issues with the polarisation of the climate crisis and how the elections play a very important role, will play a very important role in the future. So these were two of my favourites, but I really liked the climate justice session as well, it was really, really powerful.

Krixia: I think Elisângela and I share the same favourite classes. Still, I think the reason why the mental health course resonated with a lot of us was because for the entire six months, a lot of the courses were geared towards, how do we better improve our reporting? And then suddenly, there's this course that lets us look into ourselves and ask us to assess how the reporting is impacting us. So it really hit close to home. And I guess that's the reason why it was one of the most impactful seminars that we had. And as I mentioned, I particularly liked the audio storytelling workshop because I really like it when journalists shared the ways that they experimented with storytelling. And of course it's really inspiring to hear from one of our classmates, not from one of the lecturers that were invited to speak for the programmes this year, how our own classmates have been dealing with the challenges of reporting climate change to their audiences

Ethan: Yeah, once again, not much to add, but all the mental health for me was really good for the reasons outlined. It was just so important to take stock of where you are mentally and it was really affirming quite frankly, to just know that so many of my colleagues are experiencing similar mental states and that to go through these challenges, and that feelings and the reactions to events and news and the process of news, that it’s normal to have that affirmation was really nice. But once again let me just say this, I enjoyed attribution, immensely. Dr. Otto was amazing just because I went in there unsure, uncertain about what I was going to learn. Obviously I had done the readings, but just the whole process of learning about attribution was something that was completely new to me. Like, I was so focused on understanding the science of climate change, and climate justice and climate finance, and all these other things in my time prior to joining the network, but then going through that, and being confronted with attribution, and just like seeing this whole other aspect of science, I didn't even realise had developed to this point, and then finding out that it had had a role in in my own country. For example, with the city I'm in right now, Cape Town, we had a major drought. That was called Day Zero, which is basically at the point which we would no longer be able to... the taps would run empty, basically, we’d no longer have water, the first major city in the world to completely run out of water, and that was a threat. And then I found out later through attribution study, I determined that that was made more likely because of climate change. So I mean, it was a full circle for me, I learned about it and didn't realise I was a case study, I suppose. So yeah, there was a lot here.

Key takeaways for improving climate change

Diego: It's fascinating. I felt for years, climate science was settled, in a way. And when attribution came along and I listened to Dr. Otto, it's like, ‘holy!’. I mean, this is a fantastic step. And her session was amazing for this well, and yeah, the one from Jéssica Maes from Folha Sao Paulo, on audio storytelling, this really shows the way you can bring story to a new format, as Krixia said. I want to wrap up with your views on how can journalism improve its coverage of climate change? If you have something to share with other reporters covering climate change? What do they need to know? How can we make it better?

Krixia: I think one of the main takeaways I've learned from this course, is that climate change reporting need not be an overwhelming experience. So of course, it always has to be rooted in the science. And we always hope that the stories that we do lead to helpful policies and programmes that will help resolve the crisis, but it is first and foremost a human story. And I think that's why we've taken so much pain in understanding the intersections of climate change, not just the difficult aspects of climate negotiations, but how climate change intersects with, you know, human experience. So I think as soon as reporters understand how systems and structures can either make a community resilient or vulnerable to climate-related disasters, then the better that storytelling will become.

Elisângela: I agree with Krixia. I think humanising the coverage of climate change is key. But I would add that we should rely on data and research on how the audience reacts to climate reporting, to make our own editorial decisions. So we know that there's climate fatigue with people avoiding this type of news, and we have to respond to that. As humans we feel that, well, we prefer to engage with threatening information if there's also a solution attached to it, if a solution is provided, or a way to address the problem is also provided. So maybe we should also think about always inserting some ideas on how to fix these problems when we talk about it. Maybe this is a long answer to say that solutions journalism, may be a way of improving our coverage of climate change, in my view.

Diego: Thanks so much, Elisângela. How about you Ethan?

Ethan: Yeah, just to add on whatever has already been said, I think that centring people and the impacts on lives is really important. I think a lot of us can get caught up in in the science and the projected impacts, but it's important to centre how this is going to impact people who are the most vulnerable amongst us. And not only the most vulnerable, but that is the case, I suppose, if you are reporting from the Global South or South Africa, as in my case. But I think if you highlight those voices, I think that does a lot. People tend to connect with the stories of others, more than scientific, physical abstractions of science. And I think another thing that we should be wary of as journalists is to be ‘doomists’, I don't know if that's a word. But if we make every article seem like doom and gloom, it does sort of turn people off of the journalism. And I think there are ways to do that that might be just adjusting your frame. So maybe it doesn't necessarily have to be solutions journalism, but it can be.

I think one of the ways to do that is instead of saying ‘the world is going to be way hotter, and the sea levels are going to rise’, rather, perhaps frame it in a way that says, ‘but we could also have a world where we have abundant renewable energy and a world that's hyperconnected, electrified with green energy’, those are equally possible realities that are dependent on the decisions we make today. So I think how we frame things is important. And just always trying to gear our stories and our focus towards the people who are impacted and how they're going to be impacted. And, you’ve got to show people, your audience, why this is important. You’ve got to tell them why this is important how this is going to affect them. And I think the work will do the rest.

Elisângela: Just one thing that came to my mind when Ethan was mentioning this, how we frame this problem is that I think we were discussing this in the group, with the other fellows some days ago, about the coverage of some newspapers, how they are covering the heatwave in Europe and the selection of pictures this time is starting to feel different from what has been done historically. So usually newspapers bring people, you know, at the beach, enjoying the sun during a heatwave, as an example, to cover these extreme events. Whereas now you start to see some newspapers changing their mindset about it. So The Guardian, for example, brought a selection of pictures like a mosaic of people actually struggling with the heatwave in Europe, so people suffering with the extreme weather to show that this is a real problem. So I think we have a lot to be done. We have a lot to do. But things are starting to change. And I think we also have look into things more optimistically, I guess, and I can see that there is a will to change the way that we frame this. So it's good to see these examples, you know.

Krixia: Just to add to what Elisângela said, actually, that was what I wanted to talk about earlier. That, you know, from what I've noticed from our discussions in the past six months is that climate journalists already know how to improve climate coverage. We've made it multimedia, we've lessened the jargon, we've explored a lot of formats to make it more relatable, engaging to our audiences. But I think what has to be done now is how do we engage our newsroom managers and get them on the same page? Because, you know, we can produce all the best reporting that we can, we can produce massive earth-shattering investigations all we want. But if our newsrooms do not provide institutional support, if they carry on with the traditional way of framing climate change, then we might never get anywhere. So I think the OCJN has already made moves through that. I think I if I remember correctly, the applications for the cohorts specifically also called for newsroom managers or people who make institutional decisions inside the newsrooms. And I think that's one great way of involving the decision makers and get them on the table so that they can better understand how urgent and how important the story is, so that the journalists who actually cover climate change can get the story that they need and produce the stories that they have to.

Diego: I'm going to leave with that idea of involving newsroom managers and decision makers. Because in the end, we need to restructure the way we conceive newsrooms and the way you approach climate coverage. But I also want to take two other ideas, this idea of centring people's stories, people’s stories are climate stories, and Elisângela’s metaphor of using binoculars to just look into the future of journalism. That this is ideally how it would look like, having reporters from every desk in every field interested in covering climate change. 

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