Why we need a new local language of climate change reporting

"Journalists need better local data, access to experts and funding to cover these stories on the ground," writes Meera Selva
A farmer holds maize harvested from a farm insured by Pula, an agricultural insurance company that helps small-scale farmers to manage the risk associated with extreme climate conditions, in Kitui county, Kenya March 17, 2021. Picture taken March 17, 2021. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

A Kenyan farmer holds maize harvested from a farm insured by an agricultural insurance company that helps small-scale farmers to manage the risk associated with climate change. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

The story of climate change is a global one. But journalism often reflects the priorities, perspectives and interests of the rich countries, which are both the world’s largest polluters and those with the financial and political power to effect change, if they decide to do so. 

The Reuters Institute specialises in creating conversations with journalists around the world. This week we hosted a day focused on climate change reporting with a group of 21 journalists from across the globe. Our gathering highlighted just how disjointed this story is becoming. 

Data from the Reuters Institute Digital News Report shows that people do view climate change as a serious problem. 69 percent of respondents said it was a major issue, and concern was particularly high in Chile, Kenya and South Africa, where 90 percent said it was extremely serious. The countries who were the least concerned were also some of the most prosperous: in the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, Greta Thunberg’s home country, only around half those surveyed said they felt climate change was serious or extremely serious. 

In other words, the poorest countries recognise the problem but are struggling to know how to respond. Part of the solution lies with governments and international organisations, but the language around climate change matters too. 

And this is where journalism comes in. If local and national journalists can take the climate change story and explain it in terms that speak directly to their own audiences, a public debate could help civic engagement with the issue. At the moment, while people can see the effects of climate change in front of them, there is little conversation on how to change political discourse, hold companies accountable and change individual behaviours. 

A reporter from Kenya spoke of the difficulty of translating terms into local languages and it is immediately clear that this is important: the ability to explain carbon emissions in Turkana to herdsmen whose grazing lands have been altered beyond recognition. 

A Nigerian journalist spoke of her frustration in trying to get her readers to understand that climate change was upending their lives right now and “is not just about the polar bears,” but also about the companies polluting the air and water in their own country. 

Above all, a lack of localised data on how climate change is impacting different parts of the world, translated into data in how it is affecting individuals: what is the air pollution around your children’s schools? The rainy season in the Philippines has wreaked havoc for the last 15 years: can we please look into what is going in there?

What was clear from our discussions is that while some of the best, most engaging reporting on climate change is digital, Digital News Report data shows that television still matters most: 35 percent of respondents said they received climate change news from TV, compared to 15 percent who used the online news sites of major news organisations. Even among under 35s, who tend to be more comfortable online, television is still the main source of climate change news. 

Television is expensive, and often beholden to governments through licences and regulation. If you are a reporter from Poland, the government, which is exerting control over the media in different ways, will not make it easy for you to report on the impact the country’s coal consumption is having on the environment. 

Television is also reliant on visuals, again often provided by Western news agencies that have the money and resources to cover big conferences and catastrophes.

The net effect can be that climate change reporting people see in much of the world is a combination of summitry: politicians setting targets and congratulating each other on meeting them, and coverage of extreme events – the wildfires in California or heatwaves in Europe – that feel remote to their lives. 

When we asked these journalists what they needed to report on climate change more effectively, the answers could be summed up as better local data, access to experts and funding to cover the climate change stories on the ground in their own countries.

As the UN’s COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow approaches, people wanting to effect change on a local level should think about providing independent news organisations with the resources they need to tell the story in their own voices to audiences who they understand best of all.