25 tips for climate change journalists

This collection is based on training presentations to journalists from around the world, and especially the global South, that I have given in recent years.

It includes some tips from journalists Tim Radford and Alex Kirby, who have given me permission to include them here. [update: this post now available in Portuguese (PDF) and in Spanish (PDF)]

1. Know your audience. When you sit down to write a story there is only one person that matters and it is not you, not your editor and not the person you just interviewed. It is the reader or listener or viewer – someone who are unlikely to ever meet. They are the most important people in the world. Be familiar with their level of knowledge about climate change and about the things they care most about. If in doubt, assume your audience knows nothing. But never make the mistake of assuming that they are stupid. The classic error in journalism is to over-estimate the audience’s knowledge and under-estimate their intelligence.

2. Understand the basics. If you don’t have a thorough understanding of the key topics, your audience never will. You need to know and understand the greenhouse effect and the various sources of greenhouse gases. You need to understand the kinds of impacts that a warmer world could bring, and the difference between risk and vulnerability, and between adaptation and mitigation. If you don’t know these things know you can train yourself with onlinecourses such as the News University’s one or the Earth Journalism Toolkit.

3. Team up. To tell the story of climate change well you need to understand the science, the politics, the economics and more. But no-one can excel in all of these aspects. Even superheroes achieve more as a team. So team up with other journalists. Time journalist Eric Pooley has urged media outlets to create climate policy teams that include environmental science reporters, political reporters and business and energy reporters. This mix, working together, would be able to combine their strengths to report more effectively on these three angles, which are deeply connected but usually reported on in isolation.

4. At the same time, you can specialise. Pick a specific subtopic and immerse yourself in it. Aim to be your country’s leading journalist on that subject. It could be biofuels, or climate-related insurance, or adaptation in the agriculture sector, or health impacts of climate change, or low-carbon technology in the building sector… the list is almost endless.

5. Stay focused. Remember that a story will only ever say one big thing, so don’t try to cram in too many details. Also, don’t lose track of the big picture. With climate change there is a big risk of “information overload”. Journalists who report every twist and the turn of the story may find that after two years nothing has really changed. Keep asking the fundamental questions about whether the news you are reporting has a real bearing on how the climate change story will ultimately develop. And beware of smokescreens such as promises of action or finance which either never become real or are not big enough to have any real impact.

6. Drop the jargon. You may need to understand what CDM, REDD and UNFCCC mean but your reader/listener/viewer almost certainly does not. If your interviewees use jargon, be ready to ask them to simplify their language. Ask them how they would explain their views to their grandparent or an 18-year old. If your interviewee speaks in complicated terms, remind them that while they have been working on climate change for years, you have been researching your particular story for just a few hours. Most experts would prefer to give you a simpler message in their own words than have you simplify things for them.

7. So K.I.S.S. every sentence — Keep It Short and Simple. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs, and remember that no one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.

8. Get connected to share knowledge and learn from colleagues. Join networks of journalists, like the Earth Journalism Network, the African Network of Environmental Journalists or one of the many national associations of environment or science journalists (see here and here). Get a Little Black Book (or better still, a database) Good contacts are key to good journalism, and you can’t keep quoting the same person. The Climate Science Rapid Response Team and the American Geophysical Union’s Climate Q & A Service (which has 700 scientists waiting to answer your queries) both exist to support journalists who need experts to comment on climate science. The Climate Change Media Partnership’s Roster of Experts is another good place to find new contacts.

9. Subscribe to mailing lists. Join the IISD Climate-L mailing list where thousands of climate specialists share their latest reports and information about events. For information on the UN climate-change negotiations you can subscribe to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin or Climate Action Network – International’s Eco newsletter or get news and briefing papers on the talks from the Third World Network.

10. Become an ace salesperson Your editors need to give you the space and time to report on climate change. But greenhouse gases are invisible and climate change is a process. This makes it hard to excite editors, especially if they think climate change is “just an environment story”. So use different angles — climate change is relevant to politics, business, the economy, health, the weather, agriculture, food, water, trade, travel, lifestyle, sports, etc., etc.  And have some hot dates Keep a calendar of news pegs to hang your stories on such as international meetings, anniversaries of events, the international day of forests, etc. etc.,

11. Wear climate change glasses. For every new policy, new invention, new anything, look through your climate-change lenses and ask two questions. “How could X affect climate change?” and “How could climate change affect X?” You will find many new angles for your reporting. Be positive Doom and gloom stories are a turn-off for editors and audiences alike. A focus on solutions (which tend to be new) instead of problems (which tend to be old) will help you to convince editors that your story is worthwhile.

12. Remember that climate change itself does not need to be the story — it is the context in which so many other stories will unfold. You don’t even need to mention the climate to tell a good climate change story. You will probably have more success with editors – and attract more readers – if you keep climate change out of your headlines and opening paragraphs. After all, typical “climate change” stories may repel an important and sizeable audience that has been either turned off by doom and gloom, or has a political reaction against the climate-change narrative. This story by Stefano Valentino is certainly a climate change story but it does not even mention the word climate once.

13. Be visual Many climate and environment stories are complex, but they are often also photogenic, or can be illustrated with engaging human stories. Use all the resources you have to bring the story to life – headlines, photos, graphs, maps, sidebars.

14. Humanise, Humanise, Humanise. More than anything else, people care about their health, their wealth and the future of their children. Climate change is relevant to all three of these things, so try to think in those terms when you are working out how to tell your story, both to your editor and your audience.And make the abstract real Putting a price tag on action or inaction will help, especially if you do it in terms people readily understand (like the price of bread or petrol). For example, have faith. I don’t mean that you need to pray that your editor will take your story. I mean think about religion. It is something that 80% of people alive today say they believe in, and it is a perfect entry point for some climate change stories.

15. Prepare hard for interviews The more you know about your interviewee and your subject in advance, the better the interview will be. It will be a conversation of equals, not an attempt by you to keep up with what you’re hearing for the first time. Explain yourself Let your interviewee know who your audience is, how you work, what your deadline is and what will happen to your story.

16. Get a second opinion — and a third. For every PhD there is an equal and opposite PhD. For every politician there is a paymaster. Your interviewees can be wrong. They can be biased. They can have vested interests. Ask yourself why they are saying what they say and whether they stand to gain from you reporting their words. Seek the opinion of other experts from other institutions. As a reporter, you have a double responsibility: both to the truth as politicians and professors may see it, and to the truth as you perceive it.

17. Seek the truth Always be sceptical of everyone you meet and everything you’re told – but never cynical. Don’t refuse to believe what somebody tells you, but ask them for evidence to back up what they say. Watch out for vested Interests and remember that people do lie. Everyone has a motive to lie…or tell only part of the truth. Remember this classic advice to journalists: the one question a reporter needs to ask themselves when interviewing a politician is: “Why is this lying bastard telling me this particular lie at this particular moment?”

18. Remember that balance is not the same as impartiality and that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. It is important to bear this in mind when reporting on the science and the politics of climate change.

19. Quote varied voices. Climate change affects everyone and everyone can respond to it in a different way. Think about both gender and generation. Climate change will affect men and women in different ways. Young people and old people are both more vulnerable than healthy middle aged people. They also have different perspectives. Very old people have long memories and can describe decades of change. Young people will inherit the problems of climate change and so may have powerful perspectives. By speaking to many different kinds of people about climate change you will get a richer understanding of it, more story ideas and new angles that you can use to tell the story.

20. Localise the global. International meetings, foreign scientific research and extreme climatic events in other countries can be localised and made relevant to your own audiences. Nongovernmental organisations, universities and scientific journals around the world all produces press releases about climate change, so contact press officers and join their mailing lists to get story ideas and to stay updated with what is happening worldwide.

21. But don’t be seduced by press releases… do justice to them. Too often journalists will copy-and-paste a press release and just add their name in the byline. In doing so, they do a disservice to their readers. A press release is not a story. It is just information that contains the seeds of story that you must nurture yourself. While international press releases may be relevant to you, they will never have been written with your specific audience in mind… Localise them and make them relevant to your audience.

22. Follow the pack. Keep on top of the climate-change story by reading the work of other journalists who are covering it well (you will find some great international stories at IPS, Reuters AlertNet, The Guardian, New York Times and the BBC but there are also many good reporters covering climate change for national media around the world). Use social media such as Twitter to find out what people are saying about climate change and to share your own stories.

23. Follow the money. Climate change is a story about hundreds of billions of dollars…Where is that money for adaptation and mitigation. Who controls it? Who spends it? Who makes sure it does what it is meant to do? Who funds the NGOs and the politicians? Which companies stand to profit from action to address climate change? Which stand to lose? Follow the money and you will find all the elements of a good story.

24. Remember your audience. Before you finish your story, read it through. Put yourself in the shoes of a typical member of your audience and imagine what questions they might ask about your story. Then answer those questions in your story before you sign off on it.

25. Remember, climate change is not the only environmental problem. It is just one of many symptoms of a much bigger challenge, which is the unsustainable way we are living on Earth and managing our natural resources. Other symptoms are abundant — declining fisheries, deforestation, pollution, extinction of species… the list is long — and if journalists are to fulfil a public service remit, they must do much more to explain the causes and consequences of these problems too. But that is another story.

Of course this list is not comprehensive and is open to criticism, so over to you. What are your top tips?

51 thoughts on “25 tips for climate change journalists

  1. I’ve got a few to add that are very specific to climate change coverage.

    (For what it’s worth, I’m a regular writer for Nature Climate Change, and have covered climate change for Science, National Geographic News, New Scientist, and others.)

    26. Use scenarios: When you state estimates of coming impacts, always give a sense of what kind of scenario the researchers were looking at. Was it very high emissions? Middle-of-the road? Etc. Way too many stories say that some kind of impact is coming, without saying what sort of scenario for the future would lead to those impacts. This might seem like too much detail for a general audience, but that brings me to the next tip:

    27. Keep hope alive: Don’t state future impacts as if they’re set in stone unless you’re really sure that they are. Most of us who report on climate change would like to see the world avoid the worst fates—and yet too often reporting present impacts as if they’re unavoidable. To give one real example, an article about Bangladesh in the New York Times said: “Climate change is expected to create a 39 percent increase in flood-prone areas” and “By the end of the century, more than a quarter of the country will be inundated.” In the first case, the precision in the forecast gives a false sense of accuracy, but what’s worse is that the article doesn’t state what emissions scenario it’s talking about, or when this is supposed to happen. In the second case, it does include a date, but doesn’t include any sense of the emissions scenario. Without those details, the forecasts are largely meaningless. When might we face this degree of change? Could the impacts be worse, or not as bad? Could the world do something to prevent them? We should always keep these questions in mind whenever stating forecasts of impacts.

    28. Grapple with uncertainty: Even if we’re stating a date and an emissions scenario based on a specific study, those forecasts carry a lot of uncertainty. It is difficult to convey uncertainty—but I think it is essential, because part of what makes climate change so scary is the uncertainty. If we burn up most of the available fossil fuels, there’s almost no chance that we’ll cope smoothly and everything will simply be OK. There’s a very good chance that things will be quite bad. And there’s a small but real chance they’ll be truly horrific. Uncertainty about the economy makes investors jittery and less prone to lay out money; similarly, uncertainty about future climate change should make us more, rather than less, careful about burning fossil fuels. The alternative, it seems to me, is to give people a false sense of certainty.

    I wrote more about these points a few years ago for the Columbia Journalism Review:

    • Good tips, Mason, and thanks for the CJR link. On Tip 27: “Keep hope alive”, I’d like to hear from some psychologists. We know so little about the gulf between evidence and action.

  2. quite useful tips i must say, especially where they concern the specifics. however i wonder if climate change journalists are doing enough to either motivate or generate action. what use is a beautiful well written piece if it does not cause the man/reader/government/local official on the other end to really think of doing something at the end of the day? so i think AGENDA SETTING should make the list.

  3. Here’s another:

    29. Think global. The biofuels policy in country X is affected by the oil policy in country Y and affects the food security of country Z. The emissions of country X affect the coastline of country Y that is visited by tourists from country Z. But remember that it is people not countries who are vulnerable to climate change and people not countries that drive the problem.

  4. Thank you so much Mike for sharing with us these great tips! I am certain that these will be the best guide for us, covering the climate change and environment issues. Let us love our earth, be friendly to the human-beings, and make a favourable change of the world, liveable for ALL , including the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people through adapting the climate change. My country Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable land due to climate change. So I urge the global media persons to kindly cover it for the sake of millions of sufferers in my country. The sufferers include many women and children, as well as persons with disabilities.

  5. Good stuff Mike… I am especially interested in this approach to writing clearly that will let readers quickly and easily understand what you have to say, as far as Climate Change issue is concerned… The lack of this has proven a significant challenge for many reporters to tackle the climate change issue

  6. Mike, thanks. Just a question, which I suppose is related to the fundamental reason for reporting on climate change. If we had to look at the globe on a linear scale of events, and mark the beginning as the use of fossil fuels and the end as the end of fossil fuels. Where do you think we are today, despite the general knowledge that climate change is a bogey man that needs to be grappled now?

    Is there a willingness not at the social level but within the levels of power that could auger real change without necessarily only considering the bottom line?

    In other words does humanity have a chance as at Wednesday, August 17th, 2011 11:12am (CAT)????

  7. Very useful tips Mike. Thanks for sharing. I also find Mason Inman’s point about conveying uncertainty to be very valid and extremely intriguing.

    I clicked the link to the article by Stefano Valentino on the failed Tanzania biofuel project at TIP 12 and I found the article to be very interesting. The author did write about complex issues in simple terms.

    However, I feel that too much information was crammed into the one story. There were different aspects of the issue that would have been better dealt with if they had been isolated. This is where my bias for the ‘series’ approach versus the broad brush, ‘one 800-1,000 words feature fits all’ concept.

    In my opinion, the series approach allows better treatment of the issues in all fairness to the people affected. The issue about the loss of land and what that will mean for generations to come has significant local, cultural implications to have been treated as a single, human interest story with quotes from the affected people and accompanying photographs.

    The issue of the massive deforestation and what that would mean could have been isolated as a single issue as well and then what Stefano treated as the central issue; the failed project, could be treated as one, more digestible story.

    However, having combined all three issues into one story, other follow up articles on the angles I have isolated could still be done I think.

    Overall, it is a very interesting article which really got me thinking. The age old issue of exploiting the lack of sophistication and knowledge of rural, grass root people once again rears its ugly head. It would be interesting to hear where this all leads as so much about the situation seems to be still unresolved.

  8. Thank you Mike , so much for the invaluable tips. It helps also as general useful list for all journalists.

    I like the part with “follow the money ” because we as journalists really should write stories that provoke thinking towards changing our lives. Why money should go to politicians and military equipments instead of cleaning our earth and planet. We have a heavy task that need big efforts, mutual efforts.

    Great tips indeed that will add great help to our stories.

    Aida Tawil
    Amman, Jordan

  9. Haven’t read the whole thread so don’t know if this has been covered but can I suggest:
    Use small stories to illuminate bigger issues. Rural to urban migration, as an effect of climate change, is a big issue – but focussing on the story of one individual making that journey to the city can make that issue accessible. That’s just an example. But I often find media coverage of climate change (and other big issues) has a lot directly about the issues, but doesn’t feature many characters I can engage with.

    Otherwise, good work!


  11. A good list, especially the part about understanding the torrent of acronyms that typify the climate climate change arena but at all costs avoid using them in copy. I also strongly agree with the point about using the specific to illustrate the general. The only point I would add is don’t fall into the trap of becoming evangelical about the subject — there is no bigger turn off for a reader, and it compromises your treasured impartiality.

  12. Mike this is really good; not only for climate change reporting, but generally. I particularly like that part ‘KISS’. God knows i am as guilty as hell in this regard. More than ten years into journalism am still struggling to Keep It Short and Simple.

  13. Related to tip 20, Gopi Warrier has published a post about climate change journalism on his blog. In it he talks about the “missing middle link”.

    “There are stories on global meetings and policies and there are local stories. How the macro links the micro and vice versa is mostly lost in the reporting. This, however, is not a gap with the reporting alone. Scientists themselves shy away from making the connection. Maybe the science on climate change is still evolving and it is not possible to make definitive statements.”

    You can read the rest of Gopi’s thought — with a focus on climate change coverage in the Indian media — here.

  14. Very handy tips and this could help alot in our reporting as a guide. i only wished all journalists that report on climate change could have a chance to see this. we shall try to spread the news and share it with others. thanks mike

  15. One more 30) Stay with the story, don’t drop the story after one file, keep with it, and do the hard work to keep the audience with you by bringing in new facts, new developments, new voices with each new file

  16. very useful tips. i must say. these were the things i knew but kindda ignoring. i will keep these tips in my heart and mind while doing program. thanks MIke.

  17. mmmmm….Invaluable ideas and wisdom, thanks Mike for thinking about journalists, I am now wearing my Climate Change glasses and Staying Open Minded.!

  18. I’m commenting after reading the advices and comments. And I found this post following links related to the COP diagram posted from COP18. This comment is not one that’s from the PC cheering section. K.I.S.S can also stand for: Keep It Simple [for] Stupid. Or, as Forest Gump’s mom became associated with: Stupid is what stupid does.

    To the degree that reporting on our changing climate, the Anthropocene, and the economic assumptions and choices that drive it is an aspect of journalism that is talking about science, isn’t it logical that the scientific method frames the art in such endeavors; defines what constitutes sapient advice? For me these advices are a re-hash of basic journalism 101 lessons modified to, well, still make sense to students who didn’t carry a slide rule as part of their identy (& yup, I’m just over 60).

    Sciences are evolving philosophies engaged in for the noble purpose of grappling for truthful answers to great questions. They are, systemically, quests. Those who find a worthwhile major in journalism and aspire to be an editor, we’re likely taught, experientially, that science is about answers, not questions. Such certainly seems to color what is express above as wisdom…and isn’t! The questions the science is in pursuit of frames relevant climate reporting. Consequently, is sports reporting a field of journalism in which one can get–to the degree they may be needed–training wheels for the challenges faced when reporting on the–relatively–slow-paced action of the exciting developments unfolding within science; conceiving how to add the color to the gladiatorial combat unfolding behind the paywall?

    ‘Nuff said?

    Regardless, and as a hint: like quantum physics blew the doors–but not the wheels–off Newtonian physics, expect–and prepare for–the integration of the ‘soft’ sciences of sociology and psychology into the phillosophy of climate science modeling to be worth a Pulitzer Prize for the reporter who gets how to do this first . . . and it will involve ignoring, in various iterations, most, if not all of these advices. Isn’t the last 40 years of reporting on the Anthropocene instructive regarding an insight attributed to Einstein: the thinking that creates a problem cannot be [trusted] to [imagine] its [resolution]?

    • Hi Greg, many of the journalists who report on climate change in the world’s poorer countries have not been to journalism school. Here are some links to pieces I have written about this…
      All the best

      Shanahan, M. 2011. Why the Media Matters in a Warming World: A guide for policymakers in the global South. A Climate Change Media Partnership briefing paper. Download PDF. Read Abstract. [French translation] [Chinese translation]

      Shanahan, M. 2009. Time to Adapt? Media coverage of climate change in non-industrialised countries. Chapter 12 in Climate Change and the Media. Edited by Tammy Boyce & Justin Lewis. Peter Lang Publishing. Download PDF.

      Shanahan, M. 2006. Science Journalism: Fighting a reporting battle. Nature 443: 392-393. Read online.

      • Thx for the links. Interesting. My take-away: how we live relative to the Anthropocene in Annex I countries, particularly the US, “publishes” what is truth (no matter what is reported). Given that most of the planet’s societies are conservative in their moral psychology perspective, this makes sense. Leaders are expected, by example, to lead. What they do tells you what is important. And AGW clearly isn’t.

        The most recent paper from 2011 suggest that from your understanding of climate science, a window remains for preventing the average temperature rise exceeding 2° C. From what I know, and primarily Arctic carbon–particularly methane, such amounts to wishful thinking AND a failure to grasp the English language as spoken by scientists. I think you will discover that the advice about being positive is a positive feedback relative to observer bias and the missing of the heart of the story science has been laying out for reporters.

        It is a very negative one with a very high probability of being father down the road than can be comfortably imagined.

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