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.
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?