Q&A: Al Jazeera’s Giles Trendle on Covering Climate Across Borders and Boundaries

Giles Trendle, managing director of Al Jazeera English, talks about what he calls “the tyranny of immediacy,” finding space for climate stories amid otherwise crammed news cycles, and the value of collaboration on the climate story.

Each month, Covering Climate Now speaks with a different journalist about their experiences on the climate beat, their reporting tips, and their ideas for pushing our profession and craft forward. This month, we spoke with Giles Trendle, who is the managing director of Al Jazeera English. From Al Jazeera’s offices in Doha, Qatar, Trendle oversees an editorial staff of more than 400 people, based in over 50 bureaus around the world. Trendle spoke with us about finding space for climate amid otherwise crammed news cycles, human-centered storytelling, and the imperative of collaboration when it comes to the climate story. The conversation has been edited for clarity. Follow Trendle on Twitter.

Tell us a bit about your career and how you arrived in your position at Al Jazeera English.

I studied in the UK, and then, in 1985, went to Beirut, Lebanon, to teach English. This was during the Lebanese civil war, and at the time I really didn’t know anything about the Middle East. But I developed an interest and, after one year of teaching, thought I could become a journalist to report on everything I was seeing. Back then, there weren’t many Western journalists in Lebanon—there were kidnappings, the civil war was ongoing—so I kind of got a break and started writing regularly for several British publications.

Years later, I became a bit disillusioned with Western media—there were important stories in the Middle East that I felt weren’t getting due attention—so in 2004 I joined Al Jazeera Arabic, to continue reporting on the Middle East. Then, when Al Jazeera English started in 2006, I joined as a commissioning producer. I worked my way up through the ranks and I’ve been managing director since 2015.

When did you become especially interested in the climate story?

I was a bit of a latecomer to covering climate change. Of course, I knew about climate change, I read about it sometimes, but for a long time the penny just hadn’t fully dropped. For me, because of my background, the most important story that needed to be covered was always resolving the crisis in the Middle East, especially the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the ’90s, certainly, I saw everything through that lens. Then, of course, 9/11 happened; you have the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it all just confirmed for me that the Middle East story was the story of our time. There’s always so much happening in the Middle East of an immediate and existential nature for many people—matters of life and death. To me, climate change just wasn’t clamoring for the headlines in the same way.

Then, a few years ago, while I was on a two-week holiday, I read a paper called “What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk,” and it just hit me right in the face. This led to further reading, which included the landmark 2018 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Words in these reports like “irreversible” and “existential” punched through in a way that climate change hadn’t for me. I think being on holiday helped; I was away from the newsroom and the day-to-day hamster wheel of working in media, and so I had the mental space to think more deeply and analytically.

How does your understanding of the urgency of climate change affect your approach to your job, and Al Jazeera’s overall approach to the climate story?

I think Al Jazeera is very well-placed to cover the climate story because we have a great network of bureaus and correspondents around the world—including in countries where other large media organizations might not, or where it might be out of the way to send someone. For example, we were very strong on the floods in Sudan last fall. We’re in Senegal, where sea-level rise is swallowing entire neighborhoods. Similarly, we have boots on the ground in other parts of Africa and across Asia and Latin America. I would say it’s very important that we cover the Global South, in particular, because these are the countries that often are affected most immediately by climate change.

Covering climate is also very much in line with our editorial mission, which is about giving voice to the voiceless and hearing from alternative, authentic sources that aren’t always featured in media. It’s often the most marginalized communities that pay most immediately for the actions of the carbon emitting elites; climate injustice really lends itself to the kind of human-centric storytelling we strive for.

As a leader, I’m kind of pushing on an open door when it comes to climate. Many of our staff buy into this mission. I do encourage them. I send various emails and video messages to the staff about climate; in November, I wrote an article in an Al Jazeera publication celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary, which ended in part saying: “In covering [climate change] … the role of the journalist is more important than ever.” But, in fact, the staff are clamoring to do more climate-related stories as it is. They’re finding the angles and finding ways to weave in climate, even for stories not primarily about climate change.

How do you ensure the climate story gets strong placement in an otherwise busy news cycle?

We have to judge on a day-to-day basis which stories are the most newsworthy, which is tricky, because clearly the climate emergency is a never-ending, incrementally developing story. I’ve spoken of this problem “the tyranny of the immediate”—a term which I picked up somewhere that says, basically, that breaking news tends to muscle out other scheduled programming.

For example, we have a climate-related program called “earthrise,” a half-hour program filmed all over the world, where we find people on the frontlines of climate solutions. Last April, the first episode of a new season was set to go out—we’d spent a lot of money, we’d promoted it throughout the week—but then suddenly, in the US, the verdict was handed down in the Derek Chauvin trial. Which, of course, was a hugely important story. We ran with live coverage from the courtroom, and in turn earthrise got sort of shunted to the side. In that case, it was the right call—and earthrise did run the next day, and repeatedly throughout the following week—but it nevertheless went to show how everyday events, important and immediate ones, can often overtake the climate story.

That’s partially how we address this problem at Al Jazeera. Our news reports get a number of runs throughout bulletins in the course of the day, and our documentaries get a number of different slots throughout each week. So, if one climate slot is missed due to breaking news, other slots are likely to broadcast it instead, and the schedule can be flexible enough to add additional runs.

You mentioned the importance of covering climate in the Global South. Given Al Jazeera’s international audience, how do you think about helping these stories connect with viewers everywhere?

Many of our correspondents are actually from the countries they report on, or at least from the same region. They’re not just parachuted in; they live there, they speak the language. So, immediately, there’s a connection between the correspondents and the people they’re talking to on the ground. I think this lends a certain authenticity to our coverage.

This goes back to our editorial ethos, which is that people are at the center of global stories. In our coverage, they need to have agency within their narratives. For example, they might be victims in some way, but they’re not only victims, and we shouldn’t portray them that way. There might be a reporter in front of the camera, or it might be a documentary where there’s no intermediary between the source and the viewer, but whatever we do it’s very important that we give people the honor and the dignity of telling their own stories.

This results, I think, in universal themes coming to the fore. As a viewer, when you hear these kinds of authentic voices, I think wherever you are—even if you’re a wealthy businessman in Doha or on Wall Street—you recognize the humanity of the situation.

Much of the reporting Al Jazeera is able to do on the climate story is a result of being well-resourced. In the past few years, are there lessons you’ve learned that would apply equally to small outlets with tighter budgets?

Whichever aspect of the climate story you’re covering, there’s always a human element. Focus in on that human element. Give voice to what people are feeling and what they’re experiencing. We do this across the world, but it goes just the same if you’re a small-town newspaper in Montana. When it comes to climate, yes, you can always bring in other sources like scientists and politicians—they have important perspectives and roles to play in the story—but it’s the human story that will connect with audiences.

Al Jazeera is funded in large part by the Qatari government, which draws a great deal of revenue from oil and gas. Were there challenges to carving out space for the network on the climate beat?

Well, although we are state-funded, we’re not state-controlled. We’re a public-service broadcaster, much like BBC, France 24, or Deutsche Welle, all of which also receive funding from state revenues or state coffers. We have complete editorial independence; we never get phone calls, for example, from officials saying, “You’ve got to do this,” or, “Don’t do that.” It just doesn’t happen that way. And the same goes for Al Jazeera Arabic. We’re completely separate channels, but we have the same editorial ethos.

How has the location of Al Jazeera’s main office shaped your approach to news?

At Al Jazeera, we’ve had a long, tough history of being attacked in one way or another, of having our journalists assaulted, imprisoned, and even killed. Some of our offices have been shut down by governments. Some have been bombed. We’re in a tough neighborhood, granted. But what I see in recent years is that the media in general are increasingly coming under fire around the world. You have the former United States president, the leader of the free world, calling the media “the enemy of the people.” Other leaders around the world picked up on statements like this. That’s dangerous not just for democracy, but also for the world’s ability to act on climate change.

A lot of these leaders who are either undemocratic or authoritarian, who engage in spreading misinformation and disinformation, they’re often not very interested in dealing with the climate emergency. And so there’s a nexus between healthy democracies and climate action. If good, credible, professional journalism comes under attack—if it’s discredited or delegitimized, and we journalists are left to compete in a marketplace of misleading information—people won’t necessarily believe what we’re telling them about the climate. I would say that attacks on the media are also bad news for planet Earth.

Within the Covering Climate Now partnership, Al Jazeera English has been a strong and consistent advocate for collaboration. Can you explain why this is important to you when it comes to climate coverage?

I think this is a story that’s particularly conducive to collaboration. The global nature of the climate story—and the fact that we’re affected by it, wherever we are—lends itself to collaboration across borders, across newsrooms, and across platforms. Being a TV station and a digital platform, we’re very happy to collaborate with newspapers and radio stations, definitely, but also other TV stations, even ones that we might consider rivals. It’s good for business, in terms of cost-effectiveness and creative cross-pollination, but it also makes a greater ethical sense.

That’s why Al Jazeera English was one of the eight original signatories of the Covering Climate Now “Climate Emergency” statement. We recognized the importance of the media coming together and coalescing around the story. At Al Jazeera, we’ve seen before the power of collaboration and solidarity; when some of our journalists were imprisoned in Egypt, we ran a campaign called “Journalism is Not a Crime.” We were delighted that other media organizations joined us and stood behind that.

We all have our audiences and our businesses to attend to, but there are certain stories where we can and should transcend differences and rivalries. This is one of those stories. We’re all in this climate fight together, and we’ve got to find solutions together.