Talking Shop: Climate Coverage and Racial Justice

The poor and people of color in the US and around the world suffer first and worst from climate-driven catastrophes. Most news organizations have not told their stories. How do we improve?

As protesters around the world continue taking to the streets to demand an end to systemic racism, Covering Climate Now held another of its journalists-only Talking Shop webinars to discuss reporting on climate change and racial justice, how the makeup of newsrooms affects editorial decisions and where we go from here.

Varshini Prakash, the co-founder and executive director of Sunrise Movement and a member of the Biden-Sanders joint task force on the Democratic party’s 2020 climate change platform, kicked off the discussion. Her comments, connecting the Sunrise Movement’s push for a Green New Deal with the importance of connecting climate stories to ordinary people’s daily realities, amounted to a brisk primer on “Climate Justice 101.” Joining Prakash on the panel were two distinguished climate journalists:   Kendra Pierre-Louis, a climate change reporter, most recently for The New York Times, and Yessenia Funes, senior staff writer for Earther/Gizmodo. Mark Hertsgaard, CCNow’s executive director and the environment correspondent for The Nation, moderated the event and later wrote about it in CCNow’s newsletter, The Climate Beat. Below are some key takeaways, with quotes lightly edited for clarity.

Environmental justice stories are underreported and demand attention

Studies linking COVID-19 deaths to air pollution, which is typically worse in minority communities, and calls for a Green New Deal have led some newsrooms to pay more attention to environmental justice in recent months. But most news organizations continue to miss this vital aspect of the climate story, the panelists agreed.

“I don’t think environmental justice is something that news institutions have really understood,” Pierre-Louis said. She says editors see these stories as something to cover maybe once-a-year, rather than as essential, continuing issue that should be included in all climate reporting.

“Environmental justice is something that needs to be embedded in all aspects of  climate reporting and climate needs to be embedded in all aspects of other reporting,” Pierre-Louis said. She gave the example of an energy reporter writing about Exxon’s quarterly earnings. “If you’re not mentioning climate change in that story, that’s gross negligence. Climate change touches every aspect of life. It’s not just something that needs to hang out in this very specific climate silo.”

Climate stories are environmental justice stories, with people at their core

Prakash, whose family is from southern India, described how some of her earliest transformative moments were watching people on TV who “looked like me” but didn’t have water, food or shelter after a hurricane flooded their homes. She remembers hearing about “places near my family’s village in India, where Coca-Cola used up all the drinking water for their factories.”

“Why do we care about the rising carbon in our atmosphere? Why do we care about parts per million or degrees of warming? Because the consequences are human,” Prakash said. “If a journalist is not reporting on the people affected by climate change, then you’re missing the story,” Pierre-Louis said, adding, “The whole reason you’re reporting on climate change as a journalist is because it has implications to society and to humans.”

Where environmental justice stories are: everywhere 

Funes suggests that journalists expand their scope of environmental reporting: “It’s important for people to recognize that the environment is where people work, play and live,” she said. “It’s my community here in Queens, it’s everywhere.” [See Funes’s story ‘We Belong Here’: Racist Central Park Video Shows Why We Need Diversity Outdoors]

A number of journalists attending the webinar asked for environmental justice story  ideas, to which Prakash responded: “There’s a story in virtually every neighborhood that feels on par with Flint, Michigan.” For example, black residents in Lowndes County, Alabama have been deprived of basic sewage infrastructure “that white communities down the street take for granted.”  She also urged reporters to visit Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” 85 miles of land straddling the Mississippi River north of New Orleans where petrochemical and other heavy industrial facilities occupy former slave plantations and subject local residents to horrific air pollution. [See Covering Climate Now’s new Climate Justice Reporting Guide.]

Talk to activists, they’re part of the story 

Another helpful source of environmental justice stories, Funes said, are activists and others on the frontlines of social change. “Many of the experts on this topic are advocates,” she said, and “people living their lives suffering at the hands of industrial pollution.”

Hertsgaard said, “The mainstream media, for the most part, does not report on social movements. We automatically think that government officials and corporations are newsmakers, but mainstream news organizations need to realize that so are the people who are changing things in the streets.” But he cautioned journalists not to cross the line into activism when reporting. “Part of the reason why we always say that we’re journalists, not activists, is that we have to hold social movements to account as well.”

Lack of diversity in newsrooms, particular at the top, remains a problem

A 2018 Pew Research study found that 77% of newsroom staff in the US are white, although whites comprise 65% of the US population.  And newsroom gatekeepers – the editors and news executives who ultimately decide which journalists are hired and promoted and which stories are assigned or killed – are almost all white men. “Just hire more people of color. I don’t understand why that’s such a difficult thing for news organizations to do,” Funes said.

News organizations should regard diversity as more than a bureaucratic box to be checked but rather as an editorial outlook to be embraced, Pierre-Louis, who is Black, said. “You want to hire people who look like me but think like you,” she once told a newsroom executive.

Populating newsrooms with more diverse staff, like running more environmental justice stories, is not about being politically correct; it’s about being  journalistically accurate.  Social justice is so central to the climate crisis and its solutions that disregarding it means missing the story — and maybe giving one’s competitors the last laugh.  Pierre-Louis recalled that Tanzina Vega, host of The Takeaway, a daily news show on WNYC radio: “Thinking about the NYT editor who asked me “what the $#!?@” #BlackLivesMatter was going to accomplish as I pitched a story about the movement’s early days. Behold 2020.”