Talking Shop: Insights and Inspiration for Reporting on the Climate Emergency During COVID-19

Read key takeaways from our joint “Talking Shop” with Reuters and watch the full webinar.

In a week when extreme weather disasters reminded us that the climate emergency does not pause for Covid-19, Reuters joined Covering Climate Now on May 19 for a “Talking Shop” webinar to discuss the opportunities and challenges newsrooms face in reporting both crises simultaneously.

Panelists included CCNow Executive Director Mark Hertsgaard of The Nation, Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson, senior editor Special Projects and The Wider Image at Reuters, and Jane Spencer, deputy editor of The Guardian US. The panel was hosted by Matthew Green, climate correspondent at Reuters.

Hertsgaard began by announcing that CCNow will interview UN Secretary General António Guterres about COVID-19 economic stimulus plans and the climate crisis in the lead up to June’s G7 summit. The interview will be available to all CCNow partners to publish/broadcast starting June 5th. (Read the full announcement.)

He also reminded journalists that while we may be competitors out in the reporting world, at “Talking Shop” webinars we are colleagues, coming together to share ideas and best practices — in this case, for how to keep the climate crisis a top priority for newsrooms everywhere. “Every beat in every newsroom now is a climate beat,” Hertsgaard said.

You can watch the webinar on Reuters’ website. Here are some key takeaways, with quotes lightly edited for clarity.

Climate change is a major public concern even amid COVID-19 

New polling by Ipsos shows that two thirds of citizens around the world believe climate change is as serious a crisis as coronavirus. In the US, a new survey by Yale University and George Mason University showed that 73% of Americans think global warming is happening. In fact, Spencer said, climate coverage is one of the primary reasons readers support The Guardian, and that has not changed since COVID-19.

Stories about how people are fighting back are popular

There is a real appetite for stories about human agency related to the climate emergency.  As an example, Johnson pointed to the ongoing destruction of the Brazilian Amazon and the indigenous peoples who are fighting to protect it. The coronavirus is contributing to more forest loss, as the Brazilian government has sent out fewer agents to combat illegal loggers, ranchers and speculators during the outbreak. “These people are in a really tough situation, but they’re active, they’ve got agency, they’re not passive, they’re going out and stopping loggers,” Johnson said.

Audiences are engaging with hopeful climate stories pegged to the pandemic

A Guardian story about how world cities have turned their streets over to walkers and cyclists during COVID-19 was a giant hit, Spencer said. “It’s both because people are looking for glimmers of hope in this really challenging moment and that the sudden shut down of our economy has created changes that are having a positive impact on the climate,” she said. Stories about how people are better able to engage with nature as a result of quarantine measures – less air pollution, more birdsongs – are also resonating with readers.

Make sure to follow the (stimulus) money 

The coronavirus has highlighted a “titanic conflict” within the world economy between incumbent fossil fuel interests and backers of climate action, Hertsgaard said. Green economic recovery packages are now supported by a wide-variety of global leaders, policymakers and investors. “To sustain audience interest and get our bosses to see the value of this story, our coverage should focus on some of the individuals involved,” Hertsgaard said. He pointed to the potential ouster of former Exxon CEO and climate denier Lee Raymond from the JP Morgan Chase bank’s board of directors as an example. He also encouraged stories that focus on how communities would be affected by green stimulus spending, citing new research showing that green spending actually creates more jobs per dollar invested than traditional stimulus spending does.  In a related comment, Green said Reuters has seen increased demand from its newsroom clients, particularly broadcasters, for solution-focused climate stories.

Put a human face on stories 

The coronavirus and climate crisis stories are, ultimately, about people. A story about the coronavirus and stimulus funding is more compelling when there is a personality attached, like this Reuters story that puts the mayor of Eugene, Oregon at its center. Visual storytelling also has a “visceral effect on people and makes people care about others,” Johnson said, but images need to go beyond headshots to draw people in. See, for example, this Reuters photo of over 2,000 pairs of children’s shoes in London’s Trafalgar Square placed by activists demanding a green recovery.

Include young people in your coverage

One of the reasons there’s been a major shift in public engagement around the climate crisis is  the global protest movement of  young people, who have concerns unique to their generation. “Young journalists are very interested in how poor people and communities of color will be most impacted by climate change,” Spencer said. “They have a different lens on the issue, so finding ways to include them in your coverage is one of the best ways to reach them.” At The Guardian this has included having young people write op-eds and report for the newsroom. It’s also important to reach young people where they are, including social media platforms such as Instagram and TickTok.

Which story is bigger – climate or COVID-19? 

Hertsgaard closed the webinar by answering a question that might help reporters explain to their editors why the climate emergency deserves continuing, high-profile  coverage: Which story is bigger? “COVID-19 is a terrible thing, but climate change is unquestionably the bigger threat,” Hertsgaard said. “Covid-19 is killing some of us on this planet. Climate change could kill all of us, and not only us, but our civilization and many of the species that we share this planet with.”

On a lighter note, Hertsgaard also encouraged any journalists who are not a member of CCNow to consider joining the collaboration.