Advice from climate journalists

You all might not be climate journalists, but you should know what makes a good one. Here's what some of the best in the business say.

Me eating pasta waiting for a one-on-one Zoom meeting with one of my students. I am a Cool Professor.

I’m teaching climate journalism course this semester for my alma mater, SUNY New Paltz. It’s a three-ish hour zoom class that takes place every Tuesday afternoon.

My students are a group of fifteen bright young journalism majors, and their only major assignment is to produce an article that centers on accountability and/or intersectionality. I’m hoping that, by the end of the semester, many of those stories will be published here in the newsletter.

It really all depends on how good of a teacher I am. But I’m a 31-year-old with a Bachelor’s degree whose never taught anything before, so who knows what will happen. Fortunately, the whole point of the course is that it’s taught by someone who isn’t normally a professor; it’s sponsored by the James H. Ottaway Sr. Visiting Professorship, which brings in working journalists to show students what it be like out here. I haven’t been out here that long, but I do know what it be like.

I am also fortunate to know a lot of other climate journalists working in the field. So for this week’s class, I drew on their perspectives to supplement mine. On Twitter, I asked climate journalists to give my students one piece of advice that could help them produce better stories. I loved the responses so much, I thought I’d share them here.

You all might not be climate journalists, but you should know what makes a good one. As one of the wise climate reporters who responded to my prompt said, you have to know how the system is supposed to work in order to recognize when it’s failing. Climate change is the most important story of our time, and readers are essential to holding the news media accountable. I’ve said it before: the stakes of this job are very high. We only have so many opportunities to get it right before everything goes horribly wrong.

I also thought it’d be relevant to share this advice since we’re in Week 4 of the All We Can Save book club, and the section we’re reading is Reframe. In that section is my essay on climate journalism, called “Truth be Told.” It’s an adaptation and expansion of my Columbia Journalism Review essay, “Good Grief,” which you can read if you don’t have the book. The advice from climate journalists is good supplementary material.

Finally, before I share all the great advice climate journalists shared with my students, I want to share the advice I gave. It’s much longer than all the other reporters’ advice, because I’m the teacher and I do what I want. It’s also probably much cleaner than whatever botched version I delivered in Zoom class. Here it is:

If you take one thing from this class, please, let it be this.

If we don’t take drastic action to address climate change, a lot of people are going to suffer. If we don’t take drastic action to address climate change, a lot of people are going to die.

These are not activist talking points. They are scientific facts. If we don’t take drastic action to address climate change, a lot of people are going to suffer and die. Death is objectively bad, and taking it seriously is not showing bias. Taking death seriously means showing humanity. It means showing care. You will never be a good reporter if you don’t tap into your humanity. You will never reach people if they don’t think you care.

Death is also not the only objectively horrible thing that can happen to a person, to a community, to a country, to the world. Sickness, poverty, hunger, discrimination, war: they’re all bad, and they all cause suffering. Climate change makes pandemics more likely. It worsens global conflict. It’s strengthening extreme weather. It takes the entire world’s death and suffering and puts it on steroids. Every story you write about climate change must reflect this in some way.

Our basic function as reporters in a democracy is to make sure citizens know the truth about the biggest issues facing society, so they can make informed decisions at the polls and in their lives. Our best tool to derive truth is science. Use it. Embolden yourself with the truth about this crisis.

When you are reporting on anything having to do with climate change, I need this to be in the back of your mind all the time. Climate change causes death and suffering. Climate change causes death and suffering. For some reason, this hasn’t permeated into the brains of a lot of reporters who cover climate change. It makes absolutely zero sense. If you were reporting on the pandemic, death and suffering would permeate your reporting and writing. If you were reporting on war, death and suffering would permeate your reporting and writing.

Every climate story you cover is life and death. Remember that, and you’ll be a good reporter.

Now, here’s a bunch of tweet-length pieces of advice from some of the best climate reporters in the business. Enjoy. (You can also find them all and more in this Twitter thread).

If you could give one piece of advice to a class of 15 budding climate change reporters about how to write good stories, what would it be?

Geoff Dembicki, VICE: “Not every character has to be the voice for a predetermined position. Great storytelling means showing people struggling with moral uncertainty.”

Annie Ropeik, New Hampshire Public Radio: “Everyone you talk to has a personal connection to climate change, whether they realize it or not. put those human stories at the center of science- and policy-driven reporting, and your audience will listen and understand so much more.”

Anna Kusmer, Public Radio Exchange: “I would encourage them to really connect with the humans at the center of the story as much as possible - their values, inner lives, loves, visions for the future.”

Niina H. Farah, E&E News: “Every story is or can be a climate story. A changing climate affects all aspects of life. That means there are really broad and interesting possibilities for coverage that aren't just linked to the latest disaster.”

John Upton, Climate Central: “When field reporting, prioritize the lowest-income areas, ask residents there about impacts from [climate change-related threat/trend] and whether anything is being done to protect them from it.”

Paul Guinnesy, Physics Today: “Don't follow the press releases, talk to people about what they think is the news, and dig deep into it.”

Ariel Wittenberg, E&E News: “Learn how the regulatory system works. Administrative law, Clean Air, Water acts, NEPA etc. You have to know how the system works to know when it doesn't, and who is harmed by that. (Also helps assess how realistic policy proposals are).”

Akshat Rathi, Bloomberg News: “Climate change is a systems problem. It's great to focus on the nuts and bolts, but try and provide readers the necessary context in every story about the machine that is spewing GHGs into the atmosphere.”

Jimmy Zombson, Pulitzer Center: “Understand the Indigenous context; don't overlook Indigenous communities in your reporting, and develop those relationships.”

Jeremy Deaton, Climate Nexus: “Big one: Understand that economic inequality is a driver of climate change, not just a side effect. Small one: Be wary of the difference between "energy" and "electricity."”

Michaela Althouse, New Project Media: “Between social injustices, policy, capitalism, weather and everything in-between, whatever you think you're reporting on is probably about 5x more complicated than it seems.”

Mads Støstad, NRK (Norway Public Broadcasting): “Work hard to truly understand the nuances of the science. Then cut almost all of it from your story.”

Rob Miraldi, SUNY New Paltz professor emeritus of journalism: “On some stories there is only one side. Take responsibility.”

A final piece of advice: don’t fall for bullshit

You may notice there’s a lack of advice here about climate denial, and the scourge of fossil fuel industry disinformation. Don’t worry: the students have been getting a lot of lectures from me and others on that front.

In fact, in one of their first classes they got to talk to Geoffrey Supran, the Harvard University researcher who alongside Naomi Oreskes authored one of the most oft-cited papers on Exxon’s climate disinformation campaign. And almost half of the students are focusing on some aspect of greenwashing or climate denial for their story.

They know, at this point, not to fall for bullshit—and that’s what’s gonna make their stories so great.

Can’t wait to (hopefully) share some with you!

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Stay hydrated, eat plants (I’m really into butternut squash right now), do sit-ups, and have a great weekend!