Climate Change: Not just an environmental or policy-beat story

September 12, 2018 01:30

“Most Americans accept that global warming is happening, but they see it as a distant problem—in space (not here), in time (not yet), and in species (not us),” Dr. Edward Maibach, Director of George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication wrote in the National Communication Association’s Spectra magazine (Sept. 2018).

However, that perception doesn’t align with the evidence climate scientists are seeing and, ten years ago, Maibach and his colleagues set out to change that.

Following public perception survey evidence and a key idea from a local weathercaster, Climate Matters was born. The premise was that the public trusts weathercasters to provide accurate information about weather, climate and their impacts, but most weathercasters knew much more about short-term weather patterns than long-term climate science.

Climate Matters’ goal was to help climate scientists bring their findings to weathercasters, and through them, to the public, with accessible, localized resources.

Today, Climate Matters brings science from trusted climate data sources like NASA and NOAA to more than 600 broadcast meteorologists and, now, through Climate Matters in the Newsroom, to journalists on a broad swath of beats, too.
Watch: Responding to misinformation in the age of fake news
How should journalists respond to the growing presence of fake news and misinformation? Join Dr. John Cook, Research Assistant Professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication, at George Mason University, to learn the psychology and techniques behind debunking myths. Have you ever noticed people holding fast to false information even after given the facts? Oftentimes attempts to debunk fake news inadvertently reinforce misconceptions rather than dispel them. This webinar will delve into the psychology of misinformation, how it affects people, and how to respond. It will explain the optimal ways to address misinformation, based on psychological research. Free for RTDNA members.

“Climate change is arguably the most significant issue of our time, but it’s not being reported on enough,” says Susan Hassol, Director of Climate Communication. Her organization is developing Climate Matters in the Newsroom training, with the next workshop coming up at Excellence in Journalism 2019.

The training is designed to address what Hassol sees as three main shortcomings in climate reporting. The first: there’s just not enough of it.

While more and more weathercasters are reporting about climate issues and their impact, Hassol says climate change is much more than an environmental or science story. In fact, the impacts of climate change are relevant to almost any beat: health, economy, national security, agriculture, and more.

The results of a survey of RTDNA members earlier this year bear that out: 60% of members say they have reported a climate-related story in the past year, and most agree that climate issues are relevant across multiple beats.

Now, Climate Matters is tackling what RTDNA members see as the biggest obstacles to more climate reporting: time and training in climate science.

Hassol has spent more than 30 years working with scientists to communicate more effectively with the public, policymakers and journalists, distilling long, jargon-heavy papers into short, clear, accessible documents and, increasingly, data sets for data journalists.

Climate Matters makes new, accessible, localized climate science reports available for every media market every week (sign up to get them here). Along with groups like SciLine (find them on the EIJ18 Expo floor), Climate Matters also helps reporters find local climate experts including state climatologists and local offices of federal agencies.

The second major gap remaining in climate coverage, Hassol says, is a “failure to connect the dots between extreme weather and climate change,” when the science has in fact advanced to the point that many extreme weather events can be linked to the effects of a changing climate. As newsrooms report breaking stories on wildfires, floods, drought and hurricanes, they may be missing opportunities to look into potential deeper linkages. Climate Matters has developed several extreme weather toolkits to break down the climate science of extreme weather.

A third challenge Hassol sees in climate change coverage is that, just as climate issues are often framed as purely environmental, they also often framed as political rather than scientific, leaving them open to false balance. A lack of science understanding is at play here, too, Hassol says, as most people do not realize the extent of the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. Some news outlets, most recently the BBC, have updated their guidance on including alternate perspectives.

An additional challenge – and opportunity – Hassol points out is the “doom and gloom” tone often accompanying climate stories, when there are sometimes overlooked opportunities to cover problem-solvers and potential solutions.

For the nearly three-quarters of RTDNA members who are interested in covering climate change, its local impacts and potential solutions, and the 80% who want to learn more about climate science, Climate Matters’ science resources are a good place to start.