The Coronavirus Has Lessons For Journalists Covering The Climate Crisis

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4 Mins Read

By: Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

Earth Day’s 50th anniversary serves as a moment to reflect on how to more rigorously cover the climate story.

The coronavirus pandemic is a tragic reminder of just how essential fact-based, outspoken journalism is, especially in times of crisis. Without it, people die. In China, the lack of an independent press made it easier for the government to hide the danger of the virus, putting many more people, especially health care workers, at risk. In the United States, Donald Trump likewise downplayed the threat, calling it a “hoax,” but faced pushback from much of the media. By highlighting what science and medical experts say, rather than the fake controversies around it, such reporting is helping to push the US death toll lower than it otherwise would be.

Now, it’s time for the same journalistic rigor and urgency around the other great crisis of our time. The overlaps between the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis are many, and the same best practices when it comes to reporting are needed. Here, too, newsrooms must let facts, especially scientific facts, be our guide. We must stand up to the powerful, remembering that journalists work for the public, not for governments. We must report with compassion, candor, and courage, not only chronicling the ongoing devastation, as important as that is, but also illuminating credible remedies and reasons for hope.

Toward that end, the global journalistic collaboration Covering Climate Now, founded a year ago by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, has launched a week of coverage coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and focusing on climate solutions. Comprised of more than 400 TV, radio, wire service, digital, and print news outlets with a combined audience approaching 2 billion people, Covering Climate Now organized a similar week of joint coverage in September around the UN Climate Action Summit that helped drive a massive increase in overall media coverage of climate change.

Going ahead with this week of climate solutions coverage even as the coronavirus continues to ravage communities around the world is not an easy call. We know from conversations with colleagues throughout the media that most newsrooms are already working overtime to cover this pandemic and that audiences crave that in-depth, 24/7 coverage.

Nevertheless, there is an opportunity for all of us here. As awful as the coronavirus is, it is something of a test run for the challenges of a climate crisis that continues to accelerate. Our job, as journalists, is to extract lessons from the Covid-19 crisis that we can apply to covering the climate crisis. It is, as author and activist Bill McKibben recently wrote in The New Yorker, a daunting task. The edifice [of contemporary society] seems so shiny and substantial, a world of silver jets stitching together cities of towering skyscrapers, a globe of soaring markets and smartphone connectivity,” McKibben wrote. “But a couple of months into this disease and it’s all tottering.”

The similarities between the causes of and solutions to the coronavirus and the climate crisis are nothing short of eerie. In both cases, it is imperative to respect science, intervene early to flatten the curve, and prepare for impacts that can’t be avoided. The coronavirus shows what horrors can result when governments, often abetted by propaganda organs masquerading as news organizations, scorn science, shun early action, and fail to fortify their societies against the predicted results. It is precisely now, in this moment of rawness around the coronavirus, that we can most ably draw lessons to help us do better against the onrushing climate crisis.

It is notable and encouraging that even as people understandably obsess about the coronavirus, they remain interested in climate stories. “We’ve found that there is an audience; a lot of people want to hear about climate change,” Justin Worland, the climate correspondent for Time, said during a “Talking Shop” conference organized by Covering Climate Now on April 16.

So, during this week of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, look for an abundance of first-class reporting and analysis of climate solutions by the news outlets of Covering Climate Now. We define solutions broadly, to include not only technical fixes such as solar panels and sea walls but also policy reforms such as pricing carbon and ending fossil fuel subsidies as well as civic actions to advance these reforms, including voting, protesting, and, yes, better journalism. To reach the broadest possible audience, some of Covering Climate Now’s partners—including, The Guardian, Reuters, CBS News, WNYC public radio, HuffPostAsahi Shimbun, and CJR—will make their coverage available free of charge for all partners to republish or rebroadcast.

We are also excited that on Earth Day itself, this Wednesday, a number of the biggest names in news will announce that they are joining Covering Climate Now, expanding our collaboration’s reach and ability to keep the climate story at the top of the public agenda.

Optimism does not come easy at this moment in our history. But we can draw hope from the fact that we can learn from the coronavirus crisis, and that it can provide a road map for stories that will matter about the climate crisis and, crucially, its solutions.

This story was originally published in The Nation and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.


Lead image courtesy of iStock.


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