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Climate Change Media

Is the media causing the public to ‘tune out’ over climate change?

By Ian Burrell, Columnist

November 21, 2019 | 9 min read

Media coverage of climate change requires creative vision and empowering narratives to tackle the growing risk that audiences will “tune out” to “the most important story in the world”.


/ Picture: AP

That’s a key message from Brian Carovillano, the managing editor of Associated Press, as the world’s biggest news agency pursues its most ambitious project in covering climate change. The 12-part multimedia series ‘What Can Be Saved?’ will culminate early next month as world leaders gather in Madrid for the COP25 UN Climate Change Conference.

The media’s role in focusing the world’s attention on the threat of global warming is clearly a critical one. But the challenge, identified by Carovillano, is in striking a balance between informing the public of the gravity of the subject, while not causing audiences to turn away in despair.

‘What Can Be Saved?’, which launched at the time of the UN Climate Action Summit in September in New York City, takes a deliberately upbeat stance, highlighting stories from around the globe – from Venezuela to Rwanda – where people are making a positive difference to the natural world.

Carovillano says the strategy was born of “an ongoing conversation in the newsroom” on the growing ineffectiveness of media coverage of the environment. “The doom and gloom approach was frankly turning people off. I think that journalism about climate and the environment has an engagement problem,” he says. “You see successive waves of UN reports and other really alarming studies coming out and you are not seeing people really tune into it. In fact, after several decades of dire warnings, it’s easy for people to tune out.”

‘What Can Be Saved?’ highlights the inspiring examples of “real people doing real things”, says Carovillano, “as opposed to this intimidating massive problem that most people would feel they can’t really do anything about”. The project has involved 31 frontline journalists, supported by numerous editors and production staff. It has included long reads and data-driven interactive features – but the main focus has been video and pictures, in order to maximise user engagement.

The stories range from China’s development of its own version of the Yellowstone national park in the Tibetan mountains, to the efforts of Jamaican environmentalists to restore the island’s reefs by ‘gardening’ coral beneath the Caribbean.

“It has gotten a tremendous amount of attention,” says Carovillano, who heads AP’s newsgathering efforts around the world and is deputy to the agency’s SVP Sally Buzbee. “It’s not quite the sort of thing that people are used to seeing from the AP but it showcases the incredible talent our colleagues in the field have and also the big ideas that they can come up with.”

The influence of the 173-year-old AP in shaping the way the news is reported is considerable. Its reporting network across 250 countries supplies the journalistic raw material that feeds a client base of thousands of news outlets and other publishers. The agency’s boast is that “more than half the world’s population sees our content every day”.

Increasingly, it is a direct-to-consumer news brand, through its AP News website and its social media presence on YouTube (1.07 million subscribers), Twitter (13.6 million followers), Facebook (730,000 followers) and Instagram (394,000 followers).

It was on Instagram that Leonardo DiCaprio, who operates some of the world’s most powerful environmental channels via his social media accounts, shared to his 37.9 million followers the AP’s arresting 7m 44s mini-documentary on the Vjosa river, which begins in Greece’s Pindus Mountains and crosses Albania. It is one of Europe’s last free-flowing rivers but is threatened by plans for dam construction. DiCaprio’s share generated 660,000 views, which Carovillano acknowledges as a “huge boost” for the profile of the ‘What Can Be Saved?’ series.

Yet the media cannot rely on celebrity endorsements for engaging global audiences with the fact that the planet is in peril.

A scene from the AP's What can be saved? series

The UN Summit in September provoked new urgency in the media’s efforts to make a positive contribution. The Guardian joined 250 newsrooms in the Covering Climate Now initiative created by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review. The Economist was among many news brands that chose the moment to make a stand, dedicating an entire edition to climate change.

“I think you are seeing something start to take hold,” Carovillano says, “which is the realisation that if we don’t collectively as an industry find innovative, creative, engaging and interesting ways to tell this story then people are going to tune it out and it’s our job to fight against the tune out factor on stories that we feel are really important. The way to do that is to constantly reinvent yourself and be really creative.”

Jon Fahey, AP’s global health and science editor, highlights one of the key problems faced by reporters in keeping climate change at the top of the news agenda. “The fundamental understanding of how the climate is changing has remained the same for years now. From a news perspective it’s a very hard subject to cover…,” he says. The question for newsrooms is “How do we tell it differently?”, he says.

AP’s answer was to seek inspiring examples that do not fit the common narrative of bad news on this subject. “The climate and environment story is not a happy story in general, but it’s not the only story. there are others and we wanted to go find those. We wanted action, we wanted to see people doing things, we wanted some track record.”

‘What Can Be Saved?’ shows how ponds are being brought back to life in the UK, and how Maasai tribes in Tanzania are learning to live in harmony with the lion population. Its ‘mini-doc’ on efforts to save the US Spotted Owl from being wiped out by the non-native Barred Owl has been the series’ most popular video on YouTube and has been entered in the 2019 International Wildlife Film Festival.

In China, AP went and found the Tibetan Yak herders whose livelihoods are threatened by China’s economic expansion and the tourists who come in search of mountainside selfies and river rides on bamboo rafts. “We have made sure to have the right number of people on the ground to capture this,” Fahey says. “Maybe we spend a few more days in the location than we have on a typical story to try and find the characters and see how they live their lives outside of what we are interviewing them about.”

This level of filmmaking is a big demand on resources, even for the AP. Its China-based staff reporters are already committed to big stories such as the student protests in Hong Kong and the crackdown on the Muslim minority in Xinjiang province.

‘What Can Be Saved?’ was made possible by the financial support the AP receives from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit private foundation. This kind of philanthropy, Carovillano says, is a “good way for organisations like ours to augment what they do with new kinds of coverage and new kinds of storytelling”. The HHMI supports the AP’s health and science coverage in general, and the agency retains “complete editorial control over what stories we do”, he says.

One area that receives relatively little attention in the ‘What Can Be Saved?’ content is the political dimension to the climate story. Carovillano and Fahey think this series is not the place for more coverage of the policies of world leaders such as Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro. “I feel that is the part of the story that probably is well-told, that climate often gets distilled into a political story when it’s so much more than that,” says Carovillano. “I think in our overly-politicised times, politics often sucks all the air out of the room and not enough attention is paid to the things that are actually happening out there in the world.”

Fahey believes the series can have a lasting impact. It will be relaunched in its entirety for the Madrid conference and the idea could be developed further in April for the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day annual environmental rights protest.

Carovillano says he feels heartened that, in a time when audience engagement with news video is often “disappointingly short” because of competing pressures on their attention, users have often been “spending several minutes” watching these mini-docs.

“I feel that our job is to identify the most important stories in the world and then try and tell them in a way that makes people really pay attention and engage with them,” he says, “and I think this is the most important story in the world.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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