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Digital media are shaking up reporting on climate change

by James Painter | Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
Wednesday, 21 December 2016 12:45 GMT

Journalists work in the press room on the opening day of the U.N. Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, Nov. 30, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Finding new ways to tell the underlying story of climate change is a challenge - but some are rising to it

Recent research by Yale and George Mason Universities found that three quarters of Americans “rarely or never discuss global warming with family or friends”.  The same is probably true in most countries of the world.

Although there is recent evidence that in many places people have started to take the issue more seriously after a recent dip, it is still the case that climate change remains way down the list of people’s concerns – and politicians’ priorities.

What’s more, fewer than half of Americans say they hear global warming being regularly discussed in the media.

Take the recent U.S. presidential campaign. There was hardly a mention of climate change in the presidential debates, and the amount of media coverage on the evening networks was pitifully small.

In the UK, during the EU referendum campaign, the main television bulletins carried no mention of environmental issuesdespite much of Britain’s clean air, water and emissions regulations originating in Europe.

As one experienced environment reporter recently explained it, “The fundamental underlying story of climate change is not news so we need to find new ways of telling it, and that is a challenge for everyone.”

New digital-born players like Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Vice have been doing just that. 

Although they do a lot of straight reporting of climate change, they are blazing a new trail in experimenting with new formats, new tones and new forms of reporting. In particular, they use social media extensively to get their material shared.

For our new book on these new players, we looked in detail at how they covered the Paris summit on climate change in December 2015.

We found that Huffington Post for example placed much more emphasis on a positive, solution-based approach to climate change, instead of the usual diet of ‘doom and gloom’ stories about the negative impacts.

They reported more on the opportunities provided by taking action against climate change, such as discussions of the economic advantages of investing early in renewable energies and in developing a ‘green economy’.


Vice News carried a series of dispatches from outside the summit, where the reporter took her audience on a journey with her, which was often much more personal and emotional than traditional reporting.

BuzzFeed combined some straight reporting with a variety of formats like listicles and quizzes such as “Do you know more about climate change than the average American?” It often used a more irreverent tone, such as this one.

These new players were generally more visually oriented than traditional media, relying on a lot of picture-based or video reporting. BuzzFeed in particular relied on photos more than any other media.

These new players are already outperforming some traditional players for news in many countries.  For example, in the United States, Huffington Post is now the most popular source for information about environment for those who are highly interested in the issue.

BuzzFeed reaches as many online users as the New York Times and the Washington Post each week among the same category of those highly interested in the environment.

But it is not just in English-speaking countries where the three are hoping to make a big impact.  All of them are investing heavily in language or country-specific sites.

For example, all three do a version of their sites in Portuguese for Brazil.  All three have targeted India.  Vice News does a Colombian and Mexican version in Spanish.  BuzzFeed does 11 versions in six languages.

Some of their material is specifically about climate change for a targeted language audience.  Vice Colombia recently published a special, photo-heavy feature on the melting glaciers in Bolivia.   

Huffington Post France did an irreverent, very visual piece about turning climate sceptic quotes into bathroom posters.

So these new players are helping to move climate change out of its niche ‘super-interested’ audience, and make it more interesting and engaging for younger audiences.  

This is a positive development for the public debate about the ‘old’, sometimes boring, often remote, theme of climate change.