By Jodie Randell

In light of the recent heat waves occurring across the globe, media organisations, public and independent, are taking heed on placing climate change at the forefront of their reporting. 

The Guardian newspaper in the UK has challenged the language its journalists use about climate change by updating its own style guide.  For example the guide explains that climate change is to be referred to as a climate ‘crisis’, ‘emergency’ or ‘breakdown’, and prefers the term ‘global heating’ as opposed to ‘global warming’. Editor-in-chief Katharine Viner explained “we want to ensure we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue”. 

The Guardian is also one of 60 media organisations, including a number of public broadcasters, joining the Covering Climate Now project, launched by the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) and The Nation. Through this project the members are committed to running a week of concentrated climate coverage beginning 23 September, in the build up to the UN’s Climate Action Summit. The CJR explain that the project should ‘transform how newsrooms conceive their climate coverage’. 


Public service media (PSM) organisations are also at the forefront of this discussion. National Public Radio’s (NPR) public editor, Elizabeth Jensen, has released a response regarding NPR’s ability to report on climate change. Aside from altering their language, she explained: “it’s much more important to focus on strong and regular reporting that allows listeners to see the facts for themselves”. NPR’s recent series Getting To Zero Carbon: The Climate Challenge is an example of this. Jensen explains that newsroom discussions have prompted NPR to further evaluate their climate coverage, with their reporters proposing new ways to report on the topic, such as having a dedicated climate change team, much like The Washington Post and The New York Times

The BBC are also setting new trends by issuing internal guidance about how to report on climate change. This comes with a ‘one hour training course on reporting on climate change’. One thing the guidance emphasises is the issue of achieving impartiality, explaining “as climate change is accepted as happening, you do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate – If the science proves it we should report it”

The internal guidance follows a series of apologies issued by the BBC last year following heavy criticism that it failed to challenge climate change sceptics during interviews. One interview with prominent denier and former UK chancellor, Nigel Lawson, led to a rebuke from regulator Ofcom, with a spokesperson saying: “Statements made about the science of climate change were not challenged sufficiently during this interview, which meant the programme was not duly accurate.”

it’s much more important to focus on strong and regular reporting that allows listeners to see the facts for themselves”

On a more local level, NPR’s South Florida station, WLRN, are taking a more collaborative approach when reporting on climate change issues. They have partnered with six local independent media outlets to cover climate change stories, by sharing content and working together to compile stories in the future. This partnership may be extended to include universities and not-for-profit newsrooms.

Another public media organisation innovating to put the climate crisis at the forefront of their reporting is Boston’s WBUR, who have a dedicated section on their website, Earth While, to climate change stories. 

However, there are also concerns as to how bold public broadcasters can be when reporting on this issue. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC/Radio-Canada), has responded to The Guardian’s alteration of language, by saying that CBC/Radio-Canada will be leaving it up to the discretion of the journalist as to how they report on climate change, explaining that in “some cases climate emergency and crisis can be used’”. The reasoning for this according to Paul Hambleton, the CBC’s director of journalistic standards, is that climate crisis’ and ‘climate emergency’ are words that have a whiff of advocacy to them”.

In a CBC Radio interview with Sean Holman, professor of journalism at Mount Royal University – who recently issued an open call for journalists to report on climate change as an emergency – Sean disagreed with Hambleton’s statement, fearing that the issue raised here is that by telling the truth, media organisations are cautious of appearing biased, despite the truth having “a higher value”.

A central role of public media organisations is to report accurately on crises and emergencies, ensuring that the public they serve have access to relevant and up-to-date information. Yet from heat waves to cyclones, many of the natural disasters reported on by PSM are growing in intensity and frequency, fuelled by anthropomorphic climate change. It is therefore encouraging to see new initiatives taking place on a topic that is affecting communities and environments globally. But is it enough?

There are certainly challenges for PSM in the way climate change is reported, in part due to principles surrounding impartiality. So how can public media negotiate this challenge to ensure climate change is reported on with the weight it deserves? And what can they learn from other independent organisations? Over the coming months PMA will explore these challenges in more detail and reveal some of the initiatives being taken by public media to cover the growing crisis.

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Header Image: Harmful emissions into the environment. Credit: angel_nt/iStock