Climate change reminds journalists to steer clear of reporting opinions

By Martin Ahlquist

Svenska Dagbladet

Stockholm, Sweden


When does something become the truth? Does that only occur once the probability has jumped up to 100% and not the slightest bit less?

At this year’s Almedalen Week, during which politicians and organisations in Sweden gather to discuss issues, I held a discussion with our science writer, researcher Emma Frans, on Svenska Dagbladet’s stage. The theme was “True, false, or in between?” Her point was that science rarely delivers 100% probabilities. It is within scientific nature to always leave room for a certain degree of doubt. Nonetheless, the scientific basis of explanation is the best we have.

When extensive, high-quality research has been conducted in a particular area, and there is a general consensus on what is true, then it is also reasonable to call that the truth. With this justification, she answered “true” to the claim that man has contributed to global increases in temperatures. It’s not quite as true as the earth being round, but nonetheless true.

And what does this have to do with the approach we in the media should take on the issue of climate change?

Journalism should scrutinise and question, including journalism on climate change. That does not, however, mean that an individual voice claiming climate change is natural should be afforded the same weight as 100 researchers claiming the opposite. Because journalism should also be relevant, we must distinguish major from minor when choosing what to write about and how we go about it. To use a well-worn sports metaphor, we must keep our eye on the ball.

As the recent wave of climate demonstrations began spreading across the globe (following the time zones), there were examples of newspapers that chose to focus on the anxiety about the climate that led into the demonstrations. The implication was that climate anxiety was the problem — not climate change. This is an example of a secondary issue being treated as the primary issue.

But it can easily swing in the opposite direction, too. When Greta Thunberg gave her now world-renowned speech to the UN General Assembly, there were examples of journalists, dispatched to monitor and report, who were so captivated they forgot another basic principal of journalism: “show don’t tell.” Relate what you see, but do not tell readers what they are expected to feel.

Although we all have opinions, not allowing these to affect our journalism is a virtue. The fundamental driving force should be the desire to present information and insights so readers can form their own opinions … not to proclaim one’s own views.

“Stop, stop, stop!” some may want to shout at this point. Newspapers are full of opinions and conclusions. Well, yes, that is the case. Opinions are found in editorials and sometimes in the culture pages. On news sites, too, analysis writers are afforded opportunities to live it up. What I am talking about is the ongoing news coverage forming journalism’s backbone.

On the whole, it appears that climate change will lead to the extensive transformation of societies around the world. A change in society of this magnitude will bring exciting innovations and new entrepreneurs, but probably also abuse of power, corruption, and fortune hunters.

Classic, quality journalism will not have a shortage of things on which to report.

About Martin Ahlquist

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