Newsrooms grapple with the biggest story of our time: climate change

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Climate reporting was once something of a niche for nerds in the newsroom — domain experts who read the IPCC reports with increasing alarm and tried to explain to readers and often their colleagues that climate change was real and in part caused by humans.

Denialism has retreated in the past couple of years as it has become clearer that we are in a fluid environment and that the rate of change has accelerated as predicted. This poses great challenges for newsrooms and that’s why we’ve dealt with it in the INMA Newsroom Initiative because it’s no longer a niche story — it’s THE story across all beats.

John D. Sutter was a genuine innovator in reporting and trying to explain the implications of climate change and environmental degradation when I worked with him at CNN. He was early to understand the implications and to find creative ways to bring home the scale of the problem to especially American television audiences on CNN.

He’s still a commentator at CNN, helping explain complex issues around climate change such as why it matters to try to keep global average temperatures from rising more than two degrees. He’s also an EMMY-winning documentary filmmaker focused on the environment and climate.

Building on all that journalistic experience and understanding of what it takes to tell the story of climate change and why we should all care, Sutter was recently appointed as the Ted Turner Professor of Environmental Media at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He’s starting with a semester teaching environmental journalism to graduates and undergraduates of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the university.

Sutter was kind enough to talk to me about that new post and what newsrooms need to think about when they try to tackle the whole area of climate change and the environment. Here’s an edited Q&A extracted from that interview, which I will share more of in future newsletters.

Q: John, are you going into this plumbing the last 15 years of your career to give these students what you wished you knew when you started?

Sutter: It’s partly that and on my current work in documentaries and in news. Part of the idea is to have someone who’s like an activist teach this stuff because the media landscape moves fast, so it helps to have a foot in it.

Q: Is it about the science or the storytelling that’s needed to explain what’s happening?

Sutter: I've always been interested in how we process what we know about climate science and have known for a really long time and just haven't done enough with. So there are updates on the forefront of science and then digging into how as a society we make sense of this.

Q: You’ve told me you use the COP 21 Paris Agreement on agreed limits on emissions to try to contain global heating below two degrees as a benchmark for when the science became settled, but how do you think journalists should deal with denialism or maybe it is more defeatism?

Sutter: A story that’s trying to convince someone who doesn’t trust the science of climate change is way different from writing for someone who’s been plugged into this for 20 years and is trying to push ahead faster. Within one (news) outlet you need to speak to multiple audiences. The deniers have become increasingly small in number — you don’t have to prove it so much anymore and I am not up for debating it. I do think there was a time when it was important to push back against the “two-sidesism” but I’ve seen a concerted move away from that.

I honestly think news organisations have been far too timid about connecting the dots between the patterns we see happening in the weather and what we know — that the climate crisis is making these events more likely. Right now I think the worst error is wanting to prove that every incident is beyond doubt caused by climate change rather than over-attributing it.

Q: How should journalists use services and tools that try to attribute weather events to climate change?

Sutter: Climate attribution studies have been around since the early 2000s, and I think that gives journalists far more authority. You can dig in with a lot more granularity to see what we have supercharged (with human actions). You see our fingerprints on the storms.

You also have to be careful not to overstate that, but you don’t want to end up in a world where we’re debating how much of the weather we see is or is not (caused by humans) ... . Journalists are so trained to pin things down with absolute certainty but if we wait for everything to be absolutely certain we’ll be in a four or five-degree (higher) world.

Q: You say that the climate crisis challenges journalistic shibboleths like objectivity and balance?

Sutter: I don’t believe in objectivity and a lot of the big news organizations in the world are admitting that everyone has a bias, their institutions have a bias, their perspective on the world comes from like usually a national perspective, which has a bias. We have tools to mitigate bias, to be fair and inclusive, and accurate … but I don’t think you can look at the science and say that nothing needs to change. So journalists should be going in with a stance of ‘we should be headed for a net-zero world’ that is what the science is saying.

Q: With the climate story spreading out from environment reporters to all beats, what risks do you see there and what is the role of those specialist reporters?

Sutter: When I see a piece of news and Im frustrated with the way its reported it tends to come from those other beats, especially politics where the training is very much bothsidesism. I think there has to be a broader newsroom conversation about this. 

It’s the hardest story to tell. It’s both extremely urgent and present and now and past but also extremely long term in the future; carbon stays in the atmosphere and ocean for a thousand years. Thinking on those timescales is really hard for anyone like climate reporters.

My personal approach in my own work has been to try to broaden the types of stories were telling and to surprise people and hopefully engage them in a new way.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

If you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.

About Peter Bale

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.