SACHA PFEIFFER This is On the Media, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer sitting in for Brooke Gladstone. It is a fact that the raging fires in California and other parts of the West are due to climate change. So are the droughts, deep freezes and drenching storms that are commonplace events nowadays. Even so, media outlets fail regularly in their coverage of the ongoing climate catastrophe. A few years ago, we wrote one of our breaking news, Consumer Handbooks on how not to cover weather events. For example, phrases like ‘once-in-100 year storm’ are misleading. AnD initial death tolls are often severely undercounted, and the consequences of any storm will keep unfolding long after the camera crews pack up and go home. And most importantly, other than volcanoes and earthquakes, there are no natural disasters. One point that was missing from our handbook that we thought was too obvious to share was that when applicable, journalists should make sure to attribute severe weather to climate change. I guess we shouldn't have assumed.
NEWS REPORT Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana today, battering the southeastern Gulf Coast with an onslaught of water and dangerous winds
NEWS REPORT With winds 150 miles per hour and those reported wind gusts reaching 172 miles per hour and then remaining a category four storm for an astonishing six hours.
NEWS REPORT The fifth strongest hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland in recorded history. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER Media Matters did a study of TV news in the days leading up to and following Ida's landfall in Louisiana. The data showed that of the 774 total TV segments that ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC ran about Ida during that period, 34 mentioned climate change. Just 4%, and that's causing some reporters to sound the alarm on how we talk about humanity's own role in creating the storms ravaging the world
MARK HERTSGAARD When it comes to that coverage of Hurricane Ida, I confess that I was baffled to see my TV news colleagues leaving climate change out of their stories in 96% of the stories at least.
SACHA PFEIFFER Mark Hertsgaard as the environment correspondent for The Nation magazine, and executive director of Covering Climate Now. It's a global media consortium committed to more and better coverage of the climate story.
MARK HERTSGAARD I do know this, that there are definitely people within the ABC News, the NBC News, the CBS News newsrooms who know perfectly well that Hurricane Ida is an example of climate change at work. And indeed, you saw Al Roker, the NBC News weather expert, say that from the ground in New Orleans,.
AL ROKER Andrea was one last thing. I just want to say we are looking at the results of climate change. Those Gulf waters were about 3 to 5 degrees above average, 88 to 90 degrees. And that is purely climate change. [END CLIP]
MARK HERTSGAARD And Jeff Berardelli at CBS News said the same thing, Ginger Zee at ABC News, but the rest of their news teams did not say that. My hunch is that most of the rest of those journalists in those newsrooms do not have the climate knowledge or the climate confidence to say on the air what their colleagues in the weather unit can say.
SACHA PFEIFFER I can think of all the times as a reporter, I wanted to include more detail in my stories, but in radio you have only three minutes or 60 seconds. And if you're writing a newspaper story, you have only 800 words.
MARK HERTSGAARD Let's dispense with this idea that, oh, there's not time or room. I think it is a dodge. All it takes is one sentence to say, as Al Roker said from the ground in New Orleans, this is an example of climate change.
SACHA PFEIFFER If you believe that part of the problem is we don't have enough specialized newsrooms or reporters with individual expertise in climate science. We may never have that. The media's been decimated. Staffs are shorter, people are often more generalists. So what then? Does there just need to be template language so that if you're covering climate, you can at least have a standardized line that mentions climate change?
MARK HERTSGAARD That is what we try to provide, by the way, covering climate. Now, look, here's how you can make the climate connection in your reports. We have 10 best practices in climate reporting that you can read so that, you know, we say to our colleagues, look, if you're new to the climate beat and you're managing editor tells you at 10 a.m. that you've got to have a story on the air at 6:00, come to us, read this stuff for an hour, and you can go out and report that story and get something on the air that night that you will not be ashamed of. It is really not that difficult. And let's be clear here, the U.S. media has long been at least 10 years behind our counterparts in Europe on this. Back in the 1990’s, the media in Germany, in Britain and France, in Italy, in Spain, none of them were saying climate science is a hoax, like we were saying in the United States. None of them were being both sides, "well, there's some people say it's true and some people say it's not." The science was plenty clear enough in the 1990’s.
SACHA PFEIFFER What would you say to journalists who feel that covering climate change is somehow a partisan style of reporting?
MARK HERTSGAARD I would argue that, in fact, that's the single greatest mistake that the U.S. media has made on the climate story going back 30 years now to when it first appeared on the public agenda. We have treated climate change as a politics story rather than a science story. Where, OK, Republicans say one thing and Democrats say another thing. And if we in the media are going to be fair, we have to reflect both sides. You know, when there was the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, we did not say there are some people who believe that men landed on the moon and other people who don't, and "gee, we don't know. It's up for you, the viewer or the listener to decide." We don't do that with cigarettes, we don't do that with gravity, we don't do that with science.
SACHA PFEIFFER Last month there was a Wall Street Journal opinion piece you may have seen and it didn't deny that climate change is happening, but it said that a lot of liberal media outlets focus on the need to cut back on fossil fuel dependance to try to slow climate change. And this journal op ed argued instead, we should be investing more in withstanding climate change, hardening the grid, better electrical systems, better levees, better flood protection.
MARK HERTSGAARD The Wall Street Journal has been lying about climate change on its editorial pages for 30 years. So I'm really not interested in what they have to say except for this. It is very interesting to see how just like the fossil fuel companies are now changing their tune on climate change after lying for 30 years, The Wall Street Journal is now doing the same thing. They want to look like they are part of the solution. I'm sorry you don't get a vote on this. You lied for 30 years about it, that's a big part of the reason that we're in this emergency today where the climate chaos is exploding around the world. If you want to be part of the solution, let's start by you fessing up and admitting and apologizing for your lies. Then we might take your views seriously. Beyond that, yes, of course, we have to do more to prepare for climate change. I wrote 10 years ago the very first book for the mass market on climate change adaptation. It was called Hot: Living through the Next 50 Years on Earth. Yes, we have to do much, much more on adaptation, but I'm not interested in hearing about that necessity from people who are a big part of the reason for why the problem is as bad as it is today.
SACHA PFEIFFER There are a lot of people these days, as I'm sure you know, who just say they're burnt out by the news. They need a break from the news. It's all bad. Climate change factors into that. It's ominous. It keeps getting worse. Obviously, reporters still have to cover the issue. But how should we be factoring in the news consumer fatigue issue? Should we adjust our reporting at all to keep in mind that people are tired and worn out and discouraged and kind of don't want to hear it anymore?
MARK HERTSGAARD Yes, the news is often pretty dire, but that doesn't mean that we don't report it because we've got to know what the facts are. That said, one of the things we work on the Covering Climate Now is what is known as solutions journalism, which I quickly add is not boosterism. It is not cheerleading, but it is telling the whole story, not just, "oh, my God, there's a climate emergency," but "oh my God, we have all the tools and technologies we need to fix that climate emergency." We have solar and wind power that have plummeted in cost over the last decade. We have stopped building coal fired power plants that overheat the planet. We have a very vibrant youth climate movement that is pushing governments and businesses to do the right thing. There's a lot of good news on the climate as well as the harsher stuff. And I think the best journalism mixes that in a way that is responsible. Again, we're never supposed to be cheerleaders, we're never supposed to be activists, but we do have a civic responsibility to inform the people about the good, the bad, the ugly, but also the possible. And when we do that, I think that the democracy thrives, our audiences like it, and that is going to lead to us having a job going forward [chuckles], which is pretty important to0.
SACHA PFEIFFER Mark, thank you.
MARK HERTSGAARD My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
SACHA PFEIFFER Mark Hertsgaard wrote, Why Won't TV News Say 'Climate Change' for The Guardian and is the executive director of Covering Climate Now. Full disclosure, our producing station, WNYC, was a co-founder of that nonprofit along with several other media organizations.