See index to all the chapters for Putting Out the Planetary Fire
16 Climate and the Media
– How the Media Has Covered Climate
– Recent Improvement in Climate Media Coverage
– Efforts to Improve Coverage of climate
– Disinformation by Fossil Fuel Industry
– Corporate Media ownership concentration
Climate and the Media
This chapter first examines the role of the media in covering the climate issue. While mainstream media coverage of climate issues in the United States has somewhat improved in recent years, it has a long-term record of giving far too much coverage of climate denial. This chapter explores the various reasons for the media’s poor coverage of climate issues, starting with the still increasing concentration of corporate ownership.
The second part explores ways that climate groups can increase media coverage of their work. Be the Media.
As the head of various non-profit organizations and community groups, I always developed a plan on how to increase media coverage, similar to the attention I paid to fundraising, staff supervision, advocacy efforts, and more. Like the first rule for fundraising, media coverage starts with asking, and then asking again
Many colleagues expressed surprise about the amount of media coverage groups I’ve been associated with have received. I always advised them to not to wait for the media to come to them. I also recommended they work on becoming a reliable asset for reporters. Reporters work on deadlines. They appreciate people who are either able to quickly provide the type of quote they need for their story or have the contact information for the person who can. Responding in a quick and timely fashion is often critical to generating media coverage.
Most media savvy groups generate most of their media coverage not through press conferences or media releases but by pitching stories to individual reporters and media outlets.
Climate groups need to create their own media, starting with mastering the various social media platforms. Understand which demographics pay attention to which platforms.
In order to generate more media coverage of the issues and groups I believe are important, for more than two decades I have produced a weekly public affairs program on various radio stations, often as part of the Pacifica Radio Network. I am a news producer and co-host for a nightly local news program on a community radio station in New York’s Capital District. I am also a co-founder of the Hudson-Mohawk Independent Media Center, the local component of a worldwide movement that grew out of the Battle in Seattle, the 1999 global justice protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO).
How the Media has Covered Climate
The American media has been widely criticized by giving far too much time to climate deniers and the false information campaigns of the fossil fuel industry, even when there was a scientific consensus that climate change was happening and it was caused by human activities, mainly burning fossil fuels.
Many in the media defend their performance on the grounds that they are supposed to provide balance, or equal coverage to both sides of the debate. Critics point to more revenue-focused business calculations, both as media companies have increasingly consolidated into a few massive corporate behemoths and since fossil fuel companies and other affiliated businesses are a major source of advertising dollars. Prestigious news outlets such as The New York Times and Washington Post for years sold ads in the form of paid statements by fossil fuel companies on their opinion pages. There has also been a decline in the number of journalists covering science issues.
One study of over one hundred thousand articles documented that the American media gave too much weight to people who dismiss climate change, giving them an unearned legitimacy and posing serious danger to efforts aimed at raising public awareness and motivating rapid action. Most of the climate change skeptics covered by the media are not scientists, and the ones who are, have very thin credentials; often they are politicians. The problem is even worse with the rise of social media and blogs.
Another study focused on three of the country’s most influential news outlets – The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today – over 30 years came to a similar conclusion. The study found the least-covered press releases came from groups with the most expertise on science and technology. “Rather than marginalize self-interested voices and give prominence to expert voices, these papers did just the opposite,” the study concluded.
As climate denial has fallen out of fashion, the media has shifted to coverage of climate delay, which seeks to put off large-scale efforts to address it, sometimes redirecting responsibility to consumers and emphasizing the downsides of urgent action. This includes the television and other media ads by fossil fuel companies touting their (minimal) investments in renewable energy, arguing that they’re on top of the problem, they care, so that they can avoid the type of public pressure and ultimately political regulation that would force them to change at the pace that is needed.
Chris Hayes, one of MSNBC’s prime time cable television talk show hosts, claims that “every single time we’ve covered [climate change] it’s been a palpable ratings killer. So, the incentives are not great.” Especially on television, where most Americans still get their news, the demands of ratings and money work against adequate coverage of the climate crisis, arguably the biggest story of our time.
Recent Improvement in Climate Media Coverage
United States (and global) media coverage of climate has improved recently, prodded by climate activists who are increasingly willing to protest at media offices. One study found that news coverage of climate change in the U.S. reached an all-time high in 2021 and more intense language such as “climate catastrophe” and “climate emergency” is being used. Climate groups have been urging metrologists, the “scientists” with the greatest public respect, to highlight the link between climate change and extreme weather events.
Major national newspapers are starting to pay more attention to the climate – but local publications and local news are not. The four major broadcast networks spent just 142 minutes on climate change in 2019. And about half of Americans hear about global warming in the media once a month or less.
The “both sides” approach to climate is now impacting on the issue of meat vs. plant-based diets on climate change. Research, as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is clear that to combat climate change and use the planet’s resources more sustainably, the world needs to produce less meat. The livestock industry is a major source of pollution, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions. Yet newspaper coverage is still framing this issue as an open debate, including expert opinions alongside representatives of industry-friendly trade groups.
The IPCC and the United Nations have addressed the issue of media coverage globally. Global media coverage of climate, across a study of 59 countries, has been growing: from about 47,000 articles in 2016-17 to about 87,000 in 2020-21. While the coverage of climate science has increased and become more accurate, “on occasion, the propagation of scientifically misleading information by organized counter-movements has fueled polarization, with negative implications for climate policy,” they conclude.
The IPCC says “explicit” attention to equity and justice by the media is important for both social acceptance and fair and effective legislation. It suggests by analyzing local contexts and social factors, journalists can create stories related to climate justice. For instance, the 2022 Durban floods and landslides in South Africa left nearly 450 dead and displaced some 40,000. Journalists’ coverage should incorporate the vulnerability created by racial and poverty drivers.
Efforts to Improve Coverage of Climate
Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration started by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, in partnership with The Guardian, to improve media coverage of climate. With more than 460 partners in 57 countries, their mission statement says: “CCNow collaborates with journalists and newsrooms to produce more informed and urgent climate stories, to make climate a part of every beat in the newsroom — from politics and weather to business and culture — and to drive a public conversation that creates an engaged public. Mindful of the media’s responsibility to inform the public and hold power to account, we advise newsrooms, share best practices, and provide reporting resources that help journalists ground their coverage in science while producing stories that resonate with audiences.”
Fossil Free Media, a project founded by Jamie Henn, a co-founder and former communications director of 350.org, helps the climate movement to get its message out in the media. According to The Guardian, Fossil Free Media’s Clean Creatives Campaign is pressuring public relations and advertising agencies to “break their ties with the fossil fuel industry, seeking to dismantle the fossil fuel industry’s ability to spread disinformation by going after the wordsmiths and creatives that greenwash the industry.”
Disinformation by the Fossil Fuel Industry
The U.S. House of Representatives Oversight Committee held a hearing into such efforts in September 2022, following a yearlong investigation. The committee found that the industry was still “gaslighting” the public, continuing with business as usual while publicly claiming they are changing. Internal emails and messaging guidance show that Big Oil’s climate pledges rely on unproven technology, accounting gimmicks, and misleading language. “Contrary to their pledges, fossil fuel companies have not organized their businesses around becoming low-emissions, renewable energy companies. They are devoted to a long-term fossil fuel future,” the committee concluded.
The committee chair accused ExxonMobil’s CEO Darren Woods of lying to Congress after he denied that the company covered up its own research about oil’s contribution to the climate crisis as far back as the 1970s. A video was shown at the hearing of an Exxon lobbyist describing the oil giant’s backing for a carbon tax as a public relations ploy intended to block more serious measures to combat the climate crisis.
Corporate Media Ownership Concentration
The increasing consolidation and corporatization of the media industry has contributed to both less news coverage and a reduction in the diversity of voices covered. It also “creates a potential for the suppression of information that is at odds with the interests of the parent corporation.”
In 1983, 50 companies owned 90% of U.S. media. Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which reduced the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations on cross ownership, 90% of U.S. media is owned by six companies: Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast, CBS, Time Warner, and Disney. The act was “essentially bought and paid for by corporate media lobbies,” as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting described it, and radically “opened the floodgates on mergers.”
Radio has undergone a similar consolidation. Before the Telecommunications Act, companies were not allowed to own more than 40 radio stations. Since then, Clear Channel (now called iHeartMedia) has grown from 40 stations to 1,240 stations — 30 times more than previously allowed.
Local newspapers have also seen such consolidations, including many closures. Gannett, for instance, owns more than 1,000 newspapers and 600 print periodicals.
Fifteen billionaires essentially own the media: Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch, Donald & Samuel Newhouse, Cox Family, John Henry, Sheldon Adelson, Joe Mansueto, Mortimer Zuckerman, Barbey Family, Stanley Hubbard, Patrick Soon-Shiong, Carlos Slim Helu, Warren Buffett, Viktor Vekselberg.
Access to the media is crucial to ensuring that diverse viewpoints are presented. In a 2016 Gallup poll, only about 20% of Americans said they had confidence in television news and newspapers. By 2022, the percentage saying they had no trust at all had risen to 38%. Research indicates that media bias may influence voter choices. The Pew Research Center has shown that the current media landscape contributes to political polarization.
How Climate Groups Can get Media Coverage
Climate groups need to make a media plan on how to generate coverage; don’t wait for the media to call you. Getting your event or issue covered in the media means that tens of thousands might hear about it rather than the few dozen or hundreds who attend in person. It also amplifies the importance of the issue for elected officials you are trying to have an impact upon.
Develop a written media plan and recruit volunteers to coordinate the effort. Attend a media training for social activists – or organize a training for your group.
The larger the media outlet is, the more difficult it is to get them to cover your story. Your main coverage will come from local television and newspapers. Unfortunately, few radio stations these days have local reporting, though they may have local talk shows that you can get on. Learn about your local media outlets. For newspapers, determine who is the reporter assigned to cover the environment and climate. Develop a list of contacts. You can follow many reporters on social media.
Bigger organizations often have a communications director whose job is to outreach to and connect with reporters. If the reporter is interested, the communications person may have them contact another individual for quotes or interviews.
For events, if media coverage is important (it usually is) be mindful of reporters’ schedules. The best time for media events is usually late morning. That of course is not the best time for those who work during the day and so is a reason why rallies are often held on weekends. If you want television coverage, it’s best to avoid doing the event as the same time as their broadcast, as they will have less camera crews available.
At major events like a rally, have someone (or a team) be the media liaison on site. Track down media (the ones with cameras, recording devices, and reporter notebooks), hand them a copy of the press release, get their contact info, and ask them if they need any help, like someone to interview. Especially at local events, local television stations increasingly send camera people who record but who are not reporters and so have limited ability to ask questions. Avoid situations where the moderator of the rally is also the main spokesperson, as the person cannot be two places at once.
At really large events, there is usually a table for the media to sign in at and receive a packet of information (press release, fact sheets, list of speakers and contact info). At large events, it is helpful to have a multi box with where reporters can plug in their audio devices. The sound quality of amplified speeches (especially without a multi box) is generally not good enough for broadcast. Media videographers instead film for background (B-roll) shots and seek short one on one interviews with speakers for broadcast.
Be your own media – especially in light of the increasing corporate ownership and concentration. This means creating and publicizing your media content with photos, articles, videos, via livestream and on social media.
Learn how to use social media, including the role of influencers, hashtags, and links. As of 2019, more the half of Americans now get their news from social media (especially Facebook) and that number is increasing. Get your members to follow and retweet or share your social media, helping to build the number of your followers. Have a plan to increase the number of people following you.
Social media works best with visuals, so recruit graphic artists to help with content. Facebook and Twitter tend to be used by older people. Instagram, Reddit and Snapchat are followed by younger people, along with YouTube and TikTok. Learn how to record short video statements (a few seconds to a few minutes) that can be uploaded to social media. Livestream your events on social media. Upload recorded videos to your own YouTube channel.
For the more adventurous, look at podcasts and shows on public access cable television. Recruit people to take and post photos – and videos – from all your events. Coordinate with your art team on the visuals.
On social media, ignore – do not feed – the trolls. They are just looking for attention.
You may want to invest in paid social media. Facebook requires groups that want to post “issue” ads get pre-approval to be able to post, so allow for a few weeks that first time you do it. Experiment with a small budget at first to see how valuable it is. Learn how to target your paid audience.
Be timely. Be quick. Be quotable. You can react to a breaking major climate news story by giving a national story a local angle – or vice versa. When reporting on a larger news story, the media is likely to give you one paragraph at best – so focus on writing just that one paragraph. Write a quotable quote. Add on a perspective that they might otherwise not hear but is still relevant. Help them go deeper of the story. Adding some humor, a punchy “political bite,” helps. You have to react quickly to a breaking news story since the reporter has to quickly put their piece together – and others are pitching their angle. React within minutes or an hour, not many hours or a day after the story has already appeared in the media.
The news media covers the news, so figure out how to make your efforts newsworthy. What is the media hook that will make the media want to cover your efforts – that timely and interesting news information that is interesting to both the media and their audience? Being creatively colorful in your approach will attract attention.
News releases are a key way to communicate your message to the media. Read a few how-to guides to learn how to write an effective news release.
News releases are short, they are not white papers. Most professionals recommend one-page releases; most activists try to stay to two pages. They are written like a story in a newspaper and typically use the Associated Press (AP) style, so read some to grasp their structure. They are written in pyramid style, with the first paragraph or sentence containing the major point, then the second and third key issues in the next two paragraphs. The rest of the release then goes into a little more detail about the initial points. You want to include a few quotes, including one near the beginning (but don’t start with it). For many reporters the most critical thing is the correct spelling and titles of any speakers at the event. Include a phone number, email, and webpage so the reporter can contact you for more information.
As always, you start with the news hook. What makes the release newsworthy? You may want to include a photo or a link to a short video.
For coalition events, there is often a release with a few paragraphs explaining the issue, and then each group can provide a one paragraph quote.
Make sure to send the release (usually via email) to the right people, including the specific reporters who cover the climate issue. You can follow it up with a phone call to pitch the story, explaining to the reporter why it is newsworthy. If the release is for an event, distribute copies at the event or news conference (keep track of the names of reporters and their contact info and affiliation) and then email it to other reporters (you can usually set a time for your email service to send).
Have a section on your webpage where you post all your news releases. Also post photos, videos, and any audio there. You can then link to the release on your social media.
A media advisory is different from a news release. It is a brief one page that answers the questions of who, what, when, why and where of an upcoming event. Include a link if you will livestream the event. The advisory is sent out a few days before the event and then again on the morning of the event. Make sure it includes who, what, when, why and where, clearly stated.
Call media contacts ahead of the event to make sure they saw the advisory and to quickly pitch the story to them. Television news departments meet each weekday usually around 9 a.m. to discuss what events they will cover that day, so call then and ask to speak to the assignment editor. They may have a second news team that comes on at 4 p.m. for the evening news, so you may need to call them for an evening event. Newspapers may also have a separate photo department, so contact them if there will be interesting visuals.
Letters to the Editor
Letters to the editor are one of the most widely read parts of a newspaper. Learn the publication’s rules for letters, such as how often can a writer be published, the length, and whether your letter has to be unique to the paper. Make sure it doesn’t look like a form letter. Longer opinion pieces may be accepted for an opinion page although you should usually talk to the publication beforehand to determine their interest.
Be concise. Be clear about the problem you are addressing and the solutions you are calling for. Facts and statistics are important, but the human story is what moves people. Explain why the issue is important to you personally. Letters that respond to a previous article in the paper have more chance of getting published (state the article you are responding to at the start of the letter). Don’t overlook weekly newspapers.
Making an opening personal statement can help establish the writer’s credibility as someone with firsthand experience with the issue and grab the reader’s attention. Avoid too many details or tangents to the point you are making. Address why the reader should care about the issue. Conclude with a bold, clear statement and a call to action that the reader can take.
Talking to the Media
Decide ahead of time what are the key points that you want to make and focus on that. Keep to your talking points, not the reporter’s. Bring the reporter’s questions back to your points. Once you have done a good job of making your points, avoid continuing to talk. The longer you speak, the more likely you are to stray off topic or even make a mistake. Invariably whatever point you make that you later regret will be what the reporter highlights. Avoid speaking too fast or loudly. Remember that you are speaking to a general audience, not experts, so avoid going too deep into technical issues or using jargon.
It is helpful to get training in dealing with the media. You can also role play at meetings about how to talk to the media. Have someone play the role of the media asking questions.
Never yell at reporters, even if they write a bad story. Remember that reporters are generalists, filing stories on multiple issues every day. They often only have a few hours to learn and write their story before moving onto the next assignment. Mistakes are inevitable. Correct the major points if essential but avoid nitpicking.
Try to develop a long-term relationship with reporters, which means building on respect and trust. Don’t exaggerate points or make statements that you are not sure are correct. If they ask a question you don’t know the answer to, admit that and offer to research the question and get back to them.
Many of the activists most frequently quoted in the media are ones who the reporters call when they are working on a story and want to talk to someone who they have a long-term relationship with, whom they trust, and who they know are accurate with their info. They often need to quickly get additional information on a topic that they are not experts on and possibly a quote. Reporters work on deadlines and will reach out to people they know can help them complete their story in a timely fashion.
You can also pitch stories to reporters. Many of the activists most often quoted by the media generate most of their news stories this way. Explain to them why it is newsworthy. For instance, outline why what may seem like a minor decision by a government agency will have a major impact on your community. Or bring them up to speed as to some important action by the legislature that has not made the news yet. It is not unusual to lay out an entire story for a reporter, who then only gives you one quote in the piece (and quite possibly not a quote you made).
Assume that everything you say to the media is on the record. That is one reason why you should avoid making statements that you are not sure are accurate or which are overly inflammatory. Activists very experienced with the media will go off the record if they have heard something that seems likely, but they need the reporter to confirm it before printing it. Or if they want to provide a deeper background (e.g., this agency is way over their head; confidentially, I hear the legislature is about to agree to this deal) for context without being quoted as having said it. Going off the record is a tricky process and should generally be avoided. It must be declared before making such a statement, and agreed to by the reporter.
A press conference is held to give a group an opportunity to talk to the media and answer questions. A climate group can hold a press conference to announce a major development such as filing a lawsuit, releasing a study or report, or announcing a new development (e.g., the legislative leader has agreed to bring our bill to a vote), responding to something (e.g., the state just awarded a permit to a fossil fuel company), or otherwise discuss something newsworthy. You might hold a press conference if a well-known individual or organization has decided to support your effort.
A press conference provides an opportunity for some give and take with journalists, which can be useful when discussing an issue that has some complexity.
A press conference is not a rally (although many groups often treat it as such). A press conference is for the media, not the public or the group’s members (though some members can be invited to listen, be in the audience, hold signs). Try not to have more than three speakers (and certainly not more than five). The total speaking time at a press conference should be relatively short (about 20 minutes), leaving adequate time for the often busy reporters to ask questions.
Be mindful of good lighting and audio for television, photographers, and radio. Visuals are important. You can have people with signs and banners stand behind the speakers. Think about how the media will be able to arrange placement of their microphones. Check to make sure you are not conflicting with another major news event.
A press conference is held at a location and time that is convenient for the press, such as late morning. It involves both a news release and advisory as discussed above. Make sure to have the media sign into the event.
You may also want to attend a press conference held by climate opponents such as the fossil fuel industry. Some climate groups may want to organize a protest outside – or even inside – at such a news conference. Others may want to attend and listen, and then talk to reporters afterwards to provide a rebuttal or deeper context. Reporters often appreciate it since it makes their job easier.
 https://www.bu.edu/prsocial/best-practices/public-relations/10-tips-on-speaking-with-the-media; https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/04/career-talking-media; https://innovationlabs.harvard.edu/talking-media-guidelines/