Chapter 16 Climate and the Media

Climate and the Media

This chapter has two sections; the role of the media in the U.S. in shaping the public perception of and political response to climate change; and how climate groups can generate media coverage.

  1. 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

– How Climate Groups Can get Media Coverage
– Media Releases
– Letters to the Editor
– Talking to the Media
– Press conferences

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.

The media defends their performance on the grounds that they are supposed to provide balance, or equal coverage to both sides of the debate.[1] Critics of the media point to more revenue-focused business calculations, both as the U.S. media has increasingly consolidated into a few massive corporate behemoths and since fossil fuel companies and other affiliated businesses are a major source of ad dollars.[2] Prestigious news outlets such as the NY Times and Washington Post for years sold ads in the form of paid statements by fossil fuel companies on their op ed pages.[3]

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 legitimacy, they hadn’t earned, 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.[4]

Another study focused on 3 of the country’s most influential news outlets – NY Times, Wall Street Journal, 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.” 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 TV and 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. [5]

Chris Hayes, one of MSNBC’s prime time cable tv talk 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.[6]

Recent Improvement in Climate Media Coverage

U.S. (and global) media coverage of climate has improved recently, prodded on 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. More intense language such as “climate catastrophe” and “climate emergency” is being used.[7] Climate groups have been urging metrologists on tv, the “scientists” with the greatest public respect, to highlight the link climate and extreme weather events.[8]

Major national newspapers are starting to pay more attention to the climate – but local publications and TV 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.[9]

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 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.[10]

The IPCC and the United Nations[11] 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.”

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, “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.”[12]

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. Its 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.”[13]

Disinformation by Fossil Fuel Industry

The faulty media coverage of climate has been driven for decades by the disinformation campaign of the fossil fuel industry.

The House 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.”[14]

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 70s. 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.[15]

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.”[16]

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 6 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.”[17]

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.[18]

Local newspapers have also seen such consolidations, including many closures.  Gannett, for instance, owns more than 1,000 newspapers and 600 print periodicals. [19]

15 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.[20]

Access to the media is crucial to ensuring that diverse viewpoints are presented. In a 2016 Gallup poll, only about 20 percent of Americans say they have confidence in the television news and in newspapers.  Research indicates that media bias may influence voter choices. The Pew Research Center has shown that the current media landscape contributes to political polarization.[21]

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 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 (phone, email). Many reporters are on twitter, so follow them.

Bigger organizations often have a communications director whose job it 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 radio, cable or tv.

For events, if media coverage is important (it usually is) be mindful of reporters’ schedule. The best time for media events is usually late morning. That of course is not the best time for many members who work during the day. That is one reason why rallies are often held on weekends. If you want tv coverage, it is best to avoid doing the event as the same time as their broadcast, as they will have less camera crews available to cover.

At major events like a rally, have someone (or a team) be the media liaison on site. Track down media (the ones with tv 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, TV stations increasingly send camera people who record but who have limited ability to ask questions (i.e., they are not reporters). Avoid situations where the moderator of the rally is also the main spokesperson, as the person cannot be in the same place 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 mult box with multiple outputs where reporters can plug their audio devices into. The sound quality of amplified speeches (especially without a mult box) is generally not good enough for broadcast. TV / cable 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 (photos, blog, videos, livestream, social media).

Learn how to use social media[22], 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.[23] Get your members to follow and retweet / 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 (twitter seems better these days than Facebook for this). Upload recorded videos to your 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 – don’t feed – the trolls. They are just looking for attention.[24]

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 given a national story a local angle – or visa versa. When reporting on a larger news story, the media is likely at best to give you one paragraph – 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 or a “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 cover you – that timely and interesting news information that is interesting to both the media and their audience?

Media Releases

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.[25]

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, 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. 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 for how the reporter can contact you for more information.

As always, you start with the news hook.[26] 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 to include.

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 than a news release. It is a brief one page that answers the questions of who, what, when, why and where. Include a link if you will livestream the event. The advisory is sent out a few days before the event and then again the morning of.

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 morning usually around 9 to discuss what events they will cover that day, so call right at 9 AM and ask to speak to the assignment editor. They may have a second news team that comes on at 4 for the evening news, so you may need to call then 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[27] 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 does it have to be unique to the paper. Make sure it doesn’t look like a form letter. Longer opinion pieces may be accepted as an op ed though 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[28]

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 keeping on talking. 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 “inside 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 hasn’t 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.[29]

Press conferences

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 (e.g., we are filing a lawsuit), release a study or report, announce a new development (e.g., the legislative leader has agreed to bring our bill to a vote), to respond 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 (though 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 5). The total speaking time at a press conference should be relatively short (e.g., 20 minutes), leaving adequate time for the reporters to ask questions (who are often on a schedule).

Be mindful of good lighting and audio for television, photographers, and radio. Visuals are important (e.g., in front of a fossil fuel plant). You can have people with signs and banners stand behind the speakers. Think about how the media will be able to arrange their microphones (e.g., a podium, table or mic stand). 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 (e.g., the fossil fuel industry). Some climate groups may want to organize a protest outside – or even inside – such a news conference. Others may want to attend and listen, and then go up to the reporters afterwards to provide a rebuttal. Reporters often appreciate that since it makes their job easier rather than having to spend time to find someone to respond.

 

[1] https://ethics.journalists.org/topics/balance-and-fairness/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/22/why-is-the-us-news-media-so-bad-at-covering-climate-change

[3] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/fossil-fuel-branded-content

[4] https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/media-creates-false-balance-climate-science-study-shows

[5] https://grist.org/climate/the-curse-of-both-sidesism-how-climate-denial-skewed-media-coverage-for-30-years/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/22/why-is-the-us-news-media-so-bad-at-covering-climate-change

[7] https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2021/12/us-media-coverage-of-climate-crisis-hits-all-time-high/

[8] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2022/02/weatherman-climate-change/621630/

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/30/what-will-it-take-for-the-media-to-focus-on-climate-change-in-the-2020-elections

[10] https://insideclimatenews.org/news/15102022/the-both-siderism-that-once-dominated-climate-coverage-has-now-become-a-staple-of-stories-about-eating-less-meat/

[11] https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/10/1129162

[12] https://coveringclimatenow.org/about/

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/11/greenwash-fossil-fuels-ad-agencies

[14] https://oversight.house.gov/news/press-releases/ahead-of-hearing-committee-releases-memo-

showing-fossil-fuel-industry-is

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/28/exxon-ceo-accused-lying-climate-science-congressional-panel

[16] https://berkeleyhighjacket.com/2021/entertainment/the-dangers-of-the-concentration-of-media-ownership/

[17] https://billmoyers.com/story/twenty-years-of-media-consolidation-has-not-been-good-for-our-democracy/

[18] https://futureofmusic.org/article/research/radio-deregulation-has-it-served-musicians-and-citizens

[19] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_assets_owned_by_Gannett

[20] https://feelthebern.org/bernie-sanders-on-media-ownership-and-telecommunications/

[21] https://feelthebern.org/bernie-sanders-on-media-ownership-and-telecommunications/

[22] https://takeclimateaction.uk/resources/beginners-guide-social-media; https://accept.aseanenergy.org/the-power-of-social-media-to-fight-climate-change/

[23] https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2019/10/11/more-americans-are-getting-their-news-from-social-media/?sh=2d50524f3e17

[24] https://medium.com/the-brave-writer/ignore-the-trolls-ead15f82e7a

[25] https://fitsmallbusiness.com/how-to-get-local-press-coverage/; https://fitsmallbusiness.com/how-to-write-a-press-release-template/

[26] http://guide.saferoutesinfo.org/media/identify_hook.cfm; https://www.welchpr.co.uk/2022/09/26/legal-pr-whats-a-news-hook-and-why-does-it-matter/

[27] https://www.aclu.org/other/tips-writing-letter-editor; https://www.nrdc.org/stories/how-write-successful-letter-editor;

[28] 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/

[29] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/media-relations-off-record-background-explained-ami?trk=articles_directory; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/02/reader-center/off-the-record-meaning.html