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Climate journalists discuss covering a complex crisis

Manuela Andreoni, a climate reporter for The New York Times.

Maringá, BRAZIL – What do journalists and science have in common? The answer is climate change.

Improving coverage of the climate crisis and avoiding the “Don’t Look Up” scenario was the issue that brought four journalists and an engineer together on Saturday at the International Symposium of Online Journalism.

From strategies to possible solutions, they united forces and shared ideas to improve the coverage on climate change with journalists watching the event in person and online.

Manuela Andreoni is a New York Times climate reporter in Brazil who has been using different strategies to approach the climate crisis. Bringing it closer to the reader is her first method to connect them to the issue.

“We were able to connect issues that were far away to readers,” said Manuela Andreoni as she presented a slideshow.

Her second and third strategies were giving a fresh look to problems that seemed to be old, and making them personal.

“We’re not only talking about the planet, but also about saving us. It’s important to connect it to the readers, so they know how it impacts their lives. Also showing that we, reporters, are humans behind the screen,” Andreoni said.

She also mentioned the risks she faces in reporting about the Amazon rainforest.

“I wanted to communicate what we were seeing,” Andreoni said, adding that local people cannot be expected to bear all the consequences of climate change.

It helps to have a big name in news, like The New York Times, along with local publications, Andreoni said, because it increases recognition and helps protect smaller publications from attacks they might suffer from powerful people.

According to the speakers, talking about a complex topic like science to a broad audience is a big challenge for journalism, as they also have to deal with the quick spread of misinformation.

“News organizations must help readers to see the problem,” said Darryl Fears, an environmental justice reporter at The Washington Post.

Agreeing, Andreoni said, “We should break it down and explain in simple facts.”

Explaining scientific terms also confuses journalists, according to Michael Webber, an professor in Energy Resources at the Josey Centennial of UT Austin.

Webber said there is a price to pay for inaction and journalists must point it out.

“Journalism is doing wrong by not counting the cost of doing nothing,” said Webber, who added that technical mistakes – including math or metric errors – are also relevant.

To exemplify how this confusion can impact the media’s credibility with the public, Andreoni and Fears shared their experiences with leaders who also deny scientific facts.

For Andreoni, it was tough to deliver trustworthy information about climate change when former president Jair Messias Bolsonaro went against science many times.

Something similar happened to Fears, who had to combat the wave of fake news about science that took place when former U.S. president Donald Trump was in power.

The panel also discussed solutions.

“Solutions in journalism aren’t about what fixes the problem, but what people are doing to fix the problem,” said the Professor John Schwartz of the School of Journalism and Media, University of Texas at Austin.

Webber said investing in critical thinking through the promotion of STEM education is important, but leadership action is also important.

“What’s your plan for climate crisis” he asked. “There’s a lot of reasons for the urgency, but, there’s a lot of reasons for optimism.”

Webber said it is important to look to what good has been done and take action.

“It’s a lot cheaper to take action than not,” said Webber. “Optimism is going to take us to a better place.”

Vernon Loeb, an executive director of Inside Climate News, said the solution is a collective response.

“We don’t have competitors, we all have partners,” said Loeb about the competition among newsrooms to publish stories related to climate change.

“Collaboration for climate change is so critical for climate change. It affects every nation,” he said, describing an “extraordinary” need for collaboration around climate issues.

“I strongly believe in the power of journalism and the power of the truth,” said Loeb. “We’re a critical part of the solutions.”

Nicole Luna is a Senior Reporter at Youth Journalism International.

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