Journalists have been urged to avoid labelling the outcome of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference as either a “triumph or disaster”.
The Guardian’s environment correspondent Fiona Harvey urged journalists not to make the same mistakes as in Copenhagen in 2009 where, she said, it was labelled as a failure despite producing an agreement for the first time for countries such as the US and China to cut their emissions and for developing countries to curb future emissions growth.
Speaking ahead COP26 at a Women in Journalism panel on reporting the climate crisis last week, Harvey said: “I hope that people take a balanced view because seeing these things as either a triumph or disaster, which is what many people are inclined to do, is just awful and doesn’t help anyone…
“This kind of line which we’ll have triumph or catastrophe that some people will use is just wrong and unhelpful and just doesn’t really describe the reality. It’s not proper journalism.”
Research released by news industry trade body Newsworks on Tuesday shows two-thirds of people (67%) think news brands should use their influence when reporting COP26 to raise awareness around climate change, while 60% want them to hold those in power to account on the topic.
The UK representative poll of 2,000 people, carried out by OnePoll, also showed half of respondents believe news brands should prioritise climate change information over other issues to educate and better inform the British public, while 69% think they have an important role in tackling misinformation.
'I am not an activist'
The Guardian's Harvey, who has covered the environment since 2004, emphasised the importance of a distinction between journalism and activism when reporting on the climate crisis and COP26.
Asked how journalists can stay impartial and avoid veering towards activism on this issue, Harvey responded: "I'm not an activist. I'm a journalist. So I look at this as a journalist.
"I try to write objectively and I talk to all sides. That does not include talking to climate deniers, because that's a view that's completely contrary to established climate science. But it does involve talking to people who are affected by climate change, people who might be affected by the transition away from fossil fuels and so on and people who are wary about the impacts of climate change on them..."
She added that activists should declare themselves as such rather than "pretending to be a journalist" - although she acknowledged that activist groups uncovering new information and scandals do produce "an important aspect of journalism".
"If they were to, for instance, find information that is contrary to the agenda of the activist organisation they belong to, would they necessarily make that information public? I don't know... I think it's really important that as a journalist, we don't have clients."
Climate is 'story that has everything'
Asked how to make climate reporting interesting to audiences Harvey pointed out it is a "story that has everything" and humans need to be at the forefront.
"That doesn't mean there can't be stories about politics or business or science or whatever in the mix but we need to keep bringing this back to actual people because I think that's what readers respond to," she said.
However Fatima Arkin, a freelance environment journalist based in the Philippines, told the WiJ panel the Western media can fall into the trap of using a few lines from a farmer affected by climate change in a developing country, for example, but not digging any deeper.
Arkin said: "If we do want to tell human stories, can we dig deeper, talk about more diverse experiences because there are other people living here that are also affected by climate change, beyond just farmers, because then it paints a very specific image and I think it's not that it's one story or another story, but it's just many stories just end up that way.
"So how can we address this? How can we change it? I think telling more diverse experiences, telling more human interest stories of the diverse lived experiences of people who are affected by climate change, and also talk about climate solutions. Because there are people here who are doing things and they're not just sitting here waiting for a solution."
'People only care when they're actually affected'
Harvey also said it was not right to blame a lack of action on climate up to now on a lack of reporting from journalists prior to COP26.
"It's not been a lack of reporting or a lack of effort on the part of climate journalists up to now that has held anything back," she said, adding it was more correct to blame businesses with vested interests in fossil fuels that persuaded governments they did not need to act.
Similarly, Emiliya Mychasuk, climate editor at the Financial Times, told the panel it "has been and continues to be a constant battle" to deal with companies that have vested interests, which have "gone well beyond the fossil fuel companies now - all companies are concerned about the impact on their business".
For this reason the FT has to deal with companies that "try to go around the expert reporter and go to another reporter who may not be as across all of the issues to do with climate change," she said.
Mychasuk praised the UK media overall for putting climate crisis stories on their front pages and having climate sections, but said it was hard to make people engage with such a long-term phenomenon.
"I think it does come down to that, unfortunately, people only care when they're actually affected. It's basements in West London that flooded or subways in Manhattan and it's not 'those people over there'. It's not people in Bangladesh all the time or people in places that they've never been and are unlikely to go.
"That really makes the difference and there's little in the media we can do about that really. It goes to this very fundamental existential point of do societies get the media and the government they deserve, the fourth estate they deserve?"
Picture: PA Wire/Alastair Grant