The COVID-19 crisis has been dominating the news media for months now, and the massive coverage of the pandemic has inevitably had an impact on science journalism more widely. In this guest post, Vitalba Crivello from the European Science-Media Hub argues that the way the coronavirus emergency has been covered offers many lessons for climate change reporting.
by Vitalba Crivello, European Science-Media Hub (ESMH)
Telling meaningful stories about scientific topics that have an impact on readers’ everyday life can be complex, but sometimes extremely interesting pieces on topical issues succeed in connecting with the public at large. This was the case with many climate change related narratives in the last months of 2019 and at the beginning of 2020, when environmental communication was experiencing a golden age in terms of media coverage and public attention.
As the European Commission laid down the Green Deal and the demand for knowledge-based information on climate change and sustainability was rising, the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH) focused an important part of its 2020 working plan on these two overlapping topics. The programmes of some training sessions for journalists – including the second edition of the ESMH summer school for young media makers – were almost finalised when the ‘game-changer’ – COVID-19 – ruthlessly hit Europe in March 2020.
The health crisis inevitably attracted the spotlight, and ‘public health’ became the new priority for politicians and media alike. Now that the pandemic has been dominating the public sphere for several months, we can start assessing its impact on science journalism:
What happened to climate change stories?
Has the coronavirus crisis brought about changes to the way reporters write about environment, sustainability and everything else related to the complex concept of climate change?
Is the ‘climate crisis’ forgotten by now or (more probably) can the lessons being learned from tackling the pandemic be somehow ‘re-used’ and applied to other scientific realms?
We cannot really say that climate change has lost momentum in the public sphere, as the topic keeps being discussed even if most of the public attention still goes to the health crisis. Already in the first months of the lockdown imposed in different parts of the world to stop the spread of the virus, it became clear that a link between the outbreak and increasingly unbalanced environments exists. Protecting the environment can also mean promoting health, for instance by improving urban sustainability.
The health crisis can hold some lessons for the climate crisis, as both climate and COVID-19 originate from the increasing pressures humans are placing on natural systems, have a global nature (irrespective of borders), and hit the society’s most vulnerable members the hardest.
Adapting to the pandemic and its impacts
While the COVID-19 pandemic imposed itself on our daily lives, got the full attention of researchers and reshuffled political priorities, the science communication and journalism community (and the ESMH) responded by more and more involving ‘experts’ in telling high- quality stories and producing reliable information. Live events had to be cancelled but alternative solutions were implemented and the ‘digital revolution’ (already well started before the epidemic) sped up at an unprecedented rate.
The ESMH working plan was adapted to the new situation and the team had to display flexibility and reflect upon an ‘alternative’ offer for the Hub’s stakeholders. Confident that we could resume physical meetings as soon as the health crisis allows it, we started planning virtual events.
While our coverage responded to the COVID-19 crisis, we have kept an eye on climate change and new technology developments, and in particular on Artificial Intelligence (AI).
As the reputable environmental journalists who were supposed to speak at the second edition of the ESMH summer school for media makers could not go to Strasbourg at the end of May 2020 for the 4-day event, we thought of ‘hosting’ their insights on how to report on climate change on the ESMH webpage.
In June, we published the article ‘From COVID-19 to climate change: seeing the issues beyond the news cycle’. Rina Tsoubaki tackles here the question ‘how should journalists and science communicators approach and report about complex issues like climate change?’, because ‘…economic recovery will be a major concern for the public, the post-COVID-19 world will undeniably pose unprecedented challenges to journalists and science communicators to report about climate change without addressing economic implications’.
Using learnings from the pandemic in environmental reporting
More recently – last Wednesday, September 23rd – we published a series of three interviews on ‘telling stories on climate change’, to offer ESMH stakeholders another glimpse of what the summer school would have been like. Elisabetta Tola spoke to Alok Jha, Fiona Harvey and Luca De Biase about how the coronavirus crisis is calling for a deep reflection on the way science journalism – and in particular environmental reporting – is done.
Alok Jha (The Economist) stressed the complexity of scientific narratives nowadays and the related knowledge and skills needed by media makers to produce these narratives. He told us that ‘The main goal for a journalist is no longer to be the primary source of information but rather to be analytical and trustworthy, to guide through the information, to help people navigate complexity, to look at how a certain fact affects other issues readers might be interested in. It is to be transparent about sources and your analyses and to give a platform to voices that have something significant to say but are being unheard’.
On the same page, Luca De Biase (NOVA, Sole24Ore) believes that ‘journalism is a sort of discipline with a methodology. It’s the methodology that defines it: to be accurate, correct, independent from sources and so on. To me, this is like a simple version of the scientific methodology’. And beyond that, ‘When the pandemic started, we had the feeling that something was changing in terms of ‘infodemic’, fake news and banality. Everybody was looking for more reliable information. People wanted to understand. So the scientific component gained some traction for some time because there was a real need for knowledge’.
It is undeniable that a radical change has happened and that now we need to bring people back to normal life – Fiona Harvey (The Guardian) argued. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that ‘It is perfectly possible to have a green recovery this time, it would be economically beneficial as well as being beneficial to people’s health and their lives generally’. The role of journalists in this context is ‘to talk with the experts and bring in their writing the possibilities that are there for governments, for individuals and for businesses’.