Something old, something new: digital media and the coverage of climate change

During the US presidential campaign and the Brexit referendum, the media hardly mentioned climate change. Editors and audiences find the issue too niche or too depressing.

Some of the digital-born players, like BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Vice and Quartz, are helping to fill the gap by adopting innovative ways to cover the ‘old’ topic of climate change. On the 8th of April 2017, a panel explored what some of them are doing to reach young audiences.

How do you make this topic interesting for people? And how do you engage people with this topic? These are the questions that Milène Larsson, Senior Producer and Reporter for VICE News, and Stuart Millar, head of news of BuzzFeed UK tried to answer, moderated by James Painter, Director of the Journalism Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) in Oxford, UK. Painter is specialized in media and environment and recently published the book Something old, something new: digital media and the coverage of climate change.

A different coverage than the one of mainstream media

In December 2015, Milène Larsson covered the COP21 summit in Paris. She was trying to find the best way to report such an important meeting in a different way. “Mainstream media are only covering the talks but they don’t put the passion in it. This topic concerns all of us, especially young people because they are the future,” she said.

Therefore, she decided to cover protests and civil uprising. “I found out that there were people from more than 80 countries, including those who are already affected by climate change. They all gathered while France was under the state of emergency after November attacks. That’s what I wanted to show,” she explained.

Humour is also used as a way to attract the viewers. “I was using satire to show how big polluters where sponsoring the talks,” Larsson said. Stuart Millar agreed with her : “We are trying to talk about serious things in a funny way. Young people like that. For instance, we made fun of Trump and climate change deniers,” he said.

Innovative formats and collaborations

Stuart Millar also explained that more than telling a very good story, format should also be attractive. “Things that are mostly shared through social media are through videos and visuals. With Buzzfeed, we were trying to find uncovered stories and tell them through videos, pictures and infographics.”

Milène Larsson also added that collaboration is important for such a topic. She gave the example of a recent collaborative project between The Guardian and Greenpeace where they revealed that thousands of schools breathe toxic air. “We all know that air pollution is existing but they used data and mapped kindergartens that are insanely polluted. That was a great story to tell in a very attractive way,” Larsson stated.

Climate change is about people

According to Larsson, a great story on climate change should include strong characters. “How to tell a story about something as abstract as climate? Climate doesn’t care, it’s not a person you can’t talk with. What you can do is to talk to people affected by this and also people that are fighting against polluters.»

She added that stories about climate change are not always negative and she found in solutions journalism a good way to engage people. “We need try to see climate change as an opportunity to see a better society with less corruption and a better environment,” she said.

For her, positive and more local stories have to be told but with a special focus on showing how people are organizing themselves. She gave the example about people gathering against fracking in the UK and managed to prevent it. She explained that “countless solutions are existing but we have to show that people have the power to change things.”