As It Happens

No more 'benign' images of climate crisis, says photography head for the Guardian

Editors at the British newspaper say they will favour images that depict the human impact of climate change, rather than remote scenes featuring polar bears and melting icebergs.

'Getting the emotional tone right is absolutely critical,' says Fiona Shields

Gordon Easter and Gail Hale embrace as they return to their home in Santa Rosa, Calif., after a wildfire. Fiona Shields says images featuring human beings are a more powerful illustration of the effects of climate change than images of animals or nature. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat/The Associated Press)


Emergency. Crisis. Existential threat. These are words we're hearing more and more often in relation to climate change. And if you ask the editors of the Guardian, they're exactly the kind of words journalists should be using. 

In May, the British newspaper updated its style guide to feature "terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world." Words like "climate emergency" are now preferred over "climate change," while writers are instructed to use "wildlife" rather than "biodiversity," and "climate science denier" in lieu of "climate skeptic."

Now, the Guardian is taking its new approach a step further by rethinking the images it uses to accompany its climate coverage. The paper's head of photography, Fiona Shields, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the new approach. 

Here is part of their conversation.

Can you explain what provoked this change in the way you show images on climate change? 

It seemed that our environmental journalists were reporting a much more kind of serious level of tone from scientists. So we discussed that what we were kind of dealing with really was not just climate change, but kind of a catastrophic crisis.

So what we realized that it was no longer appropriate to have quite ... benign or passive images that went with this kind of serious change in tone. 

Shields says the Guardian has traditionally relied on images of polar bears and other Arctic scenes to illustrate the climate crisis, but that these photos are too remote to have an emotional impact. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

And so what kind of images did you feel would have a bigger effect? 

It really is about human engagement. And so the effects of the climate change and the climate crisis on human beings became a more appropriate way of illustrating these stories.

So what we started to show was people who were sort of suffering from the effects of desperate pollution. Or the kind of torment of people who had lost their homes in wildfires. And it just kind of gives the illustration a much more immediate effect and it's much more active, I would say. 

What effect do you want these photos to have on your readers? 

It is really about connecting them to what we believe is the direct impact of these environmental issues and the scale and the severity of the crisis that our environmental journalists are telling us they're discovering from the science.

Getting the emotional tone right is absolutely critical. 

A man and his child wear masks to protect themselves from smog in Shanghai, China. Shields says this kind of imagery helps communicate the urgency of climate change. (VCG via Getty Images)

As well-intentioned as this might be, at what point does this cross the line from journalism to propaganda? 

Propaganda, I think, is probably quite an extreme accusation ...

But ... using emotional images in order to provoke a certain effect would be how propaganda would work. If you want, [you can] say advocacy. At what point do you cross the line away from journalism to advocacy, propaganda or whatever word you might want to use? 

I think what we have to do is stay really close to what the science is telling us and how our journalists are interpreting that. And if we do that, then we are being … accurate and appropriate in the images that we select.

What we need to do is be accurate and sincere about the tone of the journalism. 

So when you use "catastrophe for humanity" instead of climate change, you feel that is being more accurate as opposed to being sensationalized? 

I think, honestly, that our journalists here do believe that this is a catastrophe and that this is why we've changed the language and it's also been described as a climate crisis by the United Nations secretary general, so it's becoming an … accepted theme. But, again, it is based on the science that our journalists are interpreting. 

And again, as important as that is … does [journalism] not have to stay in a certain place in order to have credibility? Do you worry at any level that people [will] say, 'That's just the Guardian, they're always going in that direction; I don't know if I can trust them.' Do you have any place where you worry about that? 

I mean, the truth is there will always be naysayers who don't believe that there is a climate catastrophe or a crisis in any way. They also perhaps don't believe that it's man-made. And I do think I am informed by the journalists who are interpreting the scientists here. I believe … the sincerity of their approach and their interpretation.

And for me it comes down to that. So we just have to be very considerate about the tone of our stories and making sure that we are … reflecting what [they're] telling us. 

Written and produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A edited for length and clarity.