Day 6·Q&A

Covering COVID-19 offers important lessons for how to cover climate change, says journalist

Journalists of all stripes have been able to frame countless stories around the ongoing pandemic, but climate reporter Emily Atkin says she's concerned that mainstream media won't transfer the lessons learned from covering COVID-19 to covering climate change. 

'This is something I say a lot: The best antidote to disinformation is information': Emily Atkin

Climate reporter Emily Atkin says journalists need to carry the lessons they've learned from cover the COVID-19 pandemic, when they cover climate change. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Journalists of all stripes have been able to frame countless stories around the ongoing pandemic, but climate reporter Emily Atkin says she is concerned that mainstream media won't transfer the lessons learned from covering COVID-19 to covering climate change. 

"There's no excuse for being a reporter today who doesn't understand the basic science of COVID-19. Why is it not the same for climate change?" she said during an appearance on CNN in early July. 

Science writers, sports reporters, education journalists and many others in the industry have found new ways to accurately report on the global developments caused by COVID-19 within their expertise.

But Atkin says the same isn't necessarily true when it comes to covering the climate.

Atkin, who publishes the subscription newsletter Heated, spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about her concerns on covering climate change — and the lessons she hopes journalists will take from the continuing coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Here is part of that conversation.

Why is the climate crisis not just a topic for science or health journalism?

The climate crisis affects every single person on this earth. I think there's been this preconceived notion that climate change is a science or environmental story relegated to the needs of polar bears and trees.

But I think we're starting to see more and more that it actually affects not only all humans, but how we do everything from our roads and infrastructure to how we invest in our economy to our health, to popular culture. It's only going to keep being more and more clear. 

So it's actually well past time that we stopped thinking about it in this way that centers it on polar bears and started thinking about it in this way that it centers on humans.

What's the main thing that mainstream media gets wrong when covering climate change?

I think the main thing that mainstream media has gotten wrong for a long time is thinking that climate change is super complicated and needs a lot of expertise before you can start talking about it in an authoritative way. Number one, there is so much incredible, easy to consume, basic scientific information about this.

And then the second thing that I think media has been getting wrong about this is that it's somehow an inherently political topic that is really fraught to bring up and hard to cover because of that. It's not an inherently political topic. It's only been made that way because a lot of profit- and power-motivated people really benefit from us not talking about it as a media. 

I would have thought that COVID-19 would not be an inherently political topic as well. But certainly in the U.S. and elsewhere, news media is framed in the spheres of political ideology. What can you tell us about the ways in which COVID-19 may have exacerbated that perceived political divide in news media?

The best comparison I can make is U.S.-centric: when we found out that in the very beginning of the pandemic, our then-president Donald Trump was really trying to downplay the virus. And we found out later that that was because he didn't want to cause a fuss, because he believed that it would ruin his own legacy, that it would be politically bad for him for a crisis to unfold.

So immediately, we divided into camps here in the U.S. where people who supported the president didn't believe that the virus was a big deal, and people who didn't [support the president] believed that it was a big deal.

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Signs of climate change seem to be everywhere, and there is a rising concern that we are reaching a tipping point. Scientists worry that key ecosystems will undergo large-scale, rapidly moving changes.

The same has happened with climate change. Climate change was not always a very politicized topic. When it first started to be talked about in our political realm in the United States, we had pretty much bipartisan support for really doing something drastic about carbon dioxide.

Then the fossil fuel industry interjected itself into the conversation. Because the fossil fuel industry and the Republican Party are very closely aligned here, science denial started becoming a bigger part of the political conversation.

For the same reasons that Donald Trump wanted to downplay coronavirus, that's the same reason that the fossil fuel industry and Republicans have wanted to downplay climate change. Because if you accept, it means that you have to have less fossil fuels and so that means less power and less profit for that industry.

The divisions in society and in the public over climate change are real. How can reporters cover the various aspects of these stories without falling into partisanship or being told that they are being partisan?

The divide absolutely exists. We can't pretend that it doesn't. That's because people's views of these issues are shaped fundamentally by their politics.

Our allegiance as reporters is to the facts and to the facts only. So I think we've become overly obsessed with making sure that our audience doesn't feel offended if we report something that conflicts with their beliefs — like guess what, masks work; guess what, social distancing works.

We've now come to understand with COVID-19, at least, that we can't let our readers' perceptions of the facts make us shy away from telling them [the facts]. We say that anyway as reporters, even though a lot of people don't like it. And the same goes for climate change.

Smog warnings might become the norm. How do we protect ourselves?

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Hashem Akbari, an environmental engineer at Concordia University, says the solution must include stopping climate change.

We've seen a spike in disinformation campaigns during the entire pandemic, and we're certainly continuing to see disinformation. What have we learned about how to challenge the vested interests behind disinformation with climate change?

I think we've learned that disinformation is powerful. It has the ability to sway lots of people and really shift the paradigm in society on whether we take action on something effectively or whether we don't.

But we've also learned that disinformation is fightable, it's not something that needs to proliferate as widely as it does. We've seen a lot of campaigns on social media, Facebook, Twitter, to clamp down on the worst spreaders of disinformation.

And we find that that has the best impact on preventing disinformation from influencing so many people that all of a sudden we can't solve a big societal problem. This is something I say a lot: The best antidote to disinformation is information. And the best way to fight big, loud lies is to make the truth louder.

So that's the role that we play as journalists. It's really being unafraid to take on disinformation and explain to our communities not only that it's wrong, but why it's wrong so that they are inoculated with that information. When they hear disinformation, they can not only say, "I know that that's wrong, but I can explain too why it's wrong." 


Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra. This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

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