From the climate crisis to Covid-19: can journalism focus on the stories that matter? | Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

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To hear many journalists tell it, the spring of 2020 has brought a series of extraordinary revelations. Look at what the nation has learned: that our healthcare system was not remotely up to the challenge of a deadly pandemic. That our economic safety net was largely non-existent. That our vulnerability to disease and death was directly tied to our race and where we live. That our political leadership sowed misinformation that left people dead. That systemic racism and the killing of Black people by police is undiminished, despite decades of protest and so many Black lives lost.

This summer and fall, all of these stories will crash together as Americans vote in an election that is also a decisive turning point in the overarching story of our time – the onrushing climate emergency. This summer, scientists say, will bring heatwaves, wildfires, and “one of the most active” hurricane seasons on records. Protests against racial injustice may well rise along with temperatures, no doubt fueled by more videos of pain and death.

In the fall, our health crisis may well increase, as the Covid-19 pandemic collides with the seasonal flu, all while the US economy continues to experience Great Depression levels of unemployment. It is to the shame of journalism if we don’t get to the root of why all of this is happening so that voters can make informed choices in November.

It’s worth remembering the media hand-wringing that followed the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Mainstream news outlets, out of touch and understaffed, reported largely from inside their own establishment bubbles, and few in those confined spaces believed Trump had a shot at winning the presidency. So the press missed the story. It didn’t understand the stirring of disaffection in the country; it underestimated the racism and economic fear that would drive white people to support Trump; it misread polling and cherry-picked data to convince itself that a Trump loss was inevitable.

In a presidential election, the media’s job is to understand the electorate, not predict the outcome before voters have cast ballots. Four years ago, reporters and editors became too obsessed with political gamesmanship, personality and trivia to do the media’s primary job. The result was a humiliating defeat for journalism and an acceleration of the mistrust of the press that already existed.

At the start of the 2020 election year, despite pledges by newsroom leaders to do better, the same tendencies showed. Trump was defining the narrative. Structural chasms in the country were ignored. The Democratic field was reduced to caricature.

Then came the coronavirus and the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among too many others. Exactly none of what we as journalists learned about our nation in the past three months should have come as a surprise. We have known, or should have known, that the public health system in the US is overpriced and unequal. We have known, or should have known, that Americans are not equipped to withstand an economic downturn. We have known, or should have known, that racial injustice is pervasive in our country (and in our media) and that Black people continue to die, be incarcerated, and suffer economically at tragically disproportionate rates.

The fact that it took a pandemic, police killings and mass protests to focus mainstream journalistic attention on these issues is damning, and must prompt a reappraisal of how we work. Why weren’t newsrooms obsessing about these issues before the world imploded this spring? Why must we always be reactive to injustice, instead of proactively highlighting it? Isn’t it the job of journalism to ferret out wrongdoing even if people in power want it to remain hidden? Why aren’t we advocating for our audiences and their lives?

Which brings us to the climate crisis. This summer, wildfires will ravage the American west. Deadly heat will pound the global south. Hurricanes will march up the Atlantic coast. Homes, and perhaps whole communities, will be lost. Crops and people will die.

If the journalistic status quo holds, news organizations will respond by going into disaster-coverage mode, mobilizing their dwindling staffs to cover the crisis as it unfolds. They’ll take astonishing pictures of the destruction and hear heroic stories from survivors and rescue workers. They’ll tally up the economic costs and run heartbreaking profiles of families who died in their swimming pools while trying to escape the fire or children who were washed out to sea. And then, only after the work of covering the disaster is done, will they perhaps take a moment to examine why all this is happening – why these disasters are occurring, again and again, all over the world, with increased frequency and ferocity.

There’s a pattern here. The news business waits for news to happen when, in fact, we shouldn’t need another Black person to be shot to start reporting on racism in the police force. Nor should we need yet another category 5 hurricane to flatten yet another community before we sound the alarm that the planet is on the brink of climate collapse.

The public sees the urgency and actually wants more climate news. Even during the peak of coronavirus coverage in April, some of the world’s biggest news organizations told us that their audiences had little appetite for stories that weren’t about the virus, with one exception: climate change, which continued to generate significant traffic.

Between now and election day on 3 November, we hope newsrooms will remember the big picture and cover the real horse race. It’s easy for campaign coverage to get mired in minutia. The contest between Republicans and Democrats is of great interest, of course, and the outcome couldn’t matter more. But the horse race that matters most is humanity’s collective race to defuse the climate emergency. What’s ultimately being decided in these elections is nothing less than whether all of us are going to have a livable planet 20 years from now and beyond. If the press is most comfortable chasing fires and sending reporters into disaster zones, so be it. But newsrooms should know: the disaster is here. It is raging now. Our job is to cover it with the urgency it deserves.

  • Mark Hertsgaard is an author, the environment correspondent for the Nation, and the executive director of Covering Climate Now.

  • Kyle Pope is the editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review

    This story is being co-published by the Guardian, the Nation and Columbia Journalism Review as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 400 news outlets committed to transforming news coverage of the defining story of our time

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