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"We are looking at the biggest reconstruction story since World War II"

12 October 2022
Image of Wolfgang Blau

Interview with Wolfgang Blau by Dr Alexandra Borchardt, Lead Author, EBU News Report 2023: Climate Journalism That Works - Between Knowledge and Impact  

Wolfgang Blau is an experienced international media manager. During his time as a visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, he not only studied climate journalism, he also co-founded the Oxford Climate Journalism Network that brings together journalists from all over the world to learn about climate coverage. In October 2022 the advisory firm Brunswick appointed him as Managing Partner with responsibility for the Climate Hub.

Wolfgang, you researched for two years how news organizations cover climate change. What struck you most?

What I found most striking was the extent of denial when you confront yourself or others with the severity of the climate crisis. In the past, I thought overcoming denial culminates in one breakthrough moment. I had a somewhat judgemental view of denial, including my own. I saw it as a weakness or something that needed to be attacked. I suspect this is the reason why so much journalism is so alarming, confrontational, and full of doom: Journalists often feel they have to hammer it home. Then I started reading up on the psychology of denial.  Today, I think it would be better to look at denial with more compassion. It is an integral part of our psyche, in fact, it helps us survive. Denial has many layers and is something that can rarely ever be transformed with shock-and-awe journalism.

So all these images of raging fires, flooding, interviews with worried scientists, they don’t help?

A common assumption in journalism is that facts and figures are best suited to convey the urgency of the climate crisis. The recent work of neuroscientists such as Kris de Meyer at Kings College indicates, though, that we respond more strongly to action-centric representations of the climate crisis than to abstract and issue-centric ones. We need much more and much better climate journalism but we don't achieve much by hitting people over the head with it.      

What is ideal climate journalism from your experience?

A news organization’s climate journalism should be as all-pervasive as the consequences of the climate crisis itself are. It should be completely normal to have a paragraph on climate impacts in, let’s say, a sports story or a story about company earnings. Climate desks are important but they carry the risk of creating a new silo in the newsroom. There is not a single area of journalism that will not be transformed either directly by climate impacts or by humanity's efforts to mitigate climate change or adapt to it.  Journalism should also translate the issue of climate change into the here and now. People tend to respond to this better than to very abstract narratives. And overall, journalism about potential solutions needs more context. Currently, the goalposts are often missing. Stories about new carbon capture technologies or a new wind farm are almost pointless if they are missing the context of how much capacity will be needed to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius. Take the Covid pandemic: Only when we had a small set of metrics, we developed a sense of  whether the situation was getting worse or better. This context of the bigger picture is missing in much of climate journalism.       

So, is it like in the digital newsroom? Many newsrooms started out with a very complicated set of metrics to measure success but became aware that the best metrics are those that everyone understands.

Yes, we need simplicity. It is very difficult, to find these metrics, but what we need most is proportionality: Where does this story sit in the bigger picture? How much does a supposed solution actually contribute? To summarize the to-dos: First, free climate journalism from its organizational silo and make it all-pervasive. Second, localize it and bring it into the here and now as much as possible. Third, put it into context.

Are today’s newsrooms up to the challenge?

Many news organizations produce better climate journalism today than they did two years ago, but even the efforts of the best are not yet proportionate to the size of the challenge we are facing. Climate change or whatever you want to call it - the climate crisis, the climate question, the climate emergency, global warming - climate change is a systemic challenge, but most news organizations are still treating it only as a topic. You can now see news organizations that have built world-class climate desks but then let their business desk cover the fast-fashion giant Shein or the quarterly earnings report of Saudi Aramco as if there was no climate expertise in their newsroom whatsoever. This compartmentalization no longer makes sense. And this is not about injecting activism or politics into business coverage. It is much rather about better business journalism.           

So you advise against a climate desk?

It is always a good start to build a climate desk, and news organizations need climate specialists. But they are no substitute for increasing the climate literacy, or climate fluency, of all desks.      

Some newsrooms have now put their best reporters on the climate beat. Canadian broadcaster CBC assigned it to a former war correspondent. Is this a trend?

I have not noticed this as a widespread phenomenon. But you are right, many editors think of climate journalism as crisis reporting.  And while it is important to cover extreme weather events, they are still only the breaking news surface of something much more profound and systemic. For instance, there is the aspect of climate adaptation, of anticipating and preempting the effects of climate change that can no longer be preempted or have already happened.  Just in the context of climate adaptation alone, we are looking at the biggest reconstruction story since WW2. Are our transport infrastructures and cities ready for higher temperatures or rising sea-levels? How are we transitioning the world’s agriculture to crops that are more heat or drought resistant? There are so many important and interesting stories just on climate adaptation alone that you would overlook as an editor when you reduce climate journalism only to breaking news and crisis reporting.                     

Sometimes it seems regions of the Global South take climate journalism more seriously, since the effects are already harshly felt in many places.

It depends. In the so-called Global South, it is often difficult to even get reliable regional climate data. A Kenyan radio journalist told us that some of her listeners see their own harvest failing but then believe this must be a punishment by God. In such a situation, climate journalism means something very different. I have also heard about very climate-aware politicians from threatened island nations who say in private that they can’t talk to journalists about how dire their situation is as that could deter investors from building the new luxury resorts that attract the tourists they need...           

So where are the front-runners?

When I compare climate journalism across the globe, I see the biggest difference between the United States and the rest of the world. In the US, comparatively more journalistic energy is still spent on having to prove and defend basic climate science than in most other regions of the world.   That said, some of the best climate journalism also comes from the US.  Among the large news organizations, Bloomberg Green, the New York Times and, the LA Times with their California beat stand out. And then, of course, there is a whole cosmos of brilliant newsletters and podcasts. I just wish Europe’s public broadcasters would do more.

These are all heavyweights. Can you start small?

Yes. You can pick a niche and be really good at it. Exactly because climate change is such a systemic challenge that affects every aspect of our societies and economies, you also have the freedom of focusing on just one aspect and covering that really well, such as the climate-related activities of major football leagues. If, however, you have the admirable ambition of France’s news agency AFP or of Radio France to add the climate dimension to all of their desks, then you need to establish climate literacy across your newsroom and need a specialist team to support it, which is expensive.           

Is there a particular role for public service media in climate journalism?

Public broadcasters in Europe have an unrivalled responsibility to get it right, because they are comparatively well-funded. In addition, they tend to be their country's most-trusted news organization. Especially when it comes to climate journalism, an audience’s trust in a news organization is a hugely important ingredient.  Sometimes I have been struck by the timidity of public service media. Yes, they are under growing political pressure in many countries. But to preemptively capitulate is not a strategy.

Now with the war going on, the pandemic still in the news, newsrooms face conflicting pressures.

It seems to be the history of climate journalism that there is always another crisis that seems more important. Often it doesn’t even need a crisis. All it took for the last IPCC report to be washed out of the news cycle within hours was an actor misbehaving at the Oscars. It had taken seven years to produce that report.  With the Russian attack on Ukraine, several participants in the Oxford Climate Journalism Network said they could no longer cover climate change but had to help out at the news desk or cover the energy crisis. This said, energy literacy is a core aspect of climate journalism and it seems the war in Ukraine has also heightened the world’s awareness for just how integral energy is to our societies and economies. A next phase in this realization may be that the much-needed shift to renewable energies will come with its own new set of geopolitical dependencies.          

Which should be exciting for all those policy strategy reporters … But does everyone in the newsroom need climate literacy? 

Yes, you need more general climate literacy in newsrooms, just like news organizations at some point realized that they couldn’t just depend on a few digital specialists but needed to increase everyone’s digital literacy in order to stay relevant as an organization.      

Will knowledge be sufficient to spur action?

You can have a lot of factual knowledge but still not appreciate how late the hour is. The location of the denial has shifted. It has shifted from denying climate science, and specifically that climate change since the pre-industrial age is human-made to denying how urgent our situation is and how little time we have left to avoid a much more dramatic course of events. The willingness to embrace the time pressure we are under is part of climate literacy. 

Will the pressure of younger generations help the shift in newsrooms?

If you lead a newsroom you mostly have to work with the team you have and can’t really afford to pick and choose. I noticed also over the years that colleagues in the last chapter of their careers can be the most dynamic and most supportive of organizational change. But, of course, I have never heard a young journalist say ‘I am somehow glad I won’t live long enough to see the worst effects of climate change’ while I have seen quite a few older colleagues express such sentiments. Some of them were even middle-aged, which makes me think they never looked at an IPCC report.       

Has climate coverage risen to be a C-level topic?

In newsrooms? I doubt it. It has been a somewhat confusing experience for me that in some of my other work I have met the CEOs of very large global companies who had deep knowledge of the climate crisis while I have yet to meet just one chief editor with a similar degree of climate knowledge. In many large news organizations, climate literacy is still where digital literacy was in the late 1990s when chief editors delegated ‘the internet’ to a few experts or had just launched their first digital teams, mostly at a safe distance from their main newsroom. It is the nature of the climate crisis, though, to move faster than most of us think. I wouldn’t be surprised to soon see a major news organization re-organize itself around the climate crisis as their organizational axis. 

This Q&A is an excerpt from the up-coming News Report - Climate Journalism That Works – Between Knowledge and Impact – to be published in Spring 2023

Relevant links and documents


Jo Waters

Head of Content Communications