NEWS published on 10 Jan 2023

“We want to hook people on hope, not on fear”

Portrait of Nanette Braun, Chief, Communications Campaigns, United Nations

Interview with Nanette Braun, Chief, Communications Campaigns, United Nations, by Dr Alexandra Borchardt, Lead Author, EBU News Report 2023: Climate Journalism That Works - Between Knowledge and Impact

Nanette Braun leads communications campaigns at the United Nations. She has risen through different parts of the organization for close to 30 years. Her responsibilities encompass campaigns on a range of UN priorities, not just climate change, but she identifies this as the UN’s major concern. 

Within the UN framework, how important is climate change as an issue?

Climate change is the existential priority.  It determines the future of humanity. It is a crisis that affects everybody, everywhere. To limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees and avoid the worst impacts of climate change we know we need to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2050. We are far from achieving this and the window of opportunity is closing fast.

Is the media doing a good job covering the challenges?

The media is becoming better informed, better in unpacking the complexities. We see a lot of good climate reporting and public understanding of climate change has grown significantly. Now: Is public understanding improving due to good reporting, or is the reporting better because the public cares more? Whatever the nexus, this is a good development but there is still ample room for improvement. This is a topic not to let go of. It needs to be at the top of the journalistic agenda.

This is a positive assessment. Many media organizations are a lot more self-critical.

I’m talking about now, not about five or even more than 40 years ago when there was already opportunity to put this topic firmly on the reporting agenda. The Carter Administration, for instance, published a report in the late 70s that became sort of a bestseller in Germany. I remember that I did a presentation in high school, I must have been 14 years old then.  While the science was still evolving, the overall projection was clear already then. We lost a lot of time. By now there is no way to deny that climate change is happening, all countries experience the effects. Young people are justifiably very concerned. It is their future that is at serious risk. All of this has contributed to the greater public interest and this goes hand in hand with more scientific knowledge and insights. 

When you look at media coverage, what is your impression about climate literacy in newsrooms?

Climate literacy has grown. But at the same time we see a worrying amount of mis- and disinformation. We still see climate deniers, even though the tone has shifted from overall outright denial to misleading information that is watering down the urgency of the climate crisis with the aim to delay action. Public service media has a very important mandate and responsibility in countering false information by providing a science-based, fact-checked narrative. 

Public service media still seem to struggle a bit with being accused of taking sides if they are too outspoken on the issues.

Presenting different views is a principle of balanced, fair journalism. But in the case of climate change the science is clear, so it is critical that media use the authoritative information that exists as the basis for their reporting, both on the cause and effect of climate change and on the urgent need for action toward a carbon-free future.  There is no longer any doubt that climate change is caused by human activity. 

The negativity of it all does seem to drive audiences away. What do you recommend?

There is a lot of anxiety around climate change, and we know this can cause news avoidance.  People get overwhelmed by too much negative news. This is why it’s important to demonstrate that there are solutions – and they do exist: technologies are evolving fast and the transition to renewables is possible.  Showcasing solutions keeps people engaged. We want to hook people on hope, not on fear. We want to provide them with the understanding that everybody can contribute. Climate change offers many entry points for reporting, beyond news and science:  food production and consumption, for example, have a big impact on climate, as do travel or fashion. Climate action can be a filter through which to also look at everyday lifestyle issues. 

As an international organization, do you observe regional differences in coverage?

Obviously, conversations are different in the global north and south, particularly on how to compensate for loss and damages.  The G20 countries produce 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.  By contrast, the 55 countries in Africa have contributed only three to four percent of emissions but they are particularly affected. This was at last acknowledged at COP27, with a breakthrough agreement on the establishment of a fund to support developing countries cope with the effects of climate change.

And then there are media organizations that are better resourced than others. With more resources comes the ability for better reporting, research and fact checking. An important step for media can be to foster collaboration, with bigger organizations supporting those outlets that are less resourced. A good example is Covering Climate Now, a media initiative that provides resources and opportunities to work together. Or take our own SDG Media Compact, a global alliance of which EBU is a member, to foster reporting around the whole sustainable development agenda.      

What should media do next?

Media reporting should focus on solutions.  Combatting climate change means a transformation of the way we live, and we see growing interest and demand. We see technical solutions. The price point for renewables has dropped significantly, this has been an incredible success story. There is no alternative to a just and green energy transition. 

Also, media have an important role in holding decision makers accountable. Greenwashing, for instance, has become a widespread issue. It is important to follow up on promises made and see to what extent they are being kept.

With the war in Europe going on, will climate journalism be at risk?

This is the great challenge of the moment. We need to call on the media: Do not get distracted. Do not let go of this topic. 

Some media outlets are very conscious of the language they choose around climate change. Do you think this is important? 

I think most important is that your audience understands the issue. Avoid jargon. For instance, does everybody understand the concepts of net-zero or carbon neutral?  Make sure that people who are not involved on a daily basis will get it. 

What about the visual language? 

Media must depict the situation as it is. Climate change is an emergency. The importance is to balance this with images that show a way forward. Again, climate anxiety and news avoidance as a potential consequence do not help.  Media is only relevant when people consume it.