After COP26, localizing the climate crisis

Nov 16, 2021

Last week, my colleague Jon Allsop wrote a series of dispatches for this newsletter from COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, considering the media coverage at a global summit centered on one of our most urgent global crises: an experience he called likened to “being at the center of the news universe.” Though Allsop noted often that the magnitude of the event offered a handy peg by which to draw attention to the crisis on the global stage, he also noted that, from thousands of miles away, “for many Western news consumers, in particular, COP is just another block on a homepage, another chyron on cable news. Looking from inside here to out there, you sense an urgency gap that yawns wide.” In another dispatch, Allsop quoted climate activists Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate in their 2019 open letter to media editors, published in Time magazine: “No one else has the possibility and the opportunity to reach as many people in the extremely short timeframe we have.” They’re right, in a way, but “media editors” is a notably squishy term in our era of information glut, and considering that yawning urgency gap, “reach” requires trust as much as contact. As much research has suggested, local media has significantly higher rates of trust with news consumers than national media. Local news coverage of events like the COP summit—and the agreements they produce—provides opportunities to bring the urgency home.

A number of local outlets took the opportunity, during COP26, to begin that work. Houston Chronicle columnist Chris Tomlinson wrote several pieces about the high stakes of the crisis, including one exploring its ramifications for regional food systems: the climate summit was a chance to “pay now or pay later,” he wrote in another. (Elsewhere in the Chronicle, business reporter Paul Takahashi wrote that the summit’s pledge to end gas-powered car sales would have “major ramifications” for Houston, though the article failed to mention the high stakes should gas power continue to dominate.) Another metro paper, the Gannett-owned Detroit Free Press, posted little online about COP26 last week, but did publish a story linking climate change to the city’s frequent flooding. Staff at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette compiled wire coverage to report that, per the UN Secretary General, the summit had “fallen short” of more ambitious carbon-cutting targets. The same AP story ran on WKBN, a CBS affiliate in Youngstown, Ohio and WBAL, an NBC affiliate in Baltimore, Maryland. Many Sinclair-owned stations ran the same story on their sites, in addition to a smattering of AP stories throughout the week as well: on takeaways from the US climate deal, how gaps between rich and poor nations persist in the climate crisis, and “why quitting coal is so hard,” in which coal is termed the “biggest climate villain” among the fossil fuels.

When it comes to local news coverage of COP 26, wire coverage loomed large—a predictable outcome in our world of resource-strapped newsrooms, and a logical one when the subject of the news peg is as resource-intensive as a twelve-day summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Allsop noted in last week’s dispatches that the Associated Press—whose coverage frequently fronts local newspapers and websites across the US and beyond—had between fourteen and eighteen journalists at the summit on any given day; it’s possible those fourteen to eighteen journalists had an outsized influence on local understanding of the global summit. As environmental journalism researcher Bruno Takahashi told me in the spring of last year, the influence of wire services in climate reporting is not limited to the US; it spans the globe, via services such as Reuters (which is based in the UK), AFP (France), and EFE (Spain) . “Wire services are becoming more and more dominant, because of the crisis in the business of news media around the world,” Takahashi said. “It’s just cheaper for smaller outlets to purchase content as opposed to hiring their own reporters. That makes a lot of the coverage homogeneous and doesn’t allow more fine-grained coverage. Wire services are pretty neutral, pretty basic, and appeal to everyone, so they’re not specialized to your region.”

The global nature of the climate crisis poses a particular challenge for local news, threatening, as it does, all of us, everywhere, albeit in different ways with divergent immediacy and severity. And “local news,” of course, comprises many things—among them, metro newspapers, TV stations, radio, blogs, hyperlocal community outlets. (Misinformation often gets jumbled with local information networks on social platforms; Facebook, for example, profits significantly from climate misinformation, as a recent study found.) In whatever form it takes, local news is naturally positioned to tell stories unique to its own community; that can be its greatest strength, but such focus can also become a weakness if it functions as blinders and limits the imagination.

Part of the difficulty in addressing the crisis lies in the difficulty of connecting global responsibility to individual responsibility, and weighing self-interest against human interest; given the right resources, local reporting could help thread those needles. During the first week of the summit, The Lafayette (Indiana) Journal and Courier reported on Purdue’s Climate Change Research Center drawing connections between Indiana emissions and the COP26—albeit from a press release—including links to an animation noting that, by 2050, climate change would reduce Indiana’s corn production by 12 percent. “Every region of the world is contributing to climate change in some way,” Jeff Dukes, a Purdue professor, said for that report. “These animations provide local context to the Glasgow negotiations. There are many things we can do in our own state that will minimize our contribution to climate change and help insulate us from the impacts.” As the COVID story has proven again and again, a global story is always, necessarily, a local one, too.

Below, more on intersecting global crises:

  • Local News Crisis: Today, a documentary about The Storm Lake Times, a rural community newspaper in Iowa, premieres on PBS . The film depicts the Times’ journey through reporting on 2020’s messy Iowa caucuses, a pandemic, and local news bread-and-butter stories—from reporting the first baby of the year to following the Pork Queen on her tour of local schools. The film celebrates the family-owned paper for being a strong voice in its community, but also warns that financial challenges threaten many such papers across the country (and, it should be noted, much of the world). “People turn to it for the school board coverage and the city council coverage and, you know, sewer rates,” editor Art Cullen told Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air. Still, Cullen says,”the obituaries, the weddings and engagements. Those are the things that keep people coming back.”
  • COVID Crisis: New documents show that former president Donald Trump tried to silence the Center for Disease Control early in the pandemic, CNN reported Friday. The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released transcripts in which CDC officials described feelings of being “muzzled,” and being denied requests to hold briefings on mask usage, pediatric COVID cases, and deaths. CNN reports that CDC officials also described attempts by the Trump administration to alter weekly scientific reports before their release.
  • Information Crisis: Today, the Aspen Institute will release a report on information crises after nearly a year of studying disinformation all over the world. Rashad Robinson, one of the group’s co-chairs, appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources to preview the report, noting the necessity for more transparency from social platforms and more accountability for bad actors.

Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, the Washington Post issued a correction and removed parts of two stories on the Steele dossier, a series of documents associated with a report by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele suggesting that the Russian government had compromising information about then-president Donald Trump. Several weeks ago, Igor Dachenko, a Russian-American analyst who helped Steele compile the source material, was indicted in a federal court on charges that he repeatedly lied to the FBI. The Post’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, said the indictments “created doubts” in some of the Post’s previous reporting, and this move is an attempt to take the “most transparent approach possible.” Elsewhere, Post media critic Erik Wemple—who has reported at length on the dossier—asked whether CNN ought to stand by its reporting on the dossier, which anchors frequently referenced as at least partly corroborated. “If nothing else, the dossier demonstrates how undisciplined cable chatter can amplify a tightly worded print story,” Wemple wrote.
  • Danny Fenster, an American journalist who has been detained in Myanmar since May, was released this morning and will be allowed to leave the country. On Friday, Fenster was sentenced to eleven years in prison, but The New York Times reports that ex-diplomat Bill Richardson has secured Fenster’s freedom. Fenster is one of more than 120 journalists who have been arrested in Myanmar since a military coup in February. About four dozen remain in prison.
  • In Cuba, authorities revoked press credentials from Spanish wire service EFE ahead of today’s banned protests from opposition groups calling for greater political freedoms and the release of jailed activists, Reuters reported. After Spain’s secretary of state for Latin America and the Caribbean called for the reinstatement of press credentials for the five journalists, Cuban authorities reinstated credentials for one EFE photographer and one editor.
  • NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik noted on Twitter that President Biden will nominate former Voice of America director Amanda Bennett—who resigned from VOA after the hiring of Trump appointee Michael Pack—to Pack’s former job as CEO of the US Agency for Global Media.
  • A journalist in Queensland, Australia argued in the Court of Appeal that he should be protected under public interest law in his refusal to reveal the identity of a confidential source, but the court ruled that there was no protection in this case, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported today. The reporter—known only as F—was tipped off by a police officer in 2018 about a raid on the home of a murder suspect who was also the focus of a counter-terrorism investigation. The new ruling would allow the court to compel the journalist to reveal his confidential source or face jail time of up to five years.
  • For Politico, Josh Gerstein considered the FBI’s recent raid on Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe’s home and its implications for the Biden administration’s commitment to a free press. “It’s very dangerous to try to categorize people doing journalistic-type work, even if they’re not doing it the way I would do it or the way the mainstream media would do it or the way ethical journalists would do it,” University of Minnesota law professor Jane Kirtley told Gerstein. (Elsewhere, for the New York Times, Adam Goldman and Mark Mazzetti dug into the depths of Project Veritas’s dubious practices.)
  • The New York Times profiled a school district in Loudoun County, Virginia whose culture wars became central in both the Virginia governor’s race and right-wing media’s “parents’ rights” frenzy. Fox News aired 78 segments on racist and race-based conflicts at the school from March to June this year, Media Matters reported. And they aired 88 segments on an alleged assault that took place in a high-school bathroom, blaming it on the school’s policy allowing students to use the bathroom associated with the gender with which they identify. “Along the way, they got plenty of help from Republican operatives, who raised money and skillfully decried some of the district’s more aggressive efforts, even buying an ad during an N.F.L. game,” Stephanie Saul writes.
  • In a speech on Saturday, Pope Francis publicly thanked journalists for their exposure of widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic church at a ceremony to honor two veteran correspondents. “It is difficult to think, meditate, deepen, stop to collect ideas and study the contexts and precedents of a news item,” he said. “The risk, you know well, is letting oneself be crushed by the news instead of being able to make sense of it.”

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites. 

TOP IMAGE: 13 November 2021, United Kingdom, Glasgow: People are standing under a globe at the UN Climate Change Conference COP26. For two weeks in Glasgow, around 200 countries are struggling to find a way to achieve the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial times. Photo by: Christoph Soeder/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images


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