LONDON – It’s sometimes hard to make people care about the world completely falling apart when so many things have been going so right.
As Vox.com noted recently, Earth is a better place for most humans in measureable ways. Extreme poverty is falling. Hunger is down. Child labor is declining. People have more leisure time. Life expectancy is up. Child mortality is down. People are even getting taller – a sign of better nutrition.
But doom hangs on the horizon: potential catastrophic damage to our environment from climate change. For journalists covering the issue, the biggest challenge is connecting with the public in interesting, emotional ways when the catastrophe seems like such a far-off, theoretical problem.
Most of the time, it may seem like someone else’s problem, or a problem discussed entirely by elites in the media and politics.
“Overall, the climate fight needs a rebrand,” said Iris Andrews, senior strategist for Here Now, a climate change initiative. “So many people in this space are white, middle-class people. … We need a lot more diversity; we need a lot more younger people. We need to break out of this green, eco-environmental box.”
Andrews was speaking to a group of journalists last week at a TechRaking conference hosted last week by The Center for Investigative Reporting, the News Lab at Google and The Working Group. About 80 journalists, designers, activists and developers attended the daylong brainstorming session and hack-a-ton on new solutions to covering climate change.
Jonathan Rowson, director of the Social Brain Centre, told the group that journalists too often cordon off climate change into a niche area of environmental coverage, when it’s really wrapped up in nearly everything we do: science, law, money, technology, democracy, culture and behavior.
“The biggest problem with climate change is it gives you facts quite nicely, but it really doesn’t give you experience very well,” Rowson said. In storytelling, he encouraged journalists to stop thinking of climate change as a plot-driven narrative and consider it more of a setting for “this multilateral conversation.”
The event also included comic book writer Greg Pak, who encouraged the audience to think about stories with “genre high jinks and emotional storytelling.” That is, look for heroes and make the stories connect on a personal level.
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“Storytelling is a method of understanding the world and surviving the world,” Pak said. “At the same time, the stories that work are those with characters who live and breathe.”
It’s clear that readers, listeners and viewers want a more personal, intimate type of reporting on climate change. The success of the Serial podcast showed that people are interested in following the reporter through his or her own journey – it adds a layer of trust and verification to the journalism that the public now demands.
This year, The Guardian launched its own campaign that includes a podcast documenting the inside-the-newsroom story of their work. The Keep it in the Ground campaign that came out of that storytelling process begins with the lofty mission to “save the world from climate change.”
“Can they find a new narrative to tell a 20-year-old story?” the news company asked. “And what will they risk in their efforts to do so?”
— Matt Cooke (@mattcooke_uk) March 25, 2015
The London TechRaking conference, the first held in Europe, brought together journalists from the BBC, The Guardian, the Financial Times, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and elsewhere, along with designers and “news lab” professionals. The goal was to create something new to engage audiences, no matter how small in scope or how unusual.
In three-hour “design sprints,” the TechRaking group came up with a wide range of ideas: a Snapchat-like app aimed at people 18 to 24, where they could ask and answer questions about climate change; a “Thinking Club” curriculum for schools to teach children critical skills for debate and learning – to help them more effectively challenge climate-change deniers, for one; a data-driven game called “The Island,” in which people would be asked to create a livable world and keep carbon dioxide levels low; and a “climate resilience score” that would accompany every housing listing on online real estate websites such as Zillow.com.
The TechRaking London design winner ended up being more art than journalism – but with the potential to engage the public on a visceral level. “Aural” takes the problem of climate change and makes some noise from it. The designers proposed converting data around nitrogen dioxide levels into sounds.
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“A dangerous level results in an unpleasant tone, whilst a normal or better than normal level will result in soothing output,” the design team said.
The sounds could, for example, provide warnings for neighborhoods, personal reminders about where – and how – you’re living, or even music to engage people on an emotional level. (In China, for example, artists have created music from pollution data.
The winning team was Leah Borromeo, a journalist and filmmaker; Paul Bradshaw, a visiting professor at City University London and founder of the investigative journalism website HelpMeInvestigate; and Jack Serle from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London.
The next step is to create something concrete from the idea. A previous TechRaking in Toronto led to the creation of WikiWash, which helps journalists and others scan Wikipedia in real time to see who is editing posts during breaking news events.
For some participants, the one-day sprint in London highlighted just how challenging it can be to reach news audiences on climate change – and to sway them into action. Too often, they said, the conversation gets stopped at the first step: whether the science supporting human-induced climate change is even valid.
And it was clear to some that the old ways of distributing the news and disseminating information has to change.
“There isn’t one perfect campaign that is going to appeal to everybody,” Andrews of Here Now told the crowd at the London TechRaking. “The answer is a lot of diffuse actions that get us to where we want to be.”