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Joining Forces for Honest Environmental Journalism

Two surveyors from the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska. (U.S. Geological Survey / CC 2.0)

For some years I worked in a BBC newsroom, where each morning on the way in I’d pass a friend sitting at his desk. He’d often greet me this way: “Hello, Alex. It’s a very quiet news day today. We might even have room for some of your environment rubbish.” Only he didn’t call it rubbish, using instead a cruder Anglo-Saxon term.

A senior editor posed a more serious problem. Quite often I’d have a decent piece of new science to report (this was in the late 1980s), and I’d mention stories for possible use in the main bulletin. Usually, this editor welcomed my pitches, but he always responded in the same way: “That’s really interesting—we’ll run that. Now go and find me an environment skeptic you can quote, so we can provide some balance.”

Thirty years on, my BBC moles tell me news managers are still obsessed, still insistent that their staff members inject a spurious “balance” into coverage of the environmental havoc afflicting our world. This is not journalism; articles like these simply serve as a useful megaphone for climate change skeptics. A British friend wrote to me a week ago, referring to climate change:

It has become personal…the thought of all those creepy Tories and the entire Republican [S]enate and [C]ongress deciding for themselves that they know better than the Met Office, the Royal Society and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, not to mention [NASA], the entire faculties of Princeton, Stanford, Columbia and Berkeley, all the great defense department laboratories in the US, the Max Planck Institutes, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and ETH Zurich. It’s their complacent self-regard and their airy dismissal of actual evidence that I can’t bear.

Four of us, all former mainstream media science and environment journalists, set up the Climate News Network in 2013 with one aim: to provide a daily news story, objectively written, on some aspect of energy or climate change. It’s free to anyone who wants it, and it’s aimed especially at providing a source to developing-world journalists who, as we know from experience working with them, often don’t have easy access to intelligible and reliable information that most of us in the global north take for granted.

My colleagues and I don’t have to bother anymore about cockeyed managerial notions of misconceived “balance.” We tell the story, as far as we can, just as it is. There’s only one problem, and it’s a big one: It costs money to do this.

Sites like Truthdig, Climate News Network and many others provide the precise opposite of fake news, and the need for these sites has grown fast in the last six months alone. But good journalism, even produced as frugally as possible, still needs to be paid for. Otherwise, our freedom from mainstream media won’t get us very far.

Climate News Network has had generous support from foundations and from individuals, but at the end of May 2017 we had to let our freelance editors and writers go because we’d run out of money to pay them. Now the four of us, who average in age in the early 70s, are keeping the daily output going while we scratch our heads and wonder who else we can ask to support us.

One idea worth exploring is for independent media outlets to make alliances with like-minded journalists, both across the world and in their own backyards. There are viable and effective partnerships at many levels, and independent journalists should be building more.

This won’t be easy. Journalists are among the most opinionated and competitive people around, and the idea of trimming our take on events to accommodate other people’s views is enough to make many splutter. But that needn’t be a huge obstacle—after all, much of what independent journalists aim to do is report the facts as they are, not provide their own interpretation of the facts.

This may sound obvious, but in today’s atmosphere, it isn’t. “Alternative facts” and actual fake news are gaining a new and virulent currency in the U.S. and the U.K. They need to be nailed, fast. Yet a lie still travels halfway around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on.

Digital journalism can bring the lies down far more quickly, especially if journalists agree on shared priorities. Independent outlets can concentrate their efforts and multiply their impact if they are prepared to share more with their peers.

There would be limits, obviously. We all know more about our own societies than people from across the world do, and we’d all need to specialize in shining a penetrating light on our own communities. But a lot of what’s needed to redress the misreporting of the environment and climate change isn’t nationally or even regionally based: It’s global. So, for example, when Breitbart News reported on July 9 that “ ‘Nearly All’ Recent Global Warming Is Fabricated, Study Finds,” showing the falsity of the claim would have been valuable to true media everywhere.

I don’t like arguing for this sort of pooled approach, because, like most of my peers, I still insist on thinking that my version of a rebuttal is bound to be superior to everyone else’s. But in a world that’s increasingly credulous and filled with readers who are increasingly presented with lies, and with money increasingly hard to find, I think the present model of journalism is going to come under growing (perhaps even terminal) strain.

Forging these alliances is one way to ensure that honest environmental journalism will thrive. Environmental and science journalists should also be covering adaptation to climate change. How many methods of preparing for a warmer world are being tried? How many of these methods are succeeding against the odds? How many could be replicated more widely?

A final suggestion for improving environmental journalism includes reporting the voices of those who are living the reality of climate change today—climate refugees, as well as those who risk and lose their lives to defend the global commons.

To implement these changes, far-sighted editors and committed reporters need to think like techies and system designers who can make a small amount of money go a long way in digital journalism. Nothing is certain; everything is possible.

A BBC colleague of mine was once asked how he would define journalism. He replied: “To analyze, and to bear witness.” That seems a good summary of what Truthdig does and of what we at Climate News Network try to do. It also describes what distinguishes us from the establishment media. Many millions of people around the world rely on us to go on doing it.

As Truthdig 3.0 sets sail, I wish it the best possible future. I hope those who steer it will find a way to make the lifeblood media it personifies so well something that can support itself sustainably—and then share the secret with the rest of us.

Alex Kirby
Alex Kirby worked for BBC News as a foreign correspondent and then reported for 15 years on the environment. He was named Environment Journalist of the Year at...
Alex Kirby

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