Update, 25 Sept 2022: David Le Page, Fossil Free SA coordinator and co-author of the Reporting Guide was interviewed by SABC News’s Sunday Media & Society show.
Despite South Africa being an extremely climate-vulnerable country experiencing rapid rates of warming and change, the South African public’s awareness and understanding of the climate emergency remains very poor. This is reflected by inadequate coverage of the issue in our media, and translates into continued hesitance from policy makers and unwarranted continuing social license for the now criminally destructive fossil fuel industry.
As Fossil Free SA, we have had a few engagements with the media over the way they report climate and energy issues in South Africa. Now we have drawn up a Climate Reporting Guide giving journalists key information they might need as they report on climate change and SA’s energy issues. Of course, XR did a great job of highlighting this issue when they protested outside News24’s HQ on Earth Day 2022.
Key good editorial practices for climate reporting
- Foregrounding the background: Climate change is a pervasive and usually slow-moving story by news standards. The issue demands careful and deliberate attention to what may often read like niche science stories – because these ‘niche’ science stories have massive implications. Editors and journalists must now train themselves to hunt for climate news and actively and routinely push it into the mainstream.
- Front/top-of-home page coverage: Even publications that publish solid articles on climate all too often silo them into environmental sections. Climate reporting should rather be integrated into mainstream news and business reporting wherever possible. Note that the BBC now includes ‘climate’ as a leading news section label.
- Terminology: The term climate change should be replaced by the terms ‘global heating’ or ‘climate breakdown’ or ‘climate crisis’, to more accurately reflect the nature of the geophysical changes being imposed on Earth systems. This is now standard practice for The Guardian and many other publications abroad.
- Natural disaster reporting: Any reporting of natural disasters should include scientific analysis of the extent, if any, of the influence of global heating/climate change. If this is unknown, it is now always reasonable to say something along the lines of ‘the precise impact of human activity on this event is not known, but climate breakdown caused by humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions is increasing rates of natural disasters around the world.’
- Fossil fuel industry reporting: All reporting on the fossil fuel industry should mention three key points of context: 1) that emissions from fossil fuels are contributing to dangerous global heating, 2) that this is now considered a matter of ‘unequivocal’ fact by the overwhelming majority of scientists, and 3) that an extremely rapid transition away from fossil fuels is now considered to be technically possible, financially viable and absolutely essential for all regions on Earth.
- Integrating climate context into weather reporting: The current average global temperature increase, regional temperature increase and atmospheric carbon concentration should be published alongside weather reports.
- Integrating climate context into market reporting: The current average global temperature increase, regional temperature increase and atmospheric carbon concentration should be published alongside market updates on exchange rates and commodity prices.
- Climate in every beat: This article, ‘How the weather took over everything’, from the Guardian, outlines further ideas for how climate journalism can be embedded in every beat rather than being stuck in its own niche.
Media climate errors: How the SA media often misreports the climate crisis
- Missing the biggest story of our time: The SA media, as a whole, does not give audiences a full view of the extent and severity of the climate crisis.
- Insufficient reporting on climate change: XR captures this problem with their demand for ‘climate news every day’.
- Omitting crucial climate context: Reporting on the fossil fuel industry usually omits the climate context. But it’s now inaccurate – and a breach of press codes – for any story on coal, gas or oil to omit explaining the human, climate and environmental damage that would inevitably result from these activities.
- Economic inaccuracy: Reporting on the fossil fuel industry invariably focuses on the jobs and profit opportunities for a select number of people, but usually omits to account for the greater economic destruction caused by emissions.
- Siloed coverage: Otherwise excellent articles on climate change tend to be stuck away in the ‘environment section’ and do not make it to the top of home and front pages.
- False ‘balance’ in reporting: This is less of a problem than it used to be, but news outlets have often resorted to ‘balancing’ climate facts with opinions from sceptics. This is akin to ‘balancing’ HIV science with the opinions of HIV deniers. News outlets in US and Europe now have guidelines that when there is overwhelming evidence on a matter, there is no need to cite lone voices saying otherwise.
We aim to widely share this guide with media, and with journalism students. It’s not the end of our more critical engagements; but a new foundation for critical engagement.
As part of this guide, we’ve listed many local civil society organisations working in this space, but if you are part of such an organisation, you may want to adjust or refine the details we’ve listed for you, so do get in touch. The guide is a work in progress, and you’re welcome to offer any general comments.