Reporter Zuha Siddiqui stood atop a pile of rubble overlooking a waterway choked with plastic and toxic waste, signalling the “climate apocalypse” facing Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. A stream, the colour of soot, flowed beneath the debris.
“If you stand here and trip by accident, you will fall to your death,” warned a local guide, recounting how a 65-year-old man died after slipping into the festering pit near his home. The sprawling city, situated along the Arabian Sea coast, has earned a dubious distinction.
Karachi, population 17.5 million, is listed among the world’s least livable cities, ranking 168th out of 172 on The Economist’s 2022 Global Livability Index. It was a perfect setting for The Sinking Cities Project, a global cross-border investigation examining how sea-level rise impacts major cities and how governments respond to the climate crisis. Solutions were part of the mix.
The project, published by Unbias the News, a self-described “feminist cross-border newsroom,” brought together six local journalists from cities threatened by rising seas in Europe, Asia and Africa. Nearly 1.8 billion people in the world live in areas with increasing exposure to flooding and storm surges.
Siddiqui’s story documented how local officials failed to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change, including upkeep of the city’s stormwater drains, a safeguard during heavy rains. She also addressed the question: Who is looking for solutions?
She talked with activists who organised a “People’s Climate March” to highlight the crisis and how it is being mishandled.
“Having a working-class, grassroots movement leading the Climate March and protesting [to the government] for equitable solutions helps build awareness, both at the civil society and government level. That has made the biggest difference,” said Siddiqui. She also told of climate advocates taking the city to court to stop a construction project harmful to the environment.
Covering climate change through a solutions lens is picking up steam. It is not about telling positive, pat-on-the-back stories about climate. The solutions journalism model uses investigative techniques and data that rely on scrupulous reporting to identify policies and practices to help mitigate the crisis.
“Solutions reporting seeks out responses that are working and puts a spotlight on the places that are verifiably getting it right,” said Matthew Kauffman, data manager for Solutions Journalism Network (SJN). He noted in an SJN blog, “When news outlets ask and answer the question: “Who’s doing it better?” they help their audience see and explore possible opportunities for change.”
How is that concept playing out in today’s newsrooms?
When news outlets ask and answer the question: “Who’s doing it better?” they help their audience see and explore possible opportunities for change.
A watershed moment
News outlets have warned about climate change for decades, predicting impending doom. An overload of negativity can “freak people out,” as one environmentalist put it, and switch them off. Headlines about the planet heating up have become so routine they hardly constitute news anymore.
The UN describes the climate crisis as “the biggest threat modern humans have ever faced.” Records show that the last decade was the hottest in human history; wildfires, floods and droughts have become the new normal. That poses a quandary for journalists.
“We must close the significant gaps between what audiences may need from climate change news coverage if they were to get more engaged in the story and what news providers cover. Could journalists inadvertently be contributing to climate inaction?” asked a World Association of News Publishers report.
For the past 20 years, noted scholar Maxwell Boykoff has researched how media cover climate change. He has seen evidence of audiences being turned off.
“I have written about how doom and gloom reporting has been found by researchers to raise awareness, but it may effectively paralyse people from taking action. It can be overwhelming,” said Boykoff, who leads the Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO) at the University of Colorado.
There still is not anywhere near enough coverage about the many aspects of a changing climate as it relates to human and non-human communities and individuals.
The observatory monitors 131 sources across newspapers, radio and TV in 59 countries in seven different regions of the world to measure trends in climate coverage. Data is assembled via Nexis Uni, Proquest and Factiva databases.
“There still is not anywhere near enough coverage about the many aspects of a changing climate (causes, consequences and solutions) as it relates to human and non-human communities and individuals,” said Boykoff.
Researchers analysing the cumulative mentions of climate change terms in Google news article headlines found that 336,000 stories contained the term climate change. Of those, only 0.2% contained “Climate change solutions” – 0.5% included “climate change” and “solutions.” WAN-IFRA published this in February 2022.
Those numbers could improve as solution journalists carve out new territory and put a spotlight on what can and is being done to help the planet survive. It is public service journalism at its best.
Solutions and data team up
Solution Journalism Network's Matthew Kauffman sees new patterns of climate coverage emerging. He described three approaches on how data interacts with solutions journalism with links to climate stories that break the mould of doomsday reporting. Here are the three approaches:
Data as empirical evidence. “Community Ownership Might Be the Best Way to Fight Deforestation,” published by Reasons to be Cheerful, an outlet started by David Byrne of Talking Heads family. The reporter used data to show that turning the management of forests over to residents could result in better management and lower rates of deforestation.
Data as a tip to a possible solutions story. “How Bangladesh is beating the odds on climate disaster deaths,“ published by The New Humanitarian. Reporters set out to identify which vulnerable countries had made significant progress in protecting residents from natural disasters. Starting with data from the Risk INFORM Index and the Global Climate Risk Index, they found Bangladesh was an outlier. A writer explored the policies and practices that were saving lives.
Data as a resource for community solutions. “Tribes Use Western and Indigenous Science to Prepare for Climate Change,” spotlighting a report on a data tool developed at the University of Washington that projects how climate events will affect agriculture and fishing, enabling indigenous communities to anticipate and adapt to changes.
Kauffman, an award-winning investigative journalist, advises reporters to “rely on rigorous evidence to identify policies and practices with a proven track record [on climate]. There are cases where the data essentially are the solution, cases where various data points serve as resources that communities can use to make smart decisions about climate solutions.”
Asking the right questions is an important part of Kauffman’s equation. The Earth Journalism Network (EJN) suggests starting with a local example of action on climate change and tying that to a broader trend or issue.
Among the key questions, EJN suggests:
- Where did this idea come from?
- What evidence is there to show the solutions are working?
- What do researchers say?
- What do the numbers show?
- Who are the critics, and what do they say?
- What metrics matter when it comes to measuring success?
- Is what’s happening in one place with solutions a model for somewhere else?
That line of inquiry is reflected in "The country trailblazing the fight against disasters", a BBC Future Planet report written by freelance journalist Catherine Davison.
It won the 2023 Climate Journalism Award for the Storytelling and Solutions category and was described as “an exemplary piece of solutions reporting.” The story combined empirical evidence and data with input from those on the frontlines of climate change in Bangladesh, one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries.
An excerpt from the piece illustrates the solution angle: “Bangladesh’s system has become renowned for increasing the country’s resilience with relatively few resources, with its success lauded by experts as a model for other low-income countries looking to develop early warning system in the face of a changing climate.”
The story described a multi-layered early warning system of weather monitoring equipment, communications operations and a large network of volunteers, half of them women, that get the word out.
Other examples of climate solutions journalism:
In April, The New Yorker published a digital project with the tagline, “In the fight for a livable planet, there are some problems we can’t not solve.” Among the stories: “India’s quest to build the world’s largest solar farm” and “A heat shield for the most important ice on earth.”
The Washington Post’s Climate Solution Section “tells stories of innovators and innovations through every form of journalism we know, from rich narratives to arresting visuals.” An example, “Why companies are racing to build the world’s biggest bug farms.”
The Guardian’s special report, “Reasons to be hopeful: The climate solutions available now,” featured what key industries, such as deforestation, food, farming, and manufacturing, are doing to help. The story is part of “Covering Climate Now,” a global collaboration of climate coverage.
In October, National Public Radio hosted “Climate Solutions Week”, spotlighting stories and conversations about the search for answers. Among the offerings, “Individual actions you can take to address climate change.”
Stories like these can make a difference. A University of Maryland study said that news consumers exposed to coverage of solutions felt they could better influence climate change policy and support actions to address it. Focusing only on the negative aspects of climate change gives a false impression that there is nothing that can be done about it, the report found.
Focusing only on the negative aspects of climate change gives a false impression that there is nothing that can be done about it.
Climate journalism got off to a shaky start when the term “global warming” first surfaced in print on August 8, 1975 in the journal Science.
From the beginning, media outlets were thrust into a controversy between those who considered climate change a major threat to the planet versus climate deniers who viewed it as a hoax, fake news or political conspiracy. A challenge to the tenet of fairness and balance in newsgathering came into play. As part of his research, Professor Boykoff zeroed in on the term “balance as bias” – defined as false balance in the news, also known as “bothsidesism” -- and how it affected the media’s climate coverage.
A study he co-authored in 2004 found that “U.S. media outlets consistently reported both climate denial and climate science in a balanced manner, leading to biased overall coverage of climate change by implying that both views had equal evidence in favour of them.” Bothsidesism, in effect, diluted the perils of climate change.
“Reports often failed to show that climate change is not a single issue. It’s an intersectional set of challenges that flow through every aspect of the way we work, play and relax in society,” noted the professor.
Over time, the mass of scientific evidence moulded the media’s climate agenda. Newsrooms developed climate beats staffed by journalists specialising in the environment. They devoted investigative projects, special sections and interactive visuals to climate solutions. Many created climate teams.
Two groups that need more media attention: climate sceptics and communities hard-hit by the crisis.
In September, The New York Times brought together world leaders, activists, scientists and policymakers to examine the actions needed to confront climate change. Among them, Bill Gates, Al Gore, and Michael R. Bloomberg. There still are gaps to be filled.
Data journalist Eva Constantaras conducts workshops on reporting on climate solutions around the world. She identified two groups that need more media attention: climate sceptics and communities hard-hit by the crisis. She says deniers need information to help them break out of the cycle of polarization. Vulnerable populations need it to protect themselves from increasingly dangerous conditions.
"Now that data-driven climate reporting has matured, it is time for the media to take on the tough task of extending coverage to hard-to-reach audiences,” said Constantaras, data editor for Lighthouse Reports and Internews. She advises, “Lay out your editorial strategy and impact goals in the short, medium and long term and make sure your [climate] coverage is helping advance toward those goals.”
Climate solutions journalism is a work in progress. At stake is a habitable planet with journalists on the frontlines of the fight to save it. The axiom “Everyone is a climate reporter now” rings true as climate coverage seeps into every newsroom beat. It’s the slant of the story that makes the difference.
Resources that can help
Covering Climate Now: Offers a Climate Solutions Reporting Guide that lists categories of stories to cover and questions to jump-start interviews on a variety of topics from politics and government to economics, technology and culture. Excellent tool for self-driven learning or newsroom staff development. Checklist of story ideas and sources at the end of the guide.
Solutions Journalism Network: Provides a framework for solutions reporting, with examples, tips, guidelines and a tracker for solution stories. Guides reporters through a list of questions: “What are the solutions being put forward – and how has that solution worked, or not worked?” What evidence, such as on-the-ground experience or empirical data, indicates that the solution in effective?” Excellent tool for developing new skills or polishing old ones on solutions reporting.
Oxford Climate Journalism Network: Supports a global community of reporters and editors across beats and platforms to improve the quality, understanding and impact of climate coverage worldwide. A programme of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Includes a Global South Climate Database of scientists and experts from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific.
Project Drawdown: Focuses on science-based solutions and strategies, shifting from “doom and gloom” to “possibility and opportunity” and giving voice to “underrepresented climate heroes” through storytelling. A course, Climate Solutions 101, jump-starts reporters interested in climate change.
Earth News Network: Article on “Reporting on climate change through a solutions lens” provides a list of dos and don’ts for climate reporters. A sampling: Use data! Ground lived experiences in research and vice versa; don’t promote silver bullets or one-size-fits-all solutions and avoid false balance. There is a section on questions for solutions interviews and writing tips.