Assessing the global state of climate and environmental journalism

Assessing the global state of climate and environmental journalism
A composite image of a tree, in both drought and abundance. —PHOTO FROM EJN WEBSITE/PIYASET ON GETTY IMAGES

Censorship and misinformation take many different forms. When it comes to climate and environmental journalism, censorship can be enforced by governments or state-controlled media and mis/disinformation actively spread by bad actors. But good information is also skewed by self-imposed censorship in the face of threats, and journalists’ misguided efforts to produce a “balanced” story. 

The latter are just a few of the more striking, yet nuanced, findings from a new study funded by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. To achieve a global snapshot of the status of climate and environmental journalism, our partners at the Deakin University research team, led by Dr. Gabi Mocatta, surveyed 744 journalists and editors in 102 countries, conducted interviews with 74 journalists and editors in 31 countries and performed an extensive review of the existing research literature.

Even as climate impacts accelerate, journalists operate in an environment of increasing precarity: media layoffs abound and “news deserts” (towns or regions without reliable local news sources) are expanding globally. It’s not just their livelihoods; their safety is at stake too: Interviewed journalists in Peru, India and Ecuador reported kidnapping, sexual harassment, and legal threats, respectively, as a result of their environmental reporting, and they’re not the only ones.

At a time when we need to support climate and environmental journalism more than ever, this landmark piece of research aims to offer insights into the state of media covering these issues around the world: What are the challenges journalists and editors face in producing high-quality journalism, such as mis/disinformation, diminished press freedom and the lack of resources? And what strategies can journalists, newsrooms, and funding organizations employ to improve the climate and environment media landscape?

These are some of the questions addressed in our new report: ‘Covering the Planet: Assessing the State of Climate and Environmental Journalism Globally”.

In addition to findings that both present new data and confirm existing theories about the state of climate and environmental media, the report’s many recommendations provide important food for thought for journalists, newsrooms and funding organizations everywhere. It offers evidence-based suggestions to enable journalists to do their jobs safely and with the training and tools needed to confront challenging global conditions and their own knowledge gaps. 

What we found

Overall, ‘Covering the Planet’ found a thriving, vibrant, and dedicated community of journalists committed to reporting stories about our planet. 

But this landscape is filled with challenges, requiring more funding, more training, more access to sources and more expert connections. Journalists told us that NGO and philanthropic funding and training are crucial to amplifying coverage of climate change and the environment. Many journalists said that they would not be able to report on climate or the environment without this assistance. 

Environmental reporting also puts journalists in some parts of the world in real danger: 39% of the survey respondents said they had been threatened, with the same number acknowledging they have felt the need to censor themselves to stay safe.

This percentage is slightly higher than the responses EJN received to an online survey carried out in 2018: out of the 333 journalists who responded then, a third said they had been threatened and 31% acknowledged they had felt the need to censor themselves. Because that survey was carried out less formally—without an academic research methodology—it’s not clear if the change in results is statistically significant. But it does at least suggest the problem is getting worse—echoing findings from the latest World Press Freedom Index. That two out of five journalists covering climate change and the environment feel unsafe and unable to report freely is a striking result.

Less surprising is that 76% of surveyed journalists reported that a lack of resources limits their coverage. Even though climate reporting is arguably more robust now than it has ever been — in part because the effects of climate change have become so difficult to ignore—newsroom budgets continue to decline. Our findings underscore the urgent need to provide better financial support for environmental reporting and accountability as a key driver of action to stem environmental degradation and climate impacts. 

An unusual feature of ‘Covering the Planet’ is that high- and low-income countries were researched within one study, and although it is always hard to tease out significant differences, their experiences and perspectives appear to be disparate.

The report indicates that journalists in low- and middle-income countries more often face job insecurity, threats to their personal safety, lack of access to evidence-based information and data and a general lack of resources compared to journalists in high-income countries, who also experience these issues but less frequently or severely. Journalists covering climate change and the environment in high-income countries seem to face fewer physical threats and have better access to high-quality data. But while their salaries may be higher than journalists’ in LMICs, they do also suffer from job insecurity, and generally face more organized disinformation campaigns.

Respondents also perceive misinformation as a threat to conveying accurate information: 58% said it had increased in the last decade, and 93% reported that the main source of that misinformation was social media. Misinformation thrives in areas where there is a lack of trust in traditional media or other formal information providers, and where there is simply a lack of accurate information. The rise of social media and now generative artificial intelligence have complicated the information landscape in ways we may not yet completely understand, making it more crucial for journalists to provide timely and evidence-based public information.  

The research provided some answers about journalists’ perceptions and understanding of the role of misinformation in their work, with many noting it is not only an issue faced by journalists in low-income countries. Journalists in Brazil, Mexico and India directly referenced in interviews that misinformation in their countries was “not as bad as in the United States.” Others discussed how disinformation was not the main problem in their country, but instead a lack of information and local understanding of climate change.

A number of journalists interviewed commented on the rapidly increasing speed at which mis/disinformation can reach audiences — one from Cambodia said in an interview that 300 pieces of mis/disinformation could be produced in the time it would take them to write a single article.

There also seems to be a range of understandings of journalistic objectivity or “balance”. In much of the world, the report finds, journalists still utilize this concept as a justification for incorporating sources who deny human-caused climate change. In the survey, 62% of journalists said they included statements from these types of sources in their work. This corroborates findings from a separate EJN research report released in October 2023 on climate mis/disinformation in East Africa, where journalists in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania were asked the same question. There, two-thirds of journalists also said they would use contrary sources in the name of “balance”.

The authors consider this finding to be particularly notable, in light of reporting trends in wealthier countries, where: In interviews, researchers discovered journalists held nuanced and complex notions of objectivity and balance. Few said they would advocate for specific positions, but many also were very clear that reporting about science and holding power to account was not equivalent to true advocacy, even if others may perceive it that way.

Some journalists also referred to objectivity as a ‘Western concept’ that had been imported into their practice. Several of these journalists were from countries experiencing the most severe climate impacts, including the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia. The report notes that this perspective may be because they are closer—physically and emotionally—to climate change’s impacts than journalists in wealthier countries, many of whom may perceive climate change as a “spatially and temporally distant issue”. 

There are other tensions related to objectivity and independence that journalists are facing, as well. Although many respondents cited the importance of NGO and donor funding, they also expressed a desire for that funding to have fewer strings attached—including thematic and geographic restrictions, budget crunches and impingement on editorial independence—and more often support longer-term financial sustainability rather than one-off projects.  

Where we go from here

The report shares almost 20 specific, concrete recommendations—for journalists, newsrooms, journalist networks and funding organizations—to tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing climate and environmental journalism.

In particular, it identifies a major need for funding organizations to revisit their strategies to more often include provisions to support financial sustainability and longevity of funding, grants without specific (or with less constraining) limitations on topics to allow journalists to cover timely and relevant subjects of their choice, and more. 

Journalists and newsrooms themselves have a role to play here, as well. The study recommends that individual journalists need the support of their newsrooms to specialize in environmental journalism and break down barriers between beats, allowing journalists across the organization to cover climate change and its effects. Given the causes and impacts of climate change are so far-reaching, the report also recommends that all journalists and information providers—no matter their specialty—need to become familiar with the subject and how it is influencing the areas they cover.  

In the survey and interviews, journalists also identified the importance of solutions journalism as a key tool in furthering public understanding and climate action. Only 11% reported that they prioritize solutions reporting in their work, but 72% reported that they report problems and solutions in roughly equal balance. 

The extent to which journalism contributes to amplifying and implementing real-world solutions is an important subject of debate, and points to another intriguing finding from the study.  At a time when journalism must overcome mounting challenges to prove its worth—and remain viable—it’s important to document the crucial role the media does play in helping both individuals and authorities come to informed decisions. With that in mind, EJN makes a concerted effort to try and track the impacts of our support to journalists and newsrooms, and it was heartening to see that 29% of those surveyed—and this included many non-EJN members—claimed their stories had led to government policy changes.

As EJN enters its 20th year of supporting climate and environmental journalism globally, it’s clear we’ve come a long way in our two decades. But this new study reminds us there is still a long way to go. As the report itself concludes on page 90:

“‘Covering the Planet’ in a time of environmental crisis is a privilege and a responsibility. This is crucial and urgent work—and there is much work to be done. This study illustrates a landscape in which many committed professional journalists are striving to tell the stories that matter most, right across the planet. But they are trying to do much, with little. Supporting and amplifying their work in this global moment is essential if we are to enact the transformative change that is so urgently needed.”

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