NATURE PODCAST

Backchat: Covering Climate Now

Benjamin Thompson hosts our regular roundtable discussion, with guests Helen Pearson, Lizzy Brown, and Ehsan Masood.

In this month’s roundtable, our panel discusses the Covering Climate Now project, language choice in climate change stories, and what makes a good climate image.

In this episode:

00:44 A global media collaboration

This week, Nature is taking part in the Covering Climate Now project. What is it and why has Nature joined? Editorial: Act now and avert a climate crisis

05:49 ‘Climate change’ vs ‘climate emergency’

In early 2019, The Guardian changed the wording they use when covering climate stories. Our panel discusses the importance of phrasing, and how it evolves. The Guardian: Why the Guardian is changing the language it uses about the environment

13:40 Choosing climate images

What makes a good image for a climate change story? What do they add to a written news story?

This episode of the Backchat is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 media outlets to highlight the issue of climate change.

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Transcript

In this month’s roundtable, our panel discusses the Covering Climate Now project, language choice in climate change stories, and what makes a good climate image.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Hello, and welcome back to our roundtable discussion show Backchat, where we look at the stories behind the stories here at Nature. On this edition of the show, we’ll be talking climate change, discussing a worldwide joint publishing project, the importance of language and how we can use images to tell a story. I’m Benjamin Thompson and joining me in the studio are Helen Pearson…

Helen Pearson

Hi, I’m Helen Pearson. I’m Chief Magazine Editor for Nature.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Lizzy Brown…

Lizzy Brown

Hi, I’m Lizzy Brown. I’m the Managing Media Editor for Nature.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And Ehsan Masood.

Ehsan Masood

Hi, I’m Ehsan Masood and I look after editorials, Africa and the Middle East.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Coming up in the show, we’ll be chatting about the evolving use of words used when reporting climate stories. How might language affect people’s views on the subject? Firstly though, this week Nature is taking part in a project called Covering Climate Now. Helen, as Nature’s Chief Magazine Editor, you’ve been leading on Nature’s involvement. What can you tell me about Covering Climate Now and what it hopes to achieve?

Helen Pearson

Yes, so Covering Climate Now is a really interesting project which is a group of many media outlets from around the world all collaborating together and committing to have one week of intensive coverage of climate change in the week leading up to the UN climate summit in New York on 23 September.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

If that’s what the project is, how did Nature get involved in the first instance?

Helen Pearson

Our involvement really started back in early June when I got an email from an environmental journalist called Mark Hertsgaard, who’s written for a long time about climate change, telling us about the project. I thought it was intriguing. I took it to the Nature team and said do we want to be part of this effort and there was really universal enthusiasm from the editors to be part of this. When we signed up, which I think was in August, there were about 60 media outlets around the world taking part. Now, there are over 220 with a combined audience of over 1 billion in total, so it’s just a very unusual and ambitious effort to raise the volume of news and the quality as well around climate change.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

An ambitious project, no doubt. Is this something that Nature has done before?

Helen Pearson

Not in my memory, no. We’ve obviously collaborated with one or two media outlets perhaps in the past, and we’ve collaborated with our sister magazine Scientific American, so smaller projects, but nothing on this scale that I recall anyway.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, lots of media organisations taking part in Covering Climate Now – over 220, as you say, at time of recording. Who are they and what’s the benefit of us all working together?

Helen Pearson

There’s a really impressive array of media outlets taking part, so we’ve got major newspapers, most of the biggest public radio stations in the US, online outlets HuffPost, BuzzFeed, Vanity Fair, and also all around the world, so countries from Turkey to India are taking part. So, as I said, quite unusual to have that array of organisations. So, I think it adds just this kind of energy to the debate, which is anyway, I think, happening, and I’m sure the others here would agree with me. So, for example, the youth movement that’s taking place around climate at the moment has also injected this kind of new energy into the debate and perhaps an urgency and interestingly, Covering Climate Now is happening at exactly the same time as a series of worldwide climate strikes which is being led by that youth movement. So, there’s a lot happening this week and collectively I think we can make more of a difference than we can on our own.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, certainly an impressive list there but it’s not an exhaustive list, I would say. There are a lot of sort of national broadcasters, but there’s not every national broadcaster, and clearly, we’re trying to tip the balance for the signal to noise ratio in favour of as many people seeing this as possible. Does that lack of having everybody involved potentially weaken the message? Are we preaching to the choir maybe? Are we missing out on a group of people that maybe need to be exposed to the message?

Helen Pearson

I don’t know that the point of this effort or the goal or ambition is necessarily that we are going to convert people who have a strong disbelief, shall we say, of climate science. Nature probably is not read by those people and I don’t think us producing more climate stories in this particular week is going to make any difference to that. I do think that with so many outlets taking part at the same time, that gives you a volume and a level around this conversation about this incredibly important issue which just wouldn’t happen otherwise.

Ehsan Masood

I would say I suspect they probably do read Nature and for many reasons. I suspect they would read it just to know what the consensus of the community would be even if they don’t necessarily themselves believe in what that consensus might be, but it’s a little bit like, if I can phrase it this way, knowing your enemy almost, or what some might regard as being the enemy. I think that’s an issue and I think it will be really interesting to see when we get closer to the time whether there are some ‘converts’ because the scale of activity, particularly Helen, as you were saying, in response to the young people, to the youth movements, is really affecting and it’s going in places we wouldn’t perhaps normally expect. So, I think we might be in for some surprises, I’m hoping we might be in for some surprises.

Helen Pearson

What’s interesting is just the fact that so many media are coming together is new in itself. So, some outlets like The Guardian have already published and we will be publishing an explanation of why we’re taking part, and so I hope that might also attract attention. I do think it’s really important for a journal and a magazine, which is what Nature is, to take part in something like this. We’re not just passive conduits for the science. We do publish obviously really important research which has influenced the debate about climate change, but we also really care about how that science is used in society. Otherwise, why are we here and I think that us being part of that really shows that. We don’t necessarily have all of the answers but we do stand by the science and want the world to act on the science.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Let’s move on to our second topic for this edition of Backchat, and we’ll be talking about words and messaging when it comes to reporting on climate stories. This has been something of an ongoing topic. Earlier this year, the Guardian, a national newspaper here in the UK, changed the wording they use, and now, for example, use ‘climate emergency’ rather than ‘climate change’ in their articles, and go for ‘global heating’ rather than ‘global warming’. Ehsan, language is evolving all the time. What sort of experience do you have of being part of discussions like these?

Ehsan Masood

Well, I take myself back to my reporting days in the early- to mid-1990s. I used to work here in the news teams. We had to be quite careful because we were writing principally for the community of scientists and so up until the mid- to late-90s there was still debate about the human fingerprint on climate change and global warming. So, as reporters, we had to preface our description by saying anthropogenic if we had a news story particularly we were writing about climate change, we would have to say anthropogenic because within the community there was still a debate. Now, that debate has ended and I moved on and wasn’t working here and that doesn’t happen anymore so the language evolves as the information changes and that applies to those of us who are communicating and as much as it applies to those who are practitioners.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Do you think that having to use a particular phrase focuses a reporter’s mind as much as maybe it does a reader who is reading it later on?

Ehsan Masood

Accuracy is the sort of critical thing here and context also matters. So, for example, if you take a phrase like ‘climate emergency’ and in terms of doing things, I think it is right to use phrases like ‘climate now’ and ‘climate emergency’, but if we’re describing a particular natural phenomenon, if we’re describing some new finding in temperature increase or if we’re describing some new aspect of climate models, for example, then we wouldn’t necessarily need to use a phrase like climate emergency, so I think context is really important in language.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

But with that context do you think we risk losing objectivity? I mean when do we stray into activism? By using these words ‘emergency’ or ‘crisis’, do you then change your editorial line and maybe lose the neutrality and does that risk alienating people as well, do you think?

Ehsan Masood

No, I wouldn’t say so. I think the consensus of all the disciplinary communities now is that we are entering a situation which could be called a crisis. It’s interesting that Nature back in 1979 published a two-page commentary from Michael Glantz, then of Boulder, Colorado, and he was summing up the state of knowledge then, which was that we could get 1-4°C of warming by the middle of the 21st century, not a million miles off from what we know now. And he was saying then that as a member of the research community that this could potentially become a crisis if you don’t do something about it, so even many decades ago in the early part of this story, that word was being used within the pages of Nature by members of Nature’s communities.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And that is maybe then in that case a research term and we know that a lot of our readers and viewers and listeners are researchers. Where do you all think the balance lies between using wording that researchers use and think is correct and maybe words that non-researchers use and are used to?

Helen Pearson

I think that it depends, as Ehsan was saying, in which context we’re writing. We publish original research and obviously that will be the scientific norms, the scientific language that those researchers want to write. When we’re writing news pieces or editorials or commentaries, which are aimed to be understandable by all disciplines, by the scientific community and beyond, by science stakeholders, then we try and use the simplest language that we can and language which will be understood and make its point. I mean I think at the moment, our take across all of those is that we would rather stick with the scientific norms which are generally using the terms around climate change. It would be interesting to know actually what evidence there is that changing the language to something like an emergency is likely to lead to more action, right, that’s the question. But if you think about, for example, the Ebola crisis in Africa where it’s a very, very big deal when the WHO decided to say that was a public health emergency, but that’s because associated with that change of terminology, there also comes a particular action plan and funding and so on and so forth, but we can’t necessarily say that of changing the language around climate change, although obviously, if it starts to sort of just bleed into everyone’s understanding that this no longer just a passive change – it’s an emergency. But how much does that make a difference to the debate, the global debate and the discussions which are going on in the UN? I don’t think we actually have the evidence to know that.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

If we can bring it back to style and phrasing, an organisation’s style guide, is the kind of the Bible, if you will, for the words and phrases that they use. How does Nature make decisions on its style and what would have to be done if it was to be changed?

Helen Pearson

So, Nature has a style guide which, as you said, is a kind of Bible of how we refer to things for all of our different types of content, and that is constantly being updated as language evolves, just as we have discussed, and sometimes we have arguments about it, about a sense that language has moved on or our style guide hasn’t moved on and also it’s very difficult when you’re an international publication because what’s the norm in language in one country might not be in others and ours tends to be quite British because those are our origins. So, when we were talking about something like climate change or climate emergency, which I think is making quite a statement, I mean I think we would have quite a serious conversation amongst senior editors about whether that was a change that we were willing to make. If it’s smaller changes then I think those would be updated and sometimes we’ll have a focus on an entirely sort of specific area where we just feel like we need to refresh our language, so it’s an ongoing process.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

We talk about changes then and I think maybe at the moment The Guardian is relatively alone in using ‘climate emergency’ – certainly not every outlet has shifting into doing that. When the world does change though and things become the norm, do we change with it? When we’re looking at our word usage, do we lead, do we follow? There seems to be such a push at the moment. What do you think it would take for any alterations to occur?

Helen Pearson

I think it would come ultimately from the scientific community, which really is such an important part of our voice and what we publish, and so, for example, if a scientist wants to publish with us at the moment, and we’ve actually got pieces coming out in climate week, where people with roots in the scientific community or scientists themselves are deciding to use, for example, ‘climate crisis’ or ‘climate catastrophe’ in what they want to publish with us. We’re not going to change that – that’s their words. But if we were to have a more formal change across the board, I think that would be more of a discussion which we would have to decide, but ultimately, we very much do reflect the terminology and want to reflect what scientists feel is appropriate so I think it would probably be something which was working hand in hand with the conversation that’s happening within science.

Ehsan Masood

It would be quite interesting, for example, if, so the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the main body of scientists who investigate and make predictions around climate change, they’ve been going for 30 years now, I think it would be interesting to see whether the discussion that we’re having is also being replicated in their meetings and similarly, predating them is the World Climate Research Programme. That was started in 1980 and that’s still going as well. So, partly, as Helen says, if we start to see change in those organisations which are the main bodies that represent the researchers who work in climate change, then we’re obviously going to have to start to see where that leads us.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

For our final topic today, let’s move away from words and talk about the images that are used when reporting on climate stories. In many cases, I think the shortcut, maybe the stereotype, if you will, is to use images of sad looking polar bears or people enjoying the sun at the beach when we’re talking about the planet warming. Is it time to move away from these, do we think, or do they still have value? Maybe before we get into that though, Lizzy, you’re the Managing Media Editor here. How does Nature go about selecting images that go with stories in the first place and why do we use them at all?

Lizzy Brown

Well, we choose images that are obviously scientifically accurate to go with our scientifically accurate articles, and we try and choose pictures that are emotionally impactful to ensure that our articles make a connection with our readers, which photographs do better than graphics and diagrams.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, I’ve been doing a bit of back of the envelope research on this and looking up sort of pictures related to climate change and it seems that because some of the actual mechanisms are actually really subtle,it’s hard to have a picture of carbon dioxide, it’s invisible, you have to show chimneys or pictures from space, we see a lot of those, but that seems quite abstracted to me and maybe misses the impacts on humanity, but however, if you just show pictures of people, maybe you miss the global aspects of the problem. Where do we think that the line is for these and what are you looking for when you’re looking for a sort of powerful climate-related image?

Lizzy Brown

Well, I think to make that emotional connection, showing the impacts on people is really important, especially in countries where they don’t have the resources to battle climate change that other countries do and countries that don’t contribute much to the carbon footprint tend to be the ones that are impacted most by it. So, using pictures of people from those communities can help readers see the impact of climate change around the world.

Ehsan Masood

One thing that I think has changed, in terms of images, just the way, Lizzy, in you and your team when you work, is that we now have so many more readers in places that we didn’t have in previous times and many more readers in countries, as you were saying, more affected by climate change, and so in a way, reflecting those readers and their images and their daily existence and the threats and the risks and the challenges and the joys and the highs and the lows is, in a sense, one of the really positive ways in which image journalism has changed from, and I don’t want to downplay the polar bears and the pandas because that too has its place, having a bigger, broader, global readership has given us those opportunities.

Helen Pearson

Lizzy, how much discussion would there be around what type of climate image we would show, let’s say, as a lede image in one of our big stories?

Lizzy Brown

If it’s a very general story about climate change, well, we’ll cast a very wide net and get in as many photos as possible. Between us and the editors, we’ll choose which picture has the most relevance to the story and has the most impact on readers. We try to avoid really clichéd images, the sort of images that we’ve all seen a million times, and try to show people the more unusual angles and unexpected effects of climate change.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, Nature has a lot of content coming out this week that’s climate related, and there’ll be dozens, hundreds of images I’m sure. Which one maybe has stood out to you the most as being sort of very powerful or very moving?

Lizzy Brown

So, there’s a series of photos in Bangladesh which shows the coastal erosion that’s happening there, and there’s a picture of a husband and a wife, I believe, and they are literally moving their front door away from the coast, so the sea or the river has come up to the edge of their property and they’ve dismantled all the walls and that’s the effect – the most impoverished people in the world are having to literally up sticks and move their homes because of climate change.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah, certainly sounds like a powerful image. Opening it out a bit wider though, what are we hoping that images like this will provide for our readers?

Helen Pearson

As editors, I just think it’s really amazing when you’re behind the scenes because often we start with the words and, for example, I’ll see the article come through just as words and it will be refined in the editing process and turned into something beautiful, but the day it lands back on your desk with the layout, with the images attached, is when it actually becomes an article which is going to make an impact. It’s just transformative. It just allows the words to really speak. The images and words together are actually what makes an article, in my opinion.

Lizzy Brown

I think an image that everyone remembers is the image of the seahorse holding the cotton bud. That was shared widely on social media and it really began a discussion about single-use plastics and that was taken in 2017, and since then, certainly in the UK, we’re seeing companies and businesses completely change their attitude to single-use plastics. So, that’s an example of a single image creating conversation and having an actual impact on policy.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, there we have it for another edition of Backchat, and all that remains is for me to thank my guests, Helen Pearson, Lizzy Brown and Ehsan Masood, for joining me today. You can find everything that Nature is publishing as part of Covering Climate Now over at nature.com. This has been Backchat. I’ve been Benjamin Thompson. Thanks for listening.