As climate change begins to have wider and more devastating consequences, climate journalism has never been more urgent. But reporters in this field face a variety of obstacles including the politicization of global warming and public distrust.
Two members of USC Annenberg's community share their insights on this complicated and important topic of modern journalism. Allison Agsten is the director of the USC Center for Climate Journalism and Communication, and journalism student Shreya Agrawal is the editor of the Annenberg Media Earth Desk. Led by our host, journalism major Skye Lee, Agsten and Agrawal discuss underrepresentation in climate news, the complexity of climate reporting, the importance of climate literacy and more.
This episode of "The Annenverse" is hosted and researched by Journalism student Skye Lee. Recorded and edited by Areon Mobasher. Produced by Olivia Mowry. Additional editing by Braulio Hernandez.
Skye Lee: (00:00)
Amidst politics and public distrust, climate change reporting has been greatly underrepresented in the news since it's not necessarily timely or in geographical proximity. It's also hard for scientists to predict. Nonetheless, we need climate change reporting now more than ever. Today we bring in two viewpoints from our USC Annenberg community to discuss the challenges of climate change reporting. I'm your host Sky Lee, and welcome to the Annenverse. Today on this episode, we've brought on Allison Agsten. She is the new lead of the USC Annenberg Center for Climate Journalism and Communications. Thank you, Allison, for being here today.
Allison Agsten: (00:46)
Thank you for having me.
Skye Lee: (00:48)
We also have Sherya Agrawal here. She is the editor for the AnnenbergMedia Earth Desk. Thank you, Sherya.
Shreya Agrawal: (00:53)
Thank you so much.
Skye Lee: (00:55)
So just to lay the groundwork first, do you believe that there's an underrepresentation of climate news and the media?
Allison Agsten: (01:02)
Well, certainly we could use more of it. On the other hand, I have been excited to see a huge growth in the number of journalists that are covering climate, even just in this past year. What I would like to see even more of is journalists who are not on a climate beat integrating climate into their stories.
Skye Lee: (01:20)
Interesting. And how do you think journalists can incorporate climate information into reporting about like food and sports?
Allison Agsten: (01:26)
The sports example — Let's talk about irrigation and professional sports. We can talk about recycling measures taken at stadiums. There's lots of different angles, and I think that even just including visuals in which some of those activities are in play could make a difference. There's a lot of different things — I don't even think it necessarily needs to be a story specifically about climate and sports, but just weaving, weaving climate in a little bit here and there.
Skye Lee: (01:57)
I see. Sherya?
Shreya Agrawal: (01:59)
I think climate does affect all aspects of life. So, I think I totally agree with Allison, but I also feel people sometimes get underrepresented in climate news. Just because we hear a lot about the facts and numbers, but we don't hear enough about the people. People who are being affected by the pollutants in the air. There's people whose homes are getting flooded completely; they don't have places to live. Or they suffer from heat waves. So I think people need to be more of a focus when it comes to climate news.
Skye Lee: (02:31)
Interesting. Do you guys believe that there's a public distrust in the media coverage of climate change?
Shreya Agrawal: (02:37)
I think there is. And I think part of the reason is that climate change has been politicized, even though it shouldn't exactly be a political thing. I mean, I guess in a certain way, it is political just because all of the action that we need to take to solve the climate crisis in the end has to be political, right? It has to be a lot of laws that needs to be passed too, to in order to make huge changes that we obviously need in order to solve the climate crisis. But I also believe that politicians have a way of twisting certain facts in a way that makes it seem the facts aren't real. One thing about science that I feel is very good is that scientists don't claim something before they know it. And politicians kind of use that to say that scientists aren't sure if climate change is caused by humans.
Skye Lee: (03:28)
Right. I think one thing that I read about was that the reason why there's kind of a public distrust in media coverage of climate change is because there is always more research that needs to be done regarding climate change, since it's such a lofty topic that scientists don't necessarily understand the full extent of quite yet. So a lot of the time, scientists can't really verify claims as quick as most people would want it to, and that results in a lot of public distress in the media.
Shreya Agrawal: (04:02)
I think it's more that politicians use the uncertainty that we express in science to say that the science isn't sure about what they're saying. But I think uncertainty comes with every single scientific prowess because we cannot be sure about every single thing. But I think for politicians, you need to give them hard facts without uncertainty in order for them to, you know, take that forward. But that just isn't how science operates.
Skye Lee: (04:30)
You mentioned that in most areas of topics there's scientific uncertainty, but why do you think that it particularly happens with like climate change and why do you think there's such a gap between the scientific uncertainty in climate change and policymaking?
Shreya Agrawal: (04:45)
As scientists, we always wanna remain true to what we put out in the world. And when we say that we don't understand how much of the variability caused by human sources, natural variability, politicians can just take it as something that we're not certain about. Even though there is a lot of evidence that yes, humans have contributed to the immense amount of carbon emissions in the air, and that does in the end increase global warming that causes a lot of extreme climate events. But it's hard to explain that to politicians when we don't know enough about it ourselves, right?
Allison Agsten: (05:21)
Well, speaking of certainty, I think there actually is a great deal of certainty at this point and that that that margin of uncertainty is just narrowing and narrowing.
Skye Lee: (05:31)
Sure. I wanna go back to your point about how the uncertainty of the severity of climate change results in politicians making unverified claims. Like how can we bridge that gap so that politicians are more educated about it and they're not saying things that aren't true?
Shreya Agrawal: (05:48)
I'll just go back to what I've been saying: I don't think climate change needs to be political. I think climate action is obviously political, but I don't think climate change, the science needs to be informed by politics at all. And I think that's what's causing this discrepancy in what scientists and politicians believe. It cannot only be a democratic issue. If it affects all of the people around the country, then it doesn't make sense if 50% of the politicians believe or say that climate change isn't real, right?
Skye Lee: (06:19)
Exactly. I kind of wanted to shift the conversation to talk more about the intersection between the influence of interest groups in the reporting of climate change. They have a lot of big companies have stakes in like the oil industry, automobile industry, and real estate. And talking about climate change can obviously hurt their businesses. So what do you guys think about this? Like how can we combat this issue?
Shreya Agrawal: (06:47)
The main philosophy of capitalism is there is an unbounded number of resources available. And I believe that in order to actually be a sustainable planet, the idea of a corporation just needs to be different. I think it needs to be a bit more democratic in the sense that everybody gets access to the resources that are publicly available, that we should all have access to anyway. Like no one gets to just take over — I mean, from what I've been reading, it's like a hundred companies that have caused 70% of the carbon emissions on the planet. And I just believe that it should be a bit more — I mean, corporations need to be just a bit more balanced and not just take over a lot of resources. So I just feel that corporations need to realize the responsibility that they have in terms of not only carbon emissions, but resource consumption. And that, I don't have an answer for that. I don't have an answer for how it needs to be changed, but I do know that there needs to be some kind of like mental change in how we think about resources and sustainability.
Skye Lee: (07:57)
For sure. And I read this article by the Center for Journalism Ethics where the author said that climate literacy along with digital literacy should be required for journalists since the warming of the planet affects so many aspects of our lives. So what do you guys think about that?
Allison Agsten: (08:13)
Skye Lee: (08:14)
Allison Agsten: (08:14)
Let's do it!
Skye Lee: (08:15)
Allison Agsten: (08:16)
I mentioned a training program that I'm working on right now with ABC journalists. They come from eight different markets, about 25 of them. None of them are climate reporters. The idea is not to transform them into climate reporters. The idea is to support their climate knowledge, bring in some experts that they might even be able to call on later in their stories, so that any of them can report on climate change. You will hear people say, now, as Shreya said earlier, that all stories are climate stories. And in journalism we sometimes say all reporters are climate reporters. They either are or they will need to be.
Shreya Agrawal: (08:58)
As I said earlier too, I think climate change affects every single aspect of life. And that's why I started my desk because I felt there's a really important need for having more climate journalists, but also making journalists feel comfortable reporting data, reporting science, but also just reporting on climate change. Because a lot of journalists just shy away from it. Partly because they feel it's too hard of a topic to cover. And I want to make them feel that it is hard to cover, but it's also necessary to cover it. So I think the goal is to just start small, start covering the local stories around you. Because there's always a climate story around you. So that's, I think, my goal. Just, if we have more of these like local climate journalism centers, I think that would really help, you know, just proliferate the climate journalism network.
Skye Lee: (09:54)
Of course. What you guys are working on right now, it's definitely a step in the right direction. Can you guys kind of speak on how reporting on climate change can make a difference in sparking change within the community and within society?
Shreya Agrawal: (10:06)
I think just having more of this information out there about what companies are doing, holding them accountable and what politicians are doing. That definitely helps inform people about climate issues. And the more coverage people see about climate change, the more they read about it, I think it definitely sparks something inside them. Even if they are climate deniers, even if they were climate deniers in the past, just reading about it, seeing it everywhere, I think it does spark something. In the end, I think we need voters to be more informed by climate issues. So when these things come to the ballot, they can actually make a change and make sure climate action happens on like a global scale.
Allison Agsten: (10:51)
I think in addition to these outlets that you mentioned, local coverage is absolutely vital. We cannot afford to imagine that climate change just happens when there's an enormous flood in Pakistan, or when the permafrost thaws in the Arctic. We have to understand that climate change is happening in our own communities. So I really believe that local news is a big part of the answer to this question: Teaching meteorologists how to access resources that can help them connect extreme weather with climate change and really back it up with science, with data. And the kind of stories that we were talking about earlier. Talking about how, you know, food is cultivated in different communities. How has that changed over the years? Is it drier? Is it wetter? Is it colder? Is it hotter? Let's help climate journalists learn how to make those connections in their own neighborhoods.
Skye Lee: (11:51)
Do you think that all climate change reporting necessarily has to be about advocating for change? "Oh, look at, like, look at our earth right now. There's global warming!" Or could it be — could it also include stories that are a bit more positive and hopeful? How can we find like the balance between like positive and negative, like climate change reporting?
Shreya Agrawal: (12:09)
I mean, I see a lot of positive climate change stories out there every single day, because even with the COP27 talks, we saw a historic fund that was established for loss and damage, which had never even been talked about before. It was the first time they talked about it, and it was the first time they actually decided to, you know, establish a fund. So I think there's a lot of positive stuff going on there. But that doesn't mean we just stop talking about what the effects of climate change are. I think while we have to motivate people and show them that, yes, there are people talking about it, there are people taking action on climate change — we also need to show them that we are not done yet. We need so much more to be able to fight this climate crisis. So I think there definitely needs to be some positive talk so that people aren't just depressed and sitting in their homes being like, "Nothing's happening about climate change." But we also need to show the other side that this battle isn't over yet.
Allison Agsten: (13:05)
Climate stories can't just be doom and gloom. They also can't be all fun and games. As somebody who is particularly interested on the visualization of climate change, nothing maddens me more than like, you know, hearing about a historic and deadly heat wave that's visualized in the media with pictures of people frolicking on the beach. So, you know, there's a way that we can go in the wrong direction with all of this too.
Skye Lee: (13:30)
How can climate change reporters walk that fine line between motivating people to make a change within their community to combat climate change without interjecting too much of their opinion in the story?
Shreya Agrawal: (13:44)
Everyone comes in with an opinion. And I just think that that's the reason journalism even exists because we want to share the stories that we think are important. And that itself, choosing the stories that we think are important is an opinion. We need to stand up for the people who are fighting the climate change battle against these huge corporations and governments.
Allison Agsten: (14:05)
I would say to journalists who are trying to walk this line to bring your data and bring your precedence. You can prove that climate change is happening and you can also show that there are ways that communities can increase their resilience. And whether you're a journalist, an activist, we should really be looking back as much as we look forward to see what has worked in the past so that we can, um, push that work forward.
Skye Lee: (14:34)
And just to kind of wrap things up, how do you hope you can impact climate change in journalism through the desk and the center that you guys are both part of?
Shreya Agrawal: (14:43)
Well, as I said, I just want to encourage more people to be a part of the desk and to look at the climate stories that are around us, not only on this campus, but in the city. And if we just start out here, then we can probably like spread over and encourage other people to have like local climate news centers that can encourage more local climate coverage. And I think every single person comes with a certain amount of passions when they come to journalism and they just need to find the climate link to those passions to be able to cover those stories.
Allison Agsten: (15:20)
For me, I think it's a top priority to be able to support students like Sherya and also journalists who are out in the field right now, just increasing their comfort level with telling these stories. I would love to be able to see in five years that the types of trainings that we're doing with organizations like ABC have led to increased coverage on climate in those stations.
Skye Lee: (15:43)
Where can we find more about your guys' work for the center and for the desk?
Allison Agsten: (15:46)
For the center, you can go to climate center.usc.edu
Shreya Agrawal: (15:52)
And you can find us on USC AnnenbergMedia, if you go to one of the options panel, you'll be able to find Earth under there.
Skye Lee: (16:01)
Okay. Perfect. Thank you guys so much.
Shreya Agrawal: (16:03)
Allison Agsten: (16:04)
Thanks for having us.