It’s been a bad-news summer for climate change. From the “code red for humanity” headline from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report to a summer filled with heat waves, drought, wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding, the effects of climate change are here, now and local.
But research shows audiences may disengage from news — from climate change to coronavirus reporting — that’s entirely negative. For example, a Reuters/Oxford study found 48 percent of respondents said they avoid the news because it’s too negative.
News organizations committed to informing and empowering their audiences on critical issues like climate change should include not only reporting on problems but responses and solutions to those problems, according to Keith Hammond, president of the Solutions Journalism Network. Hammond recently spoke with the 22 newsrooms in LMA’s Covering Climate Collaborative, who’ve all committed to partnering with SJN to incorporate solutions reporting to better engage with and empower their local audiences.
“It is a response to the traditional tendency in the news business to overweight the negative, to tell us stories about what’s wrong, what’s broken, what’s corrupt, without completing the picture,” Hammond said. “So, the result is that the news stream most of us see is overwhelmingly bad news.”
Audiences crave and engage with reporting focused on effective responses to problems, not just the problems themselves, according to a survey by SmithGeiger. The study found 79 percent of respondents said it was either “important” or “essential” to include solutions in reporting. Evidence suggests that stories with a solutions-angle can reach larger audiences. If people think something can be done about a problem, they are more receptive to the information.
The story, explained reporter Peter Fairely, “looks at the need to share renewable power over much longer distances [than was necessary before] to ensure that regions can share wind and solar surpluses as well as the hydropower ‘stored’ in reservoirs.”
InvestigateWest’s in-depth look at the grid and solutions for becoming more resilient in the face of climate change has clearly resonated with readers.
“We’ve had multiple readers write to thank us for explaining the grid,” said Fairely, along with “one energy policy veteran [who] told me he was completely unaware that the dozens of wind farms built along the Columbia River Gorge had fenced Native Americans out of lands where they forage for traditional foods and medicines.”
Additionally, in August, ABC15 in Arizona reported on “ASU testing new material to make Tempe bus stops cooler.” As temperatures continue to soar with climate change, finding shade and refuge from the heat is becoming harder. That’s why, ABC15 reports, researchers are testing a “specific film on top of the roof that reflects the sun’s energy upward. It also radiates the heat from the roof’s surface up into space, making it feel cooler underneath the stop.” So far, the results have been promising.
And in San Francisco, ABC7 looked at “How Bay Area researchers are using plants, like switchgrass, to fight climate change.” Researchers are working to use plants’ root systems to help hide carbon dioxide and other pollutants deep underground. In fact, grasslands could be as good if not better and carbon sequestration than forests, according to the reporting, since forests are increasingly at risk from wildfires, whereas the carbon absorbed by grasses can be trapped in the soil.
“What we are learning is that watchdog reporting is absolutely important but if that’s all we do we turn people off,” said SJN’s Hammonds. “And there isn’t that powerful crystallization into action.”
“We’re talking about a shift from a pure watchdog role to a guide dog,” he continued. “In addition to uncovering what’s wrong, we also uncover potential responses, ways we can act to change what’s wrong. … When we do that, we shift the way people engage with news and we heighten accountability. When we introduce solutions, we are proving that problems can be solved.”