If you work in local news, you see it in your metrics: the erosion of the audience for news. Any conversation about sustainability has to address the root causes of this trend, two of which are declining trust in media and active avoidance of news.

The latest Gallup poll on media trust released in October found that 38% of Americans said they had “no trust or confidence in the media.” Meanwhile, a Reuters Digital News Report in 2022 found that 42% of Americans surveyed said they actively avoid the news, and more than a third cited the negative slant of news as the main reason.

News leaders looking to address these root causes can learn lessons from a surprising source: those leading the effort to communicate the science of climate change.

There are notable parallels. Both journalists and scientists have come under attack as trusted institutions. Misinformation has become rampant in the news ecosystem in general, and especially around climate science. Communicators in each field have been challenged to find new and more effective ways to connect with audiences as polarization has divided communities.

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and is considered one of the pre-eminent climate scientists in the U.S. Her TED talk on communicating climate science has earned millions of views. She recently visited with the 50 local newsrooms in the LMA Covering Climate Collaborative and her insights around connecting with audiences are directly relevant to any news organization seeking to strengthen trust and connection in their communities.

Hayhoe described three transformational changes that build trust and engage audiences. First, focus on local. Second, communicate solutions and effective actions, not just the problems. Third, communicate in ways that connect with the “heart and hand, not just the head.”

Hayhoe noted that at the local level, politics and polarization fade, and the direct personal effects of issues like climate change are both more noticeable and more relevant.

“We want to bring the issues close to home,” Hayhoe said. “Not the polar bears, but my kids. Not Antarctica, but my home or my city. That’s where [local journalists] come in. We have to connect the head to the heart and bring it close, geographically.”

Another lesson from communicating about climate change for journalists is the lesson about reporting only on problems, versus problems plus solutions. As the Reuters study shows, large portions of the news audience now actively avoid otherwise trustworthy journalism because of negativity.

“I think of it like two sides of the coin: We have to understand the risk, obviously. But we also have to understand the reward of action. Some people are so fixated on the risks [of climate change] that, if we talk about risk 99% of the time and we talk about the rewards of action 1% of the time, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you’re so positive. You’re giving people false hope.’ Well, you’re giving them no hope. And without any hope, we’re never going to do anything,” said Hayhoe.

Hayhoe’s advice? “We have to balance peril with promise. Alongside the grim realities we face, we need to tell positive stories about people who are making a difference from every single walk of life,” she said. “It’s not the presidents or the prime ministers. It’s somebody like me, somebody who lives near me, somebody who wants to make a difference. Those are the people who actually make a difference. There’s so much power in telling those stories, and I think that is the antidote to our despair.”

Agency also matters, Hayhoe said. Giving people information about the specific actions they can personally take leads to a higher level of audience engagement.

“We also have to share … the heart and the hands. We have to talk about what we can do. When we do that, that’s when people feel empowered, and that’s when action results.”

Hayhoe noted that research shows “people are willing to do something if they think what they do will make a difference and if they know what to do.” What differentiates those concerned about climate change from those who are activated is that the activated understand what to do – effective actions they can personally take, Hayhoe said.

Leaders in local journalism can take these lessons from climate science communicators and apply them to their own practices.

  • What is the effect of our journalism on our audiences? Does it leave them discouraged? Or empowered?
  • What is the responsibility of journalists to pair problem-reporting with solutions and effective responses?
  • Should journalists consider not only what they are reporting, but how, and whether their reporting gives communities agency?

These are vital conversations to have in our local newsrooms if we hope to engage with and be trusted by our audiences.