Who writes these headlines anyway?
Or, climate essayists, try harder, + photorolls of life lately
I recognize the irony in writing a critique of the first-person climate essay in a newsletter that is one giant first-person climate essay. And here I go.
In the early aughts, me-journalism swelled to explosive expository heights. Partly it was the influence of blogging — to keep up, newspapers scurried to hire cheap young writers to fill all their column inches with sentences that began with the letter “I.” It was charming and insufferable and would have been fine if there were money enough to keep the foreign news bureaus open, too. But there was not. So it was vexing. And still is. Because, as real reportage and editing wanes, the lazy essay (as opposed to the non-lazy essay!) remains.
While anecdata is merely annoying in a girl-on-the-town piece, its effects are downright existential in the world of climate me-journalism, where one writer’s experience with some charging infrastructure can deter hundreds of people from making the switch to an electric vehicle.
A few weeks ago I read this piece by the Globe and Mail reporter David Berman and it made my blood boil. Just thinking about it again ups my body temperature anew (good? less heating required!). I should say that Berman writes often about EVs, and his writing is generally decent. But this piece, about a midwinter Toronto-to-Montreal journey in his EV and the attendant grumbling from his family, is off. Berman writes about the slowness of the journey, and cold-weather charging, and his family being annoyed with him. The first and last sound like every road trip with my kids. And he buries the fact that the trip saved him $150.
Journalists are, by disposition, contarians. But this kind of superficial reportage has truly harmful effect, so I call it out to articulate why and how journalists must do better. Of course we don’t want to censor journalists. We DO want them to be mindful of the power of their words, and write about their personal experiences in a way that wraps in lots more perspective and market reportage. My sister and brother-in-law make the same trek often, with nary a glitch.
Climate bothsideism is increasingly the purview of deniers these days, but energy transition friction sans facts is almost as bad, or maybe even worse if you consider the predisposition of the people inclined to read what passes for reputable journalism.
We are going through an energy transformation. There will be pain points. But airing a pain point without pointing to the much larger story is junk journalism, because people will cling to it. Just as a food critic can sabotage a new resto with a mincing review, a lazy journalist can deter a reader from making a choice that will affect twenty years of emissions with a single, hastily written rant. Which is infinitely more harmful than a mediocre meal. I worry journalists are little aware of the carbon emissions implications of their work, and held to less stringent standard than the near-extinct restaurant critic. If the food reviewer tries the restaurant three times before weighing in on the crudo, the biz journalist ought to do at least as much work before filing a story about a bad charging experience.
Availability bias means we grab the stickiest information near to us and cobble together our worldview. It’s a pretty loose way to make decisions. And it explains why journalists must exercise greater thoughtfulness in this time of climate emergency.
Take this example: a well-meaning friend told me she saw a story about bad batteries in Le Monde. (I could not find this story, btw!). What about batteries being bad? She could not quite remember. It was just the sticky headline that stuck, leading her to believe the EV decision was murkier than it is. It’s not! There’s no murk here! Zero murk whatsoever! An electric world means we’ll mine 80% less. With lots more innovation (hello, sand batteries!) on the way. Are there problems? YES, OF COURSE. Kids mining cobalt is all kinds of horrible. And yes, it’s better to not drive than to drive, absolutely. But, a flippant headline steered someone to an ICE vehicle instead of an EV. That’s absolutely bananas.
Need more? My husband’s uncle mentioned that heat pumps are just not great tech, citing a friend who got one … in the 1990s. In other words, bad stuff sticks, good stuff wicks. Journalists need to account for this.
Hot headlines hurt
Does this mean that journos have to err on the side of blanket positivity to compensate? Surely not. But they’ve got to work harder. These days, many journalists don’t write their own headlines—the work of pagination is outsourced to large companies. Or search engine optimized by audience editors. This means that the headline is written to compel clicks. And if there’s even a hint of battery both sidesism, you can bet that will be the headline. If it bleeds, it leads. If it’s about critical mining, you know they’ll be opining! I’ll stop now.
Is it activism? is the wrong question
Journalists bend over backwards to be seen as impartial for fear of being labelled activisty. Or they’re chastised by editorial brass for being too activisty and writing about climate too much. But this is the wrong question to ask first. Because at the most basic levels, we’re failing. And basic understanding of what’s at stake, and how to write about it on a beat, is a prerequisite for better climate journalism. This is not about the climate desk. It’s about the rest of newsroom, which needs to have enough fluency to prioritize and contextualize climate stories. Says Oxford Climate Journalism Network co-founder Wolfgang Blau:
The second big challenge is the lack of climate literacy in most newsrooms. We expect a sports journalist, certainly the leader of a sports desk, to know the basic rules of how their country’s election system works. Just like you’d expect a political journalist to not be completely ignorant of your country’s most popular sports. In newsrooms, these things are considered general education. Typically, though, we don’t view climate literacy as general education yet. And I really mean the basics: What is the natural greenhouse effect and how does it work in broad terms? What are the main sources of CO2 and what does it do to the climate? What is the world’s remaining approximate carbon budget to keep global warming under 1.5 or 2 degrees? This kind of basic climate literacy needs to be established across all teams of a news organization so that a news desk editor or other editors across any desk can understand the relevance of a specific climate story or of a climate aspect within their own subject matter area.
Status quo biases the bylines
Baked into the frameworks we operate from is an implicit status quo bias. The lack of newsroom diversity doesn’t reflect the world around us, and tends to uphold foundational stories that conform to the legacy publications themselves (she’s the Gray Lady for a reason!). There’s a measured air, even as many publications have adopted phrases like “climate emergency” in recent years. Which means that the grave import of what can seem like a lighthearted first-person essay presented as a market trend may not register for many a journalist. This drives me bonkers because we truly are in an emergency, and this work must be undertaken with much more rigour and care.
How can journalists do better?
More research, less reflexivity. No first-personing without the finest facts.
Point to the overall market transition. A singular story can exist (and should! especially the positive ones of people doing neat, new climate things!) within the context of a larger sweep of change. But context cannot be a lazy nod to facts in the second to last graf.
Highlight energy transition friction only if it is widespread. One dodgy installer does not a trend piece make. Every new technology has friction. Some friction is more important. Coverage of friction in delivery of the latest iPhone is different than coverage of energy transition friction, and yet even there, journalists give a pass to the bugs that greet every new product that comes to market, because overall they are excited about this new, cool thing. This isn’t about hiding truths or being activisty — it’s about contextualizing the gravity of a situation.
Explain, explain, explain. From the Reuters Institute 2023 trends report:
We find evidence that most publishers (72%) are worried about increasing news avoidance – especially around important but often depressing topics like Ukraine and climate change – with only 12% not worried. Publishers say they plan to counter this with explainer content (94%), Q&A formats (87%), and inspirational stories (66%) considered important or very important this year. Producing more positive news (48%) was a less popular response.
And remember, we are in an emergency. It’s not activism to address this and reframe our messages accordingly. If I felt like getting a tattoo, high up on my list would be these indelible words from De La Soul: Stakes is high. If I felt like getting another tattoo, it would be: cookie.
What are you seeing in the media where you are? Let a curmudgeon know!
Last planet: treetop thoughts
Thank you for all your incredible thoughts. Writes L:
I grapple conceptually with urban trees. I love them. I mourn their loss in my neighbourhood. It sometimes feels that there's a tradeoff between urban sprawl with urban trees vs. densification + fewer urban trees.
I live in a mature neighbourhood (a former traditional suburb now a 15 minute neighbourhood in Ottawa), and the old, small houses with large backyards are routinely torn down for bigger dwelling footprints but often with more families in the dwelling. I struggle to appreciate why culturally it is desirable to have more house, and teeny backyard (an apparent trend, even more mind boggling in families with small children like mine). However, I can get on board with a 4-unit dwelling replacing a single family house in the cause of decreasing the city's overall footprint (protect the Greenbelt!)
Writes lovely B:
I’m fortunate to have large, lovely wooded parklands within easy reach of my house, with lots of mileage of trails going through them. Along the trails are many individual tree friends that I know well; I’ve patted them, hugged them, painted them, (climbed a few - don’t tell the park supervisors) and mourned over them when they came down, as so many did last winter with our extremely wet and windy weather in the Bay Area. I don’t know if they value my friendship but I surely value theirs. And, on a much smaller scale, I love the three Japanese maples in my back yard: one full grown when I moved in 14 years ago, now surely a grand old lady (like me?), one a sapling that I transplanted to a safe place now grown taller than the the grand old lady tree (like my granddaughter), and one still a skinny teenager that started itself off from seed and has stuck with it to grow to shade the fairy garden around its base. A world without trees? Terrible thought! (Who’d ever want to move to Mars?)
Michele, I love this!
Your last newsletter recalled to me a visual poem where the different heights of the letters represent a treeline. I made an embroidery inspired by it a long time ago — b p nichol?? Picture it as one line of handwritten text as I don’t have a digital image of it on hand:
PS. Gorgeous Julie led the most wonderful Jane’s walk tour of Six Points, and led us to one of Toronto’s oldest trees!
71 but she keeps up!!! (love you, mom!)
Not my best but the funnest drop-in Doja class(!!!!!!!!!) Love you, new teach Jamie Skye!
Thank you so much for reading. I’m honored that so many people choose to open this climate diary, and I want to make it worth your time. Always let me know how to make this newsletter better!
Have a beautiful week,