2020 Vision: The Year Climate Change Comes into Focus
Based on recent trends, I predict 2020 will be the year more local TV stations tackle the sensitive but important topic of climate change.
> There is an uptick in global warming and climate change media coverage on the national networks.
> Democratic presidential candidates regularly talk about climate change, more than previous election years.
> The United Nations says 2020 is the “last best chance” to address climate change. This year is the deadline established in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement for countries to submit climate reduction plans. (Although President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Agreement, many individual states have outlined plans to reduce greenhouse gases.)
> Finally, public opinion data suggests viewers want more climate information.
According to the latest research conducted by George Mason University and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, about seven out of ten (72%) Americans think global warming is happening. Furthermore, six out of ten (66%) are at least “somewhat worried.” Those numbers have been slowly rising over the last five years.
In another study, Yale and Utah State University combined over 22,000 individual survey responses about global warming. Again, about seven out of ten (67%) Americans acknowledged global warming is happening, and more than half (53%) believe it is caused mostly by human activities. Data is broken down by states, metro areas, and counties. News managers can use the free online mapping tool to gauge their viewers’ interest in climate change reports.
Global Warming is a Local Story
“Climate change isn’t something that’s coming. In many ways, it’s already here.”
That’s how meteorologist Jacob Wycoff kicked off his special report on climate change on WGGB/WSHM in Springfield, MA. He points out that farmers in Western Massachusetts are already challenged by an increase in pests and more frequent droughts, while the sea level has already risen a foot over the last 100 years near the Cape on the eastern side of the state.
Wycoff told me, “The changing climate touches so many aspects of life that our audience may not even know about.” Now they will, thanks to his reporting.
Wycoff says he’s been eager to start covering climate change and decided to launch the series last fall after spending “many hours researching IPCC cited-studies and peer-reviewed literature.” He has the full support of his news director, Patience Hettrick, whose first name suggests a virtue required to deal with some viewer comments.
“Unfortunately, partisan politics have poisoned the well, and I do get very vocal commentators on both sides,” Wycoff told me. “But I always say, ‘The science is clear. The policy on what we do moving forward is where the debate should be.'”
TEGNA owned WFAA in Dallas has an entire section on its website devoted to the hot topic, complete with links to data so the public can verify the truth for themselves. Reporters produced several long-form award-worthy reports, including one in which they took a self-proclaimed skeptic to Alaska to see the effects of climate change for himself.
Climate Change isn’t just about the Weather
The whole newsroom is covering climate change on NBC4 in Washington, DC. “Changing Climate” was developed by news director Mike Goldrick. As he explained at the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Conference special reports go beyond the numbers and show how climate change is affecting everyday life. Before kicking off the franchise, Goldrick held station meetings and distributed an employee handbook that answers frequently asked questions and guides the coverage on-air and online.
The effort is spreading to other NBC owned television stations. “I’d say more than half are doing something, ranging from occasional inclusion of Climate Central graphics up to full-blown franchises and specials,” says Nate Johnson, Director of Weather Operations for NBC owned television stations.
Most broadcast meteorologists will tell you they barely have enough time during the newscast to cover the weather. However, there is infinite time available online. Every TV station is looking for original digital content as a way to increase online video views. Plus, environmentally conscious local advertisers might be interested in sponsoring the segment.
Climate stories need not be lengthy. The topic is complicated and far-reaching. Shorter, straightforward videos are more likely to be watched to the end.
Start by signing up to receive the Climate Matters newsletter from Climate Central. The non-profit organization regularly produces colorful graphics exploring the different aspects of climate change for every media market, in English and Spanish. Broadcast meteorologists can combine these graphics with some additional local data for a short 30-60 second video. The Midwestern Regional Climate Center is an excellent resource for broadcast meteorologists researching climate data and trends.
But be careful. While it might seem natural to blame every extreme weather event on climate change, that’s simply not valid. For example, Wycoff points out in his market, “Ellicott City flooded twice over the last four years. To me, this is an example of engineering a disaster through poor urban planning, and not so much a climate disaster,” he says. “When we conflate the issue or exaggerate it, we aren’t being effective communicators.”
Tim Heller is an AMS Certified Broadcast Meteorologist, Talent Coach, and Weather Content Consultant. He helps local TV stations connect with their community through essential weather information.