Taking The Temperature Of NPR's Climate Coverage : NPR Public Editor For some, the coverage is not hot enough (and hard to find).
NPR logo Taking The Temperature Of NPR's Climate Coverage

Taking The Temperature Of NPR's Climate Coverage

Floodwater from the Mississippi River cuts off the roadway from Missouri into Illinois at the states' border on May 30, 2019 in Saint Mary, Missouri. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

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Floodwater from the Mississippi River cuts off the roadway from Missouri into Illinois at the states' border on May 30, 2019 in Saint Mary, Missouri.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

NPR listeners and readers have strong and varied opinions about how NPR should apportion its reporting efforts. But over many months, one topic has come up again and again: climate change.

It's no wonder. The U.S. government's fourth National Climate Assessment released late last year found that "Climate change is already causing more frequent and severe weather across the U.S., and the country is poised to suffer massive damage to infrastructure, ecosystems, health and the economy if global warming is allowed to continue," NPR reported. A United Nations report last fall forecast dire consequences if drastic measures to reduce greenhouse gases are not implemented soon. Climate change is the No. 1 threat facing the U.S., according to a handful of the Democratic candidates for president.

The concern we often hear repeated boils down to this: NPR's climate change reporting lacks the urgency that the topic requires.

To quote one email: "NPR must become an advocacy force. It cannot simply report the disaster; it has to take affirmative action to address it. NPR has to help lead the conversation, inspire people to act and take risks. And enough 'policy talk'! People need to know concretely what they must do."

And another: "You should be addressing environmental concerns in every capacity as a TOP news story EVERY SINGLE DAY. There are no greater issues facing humanity than climate change, habitat destruction, and pollution affecting the loss of biodiversity in this planet."

(We do also get emails from the opposite side, those who think climate change is not a challenge and that NPR focuses too much on it.)

I'll start by agreeing with what should be obvious: The topic is pressing. NPR, which strives to be in the top echelon of news organizations in the country, cannot be one without giving climate change serious and thoughtful coverage.

In my opinion, NPR already does quite a bit of that. Its coverage is extensive, with an average of more than one story a day (that at least references climate change) across many shows and digital platforms. (Here's a search on the topic, which shows six hits for July 1 alone.)

The coverage is spread across beats from education to food and not treated solely as a political sparring point. NPR does not engage in false equivalence by giving equal time to those who deny the science of global warming, although it has reported regularly on the views of those, including President Trump, who question the causes.

There are also special initiatives; to single out just one of many, Weekend Edition Sunday has had a series over recent months exploring various ways the East Coast is adapting to climate change.

I've also previously addressed audience concerns (which are ongoing) about the frequency with which NPR references the topic of climate change when reporting on extreme weather; it's often, but not always, relevant. During this spring's flooding in the Midwest and South, I thought NPR did a strong job of bringing those two topics together in multiple stories.

There are a number of other ways to judge the coverage, however.

Where is it?

I'll start with the easiest issue first: How easy is it to find? Some listeners and readers would like NPR to undertake more pointed daily reminders about climate change. For example, they write, NPR could dedicate a regular daily segment to the topic, along the lines of American Public Media's Marketplace Morning Report. In addition to reporting on the movement of the stock market indexes in the hourly newscasts, NPR could "institute periodic reports on quantitative indicators of the progress of climate change," such as the parts per million of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere, set against historic levels, one listener suggested (as did a number of listeners).

I'd note how often news about Washington and the Trump administration lead the newsmagazines. What if a climate change-related story were the day's first story every now and then? There have been many climate-related stories justifying such exposure.

And I'd like to see something else: An easier way online to find all of NPR's coverage of the topic, both radio transcripts and digital stories. (I first wrote about this in 2015.)

Currently those readers looking for NPR's reporting can find it grouped in three places:

  • One is on a page dedicated to "Environment" reports; that's found by clicking "News" on the home page, then "Science" and then the drop-down shows up.
  • There is also an aggregated compilation of reports that have been tagged "climate change." That comes up only by searching for that term.
  • NPR also has a collaborative effort with about a dozen member stations (and two NPR correspondents, Jeff Brady and Nathan Rott) to cover the environment and energy, and those stories are collected here.

Sara Kehaulani Goo, managing editor for digital content, told me that having a dedicated "Climate Change" topic page would not necessarily reflect how most news consumers get to stories these days. Trying to find content via the home page is "not the majority experience that people have. Most people come in through an article that they find on social media or they find in search," she said.

Goo noted, rightly, that the "climate change" page "is the first result in Google when you search for 'NPR climate change.'" Moreover, she said, her team has just done training for the newsroom on search engine optimization, so that the relevant keywords are included to make NPR stories, photos and videos pop up when someone does a search.

But there is still much work to be done on that, in my opinion. If a reader relied on the "climate change" page, they would think that NPR has had only five stories on the topic in June (it had many, many more). Most of NPR's stories simply aren't aggregating there.

Whether or not the majority of the audience reaches stories through the home page, NPR could still make it easier for the minority to find the content. I also see value in having a dedicated page (one that is curated by staff, not generated by a computer using keywords and tags) for another reason: It would signal to the audience that NPR believes the topic is important.

Goo agreed that signaling is important. And she added that if people are having a hard time finding NPR's climate reporting (and I think they are, from the emails we get), then it's an issue that needs to be looked at. "I think we can do better as a newsroom to ensure our content is tagged properly and that we are showcasing that we have more to offer than the story a person came to read," she told me.

An urgent matter

On a regular basis, scientific studies, reports and speeches address the feared risks looming for the planet. NPR covers many of them, but not all, and when it doesn't, our office hears about it. Ditto as in May, when other major news outlets including The New York Times prominently featured a U.N. report on threats to biodiversity on their Monday morning Web home pages, while NPR did not post its first story until after 2 p.m. (NPR did have newscast spots in the morning when the 7 a.m. embargo was lifted.)

NPR ultimately gave the U.N. story the coverage it deserved, with an additional All Things Considered interview, a report and interview in the next day's Up First and Morning Edition, and a commentary by Scott Simon. Does it matter that the newsroom seemed to be playing catch-up? Not really, as far as I'm concerned; ultimately, the audience was well-served with the information. But the time lag did contribute, again, to the feeling that the topic is not urgent to the newsroom.

There's really a different dynamic at work here, though, and that's the tenor of the coverage. As one frequent critic wrote to me back in December: "Other outlets talk about 'suicidal,' 'ticking bomb,' 'climate catastrophe,' 'death spiral,' 'no capacity to absorb more emissions,' 'financial crash 4 times worse than 2008,' etc."

A related decision by The Guardian to change the way it talks about "climate change," prompted calls from some listeners for NPR to do the same. Going forward, Guardian editor Katharine Viner explained, the preferred substitutes for "climate change" are "climate emergency, crisis or breakdown." "Global warming" is better expressed as "global heating," she wrote. She explained her thinking to The Guardian's ombudsman, Paul Chadwick; it boils down to being scientifically accurate while conveying the urgency of the situation for the planet. (Some changes don't track for me, such as the guidance to replace "biodiversity" with "wildlife," which may be a more common word but is not the equivalent.)

The view from the newsroom

I asked Jennifer Ludden, who oversees the environment and energy collaborative, and Gisele Grayson, deputy editor on the Science Desk who edits climate stories, for their thoughts on this. One point they made is that the coverage needs to be read (or if it's on air, then listeners need to keep listening, and not tune out). Grayson said that always labeling the coverage distinctly as "climate change" may be counterproductive to engaging the audience.

Grayson said: "Much of our audience knows a lot about the issue and I fear if they hear the words 'climate change' at the beginning every time we do a story about it, they may assume they're going to hear bad news and tune out. While we report extensively on climate change research and its effects, we also frame the issue in all sorts of ways, precisely because it is so important." The topic, she said, encompasses "individuals, governments, corporations, science, disaster response, urban planning, adaptation, migration, business, national security, education, health – the fundamentals of what society looks like are being touched by climate change."

At least one researcher would agree with NPR's more nuanced approach to conveying urgency without losing the audience. Meanwhile, this chart is an interesting breakdown showing a disconnect between what news consumers say they want and what they actually read. And doom and gloom reports on all sorts of topics including "climate change" are driving what's known as "news fatigue," researchers have found.

Ludden noted that her team and the science desk do coordinate on a "steady stream" of the stories that listeners and readers would call urgent, reports from scientists about melting glaciers and the consequences of rising temperatures. But, "beyond that, it's not a future problem, it is a here-and-now problem," she said. "And so, we're trying to focus on what is different on the ground now, people in communities that are seeing those changes, being impacted by them and trying to address them in some way."

One example, she said, is the recent series done with All Things Considered on clean energy solutions and what it would take to get to what's known as "zero carbon."

The themes governing the coverage these days, the two editors said, include "weather is climate," how individuals, governments, businesses and others are adapting to the challenges, energy decisions and what's happening globally.

As for changing the language, as The Guardian did, Ludden said, "Anyone who covers climate understands how serious the situation is. But I'm generally wary of campaigns that can be perceived as advocacy, so not inclined to mandate any term." I agree; I am not opposed to using terms like "crisis" occasionally, and language, of course, matters. But I think it's much more important to focus on strong and regular reporting that allows listeners to see the facts for themselves.

An evaluation of coverage is under way

I also asked Nancy Barnes, NPR's senior vice president for news and editorial director, for her thoughts. She said she won't dictate to the newsroom what language they should be using.

But Barnes, who is seven months into the job, said she has asked the newsroom to evaluate its climate coverage and whether there are other ways to approach the beat.

"My concern has been that maybe our coverage is not as concentrated as it needs to be on the story of climate change. Not just reporting out the ramifications, but also looking for sharp newsy angles and really being on top of it from not just explanatory and financial implications, but you know with some more pointed news coverage," she told me.

The newsroom, she said, "rightly said to me, 'you know, we actually have a lot of resources on this'" (six or seven reporters, not all full time, across three different reporting units, covering climate, energy and the environment). She in turn encouraged them "to take a look at whether there are some new areas that they could cover, whether there's a new approach to covering climate change."

Other news organizations such as The Washington Post and The New York Times have teams completely dedicated to this topic, Barnes said, which is something she asked the newsroom to consider, along with thoughts about whether some resources need to be shifted. She said she is also concerned that listeners don't hear all of NPR's coverage, and is considering if there is a way to "amplify the work that we're doing." I'd note that if NPR had a specific team of reporters and editors dedicated to climate coverage, it might be easier to amplify their work with newsletters or dedicated twitter feeds.

She said she expects to have more to say about NPR's approach at summer's end.

Looking ahead

Barnes' request to the newsroom encourages me. As I said up top, NPR's coverage is already quite strong. But I think it could be more focused, and certainly much easier to find. Other newsrooms (including public radio stations WLRN and WBUR) are investing resources in making sure climate-change reporting is front and center. Not every news organization needs to approach the topic in the same way, but NPR should be a leader on climate coverage, however it decides to approach the issue. I'll report back on the outcome of the newsroom discussions.