Reducing the Obstacles to Science-Based Local Climate Reporting

March 21, 2018

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Feature: Reducing the Obstacles to Science-Based Local Climate Reporting

By Edward Maibach

Editor’s Note: At a time when most Americans view climate change as a distant problem, the Climate Matters project aims to correct misperceptions by helping journalists reveal the climate impacts already happening at the local level. Climate Matters, a collaboration of George Mason University, Climate Central, NOAA, NASA, the American Meteorological Society and now, the Society of Environmental Journalists, recently surveyed SEJ members to better understand how to support the work of environmental reporters.

The survey results, released last week, reveal challenges in reporting climate change news, including newsroom downsizing and lack of field reporting opportunities. Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and a survey co-author, shares his thoughts on the results.

Author Edward Maibach speaking about the Climate Matters project at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual "Journalists' Guide to Energy & Environment" roundtable in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 26, 2018. Photo: Courtesy Wilson Center

Since 2012, my colleagues and I have been working to help TV weathercasters educate their viewers about the local implications and the personal relevance of global climate change.

We embraced this challenge because when we conducted the first-ever national survey of TV weathercasters in 2010, we learned that nearly half said they would like to educate their viewers about climate change, but relatively few were doing so.

The results of that survey also illuminated the barriers that were impeding weathercasters from reporting local climate change stories, things like lack of access to local data and lack of time to do the necessary research.

To help weathercasters overcome the barriers that were inhibiting their reporting, we developed Climate Matters — a set of science-based reporting resources that are often localized, as well as a variety of training experiences so that weathercasters can become more confident and competent local climate change reporters.

The results have been remarkable: On-air climate reporting by TV weathercasters has increased more than 1,200 percent over the past five years.

Reporters face barriers to local climate coverage

The purpose of our survey of SEJ members, therefore, was to identify their interest in reporting local climate change stories — both impacts stories and solutions stories — and to illuminate any barriers that are currently inhibiting such reporting. We conducted this survey in partnership with SEJ, which has joined the Climate Matters team in an effort to support a broader group of journalists in reporting local climate change stories.

In January of this year, we used email to invite all SEJ members to participate in the online survey.  Although it may have been annoying to a few SEJers, we sent up to five additional email requests to people who had not yet participated. In the end, nearly half of SEJ members participated, which is wonderful because it gives us great confidence in the survey findings.


"More surprising ... is the number of

important obstacles many SEJ members face

in reporting local climate stories."



Many of the findings were not surprising. For example, nearly all SEJ members surveyed are convinced of the reality of human-caused climate change, are aware of many harmful impacts already occurring in their region of the country and are deeply concerned about it. It’s also not surprising that nearly all SEJ members surveyed are interested in reporting local climate change stories.

More surprising, at least to me, is the number of important obstacles many SEJ members face in reporting local climate stories, including lack of time for field reporting, lack of training in climate science, lack of management support for such stories and most surprising of all, lack of role models for this kind of reporting.

It’s important for us to understand these obstacles, because the whole point of the Climate Matters in the Newsroom project (which is the extension of Climate Matters to a broader group of journalists) is to reduce the obstacles to science-based local climate reporting.

I was also surprised that approximately 30 percent of survey participants present an “opposing viewpoint” when they report climate stories.  The reason we asked this question — and several related questions — was to assess the degree to which “false balance” reporting is an issue. False balance reporting is a term used by communication scholars to describe the application of the professional norm of balance to situations when the weight of evidence strongly favors one side over another.  

The concern is that false balance reporting can be misleading and can perpetuate an information bias.  Our survey findings don’t provide a clear answer to the question of how much false balance reporting SEJ members are doing, but I think our findings suggest this is a topic worthy of serious consideration and discussion within SEJ.

New resources for telling local, science-based stories

Most Americans see climate change as a distant problem — distant from them in space (not here), in time (not yet) and in terms of species (not us).  Climate Matters seeks to help correct that systematic misperception — by enabling journalists to tell local, science-based stories about climate change — because climate change is already causing harmful impacts in every region of our nation.

The real value of this survey is that it will help guide our efforts to be a value to SEJ members in their efforts to report on climate change.

We will be launching the Climate Matters in the Newsroom website early this summer to provide SEJ members and other journalists a large and growing library of climate reporting materials, many of which are localized by media market. And we will be soon offering local climate reporting workshops at the SEJ annual conference, and elsewhere. Stay tuned!

To sign up to receive Climate Matters in the Newsroom materials on their release, email your name and email address to Sean Sublette ( at Climate Central.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 12. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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