If newspaper editors really wanted to bring proper attention to climate change, they would immediately dedicate a portion of their front page — say, lower left corner — to an “Earth Watch” box that provides daily coverage of the issue. After all, no news story has more profound ramifications for readers than the very real possibility that our planet, within 100 years, could become uninhabitable by humans.
In selecting which news stories to cover, and how much prominence to give them, editors play a crucial role in setting the agenda for public discussion. A front-page headline “Kabul Falls Into Taliban’s Hands” or “Democrats Argue Over Infrastructure” immediately tells us those are the biggest, most important stories of the moment. Even now, when the actual readership of newspapers is in free fall, stories that appear on Page One continue to set the agenda for many other news outlets, especially online.
So, you’d think that a story whose gist is, essentially, “unless we fundamentally alter our way of life, we will all die, relatively quickly,” would warrant such placement.
And so it was, at least for one day, a few weeks back. On Monday, June 9, practically every newspaper in the country devoted significant room (and for some, banner headlines) on Page One about the United Nations report warning that climate change poses an existential crisis to our species and the planet.
Of course, the content of the UN report was not breaking news. We have known for many years that carbon dioxide and methane gas produced by human conduct has dramatically affected the Earth’s ecosystem, raising temperatures in the atmosphere and in the oceans. But the issuance of the report was the news peg that prompted front-page coverage: “Wake Up Call for the Planet!”
In the week that followed, however, other news stories that showed the daily impact of that crisis (flooding kills 40 in Turkey; an entire Greek Island erupts in flames; July temperatures worldwide, hottest in recorded history) were reported sometimes as mere “new briefs” on the papers’ inside pages. Other seemingly more pressing news of that moment (Cuomo resigns, Senate passes infrastructure bill) pushed that Monday’s “the earth is dying” story off the front page.
The problem, as it were, is that climate change is a “trend” story, not an “incident” one that tends to attract the media’s (and, hence, our) attention. “Burning building downtown” always trumps “Burning Earth’s atmosphere” for front-page placement.
But one of the press’s functions is to connect the dots by putting together, over time, a series of events that illustrate an ongoing trend.
Case in point: Because editors decided that the massive citizen protests against police practices following the murder of George Floyd was of significantly high public interest and concern, their papers and broadcasts connected those geographically diverse events as emblematic of the broader societal trend. They ran those stories on 1A, rather than as “Elsewhere” stories inside the paper. And, not surprisingly, many state legislatures and city councils responded by enacting sweeping reforms to police practices.
And so it is, or should be, with climate change. Nary a day goes by where there isn’t a massive wildfire, a tropical storm, or a flash flood that demonstrates the far-reaching effects of this broader global trend: Hurricane Ida; the Caldor Fire menacing South Lake Tahoe; Flash floods killing 22 in Tennessee; Denver’s miserable Air Quality.
Yet, inexplicably, news editors across the nation relegate these stories to the inner recesses of the paper or a newscast. As Andrew McCormick proclaimed in the Columbia Journalism Review, “we can and should be playing the climate story much bigger.” Devoting a small portion of 1A to the Climate Crisis beat, on a permanent ongoing basis, would do just that.
As a media lawyer who has represented news outlets for a quarter century now, I know that newspaper editors may balk at this suggestion, believing that such a move might appear as advocacy, not journalism. But giving climate crisis its appropriate prominence in the news lineup is not advocacy; it’s merely carrying out the traditional agenda-setting function of the press.
It is no more “advocating” for any particular course of action than choosing to give prominent daily coverage to the months-long battle to fund our nation’s infrastructure, or Walter Cronkite’s reminder, at the end of his nightly newscasts in the early 1980s, of the length of the ongoing hostage crisis in Iran. Such coverage denotes that an ongoing process is of sufficient impact and interest to warrant devoting attention to it, without taking sides or suggesting what is the appropriate outcome.
Nor would I expect the responsible press to ignore the fact that there remains significant controversy and debate about the root causes, extent, and potential solutions to the Earth’s existential crisis.
One would be hard-pressed, indeed, to suggest a more salient or urgent challenge facing us than the destruction of the Earth’s ecosystem on which our survival literally depends. Imagine coming home at the end of a workday and asking your spouse or significant other “What’s new?” He or she replies “the new drapes will arrive within the month; Congress passed a stop-gap funding measure, and . . . oh, and by the way, our house is on fire.”
Well, ladies and gentlemen, as Bill Nye the Science Guy famously, if crudely, educated us all a few years back, our house is on fire. For news editors not to make that a top story on a daily basis is not merely “burying the lede.” It could very well end up burying our grandchildren.
Steve Zansberg is a media lawyer in Denver.