[Editor’s note: The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) on June 19 issued a response to Sean Holman’s open letter to news media providing a five-point plan for better covering the climate crisis. Excerpt: “The Canadian Association of Journalists recognizes that the urgency of climate change, and the public’s right to know about how governments respond to an important national conversation, requires news organizations to rethink their best practices on climate reporting.”
Holman’s letter, published on The Tyee, named as recipients the CAJ, the CWA media union, News Media Canada (which now have responded) and the Radio Television Digital News Association and Canada’s largest media union, Unifor (which have yet to respond).]
Sean Holman threw down a challenge to Canadian news media with an open letter calling on them to take seriously the “climate crisis.” Name it that, he urged in subsequent interviews, giving it the headlines and context it deserves while holding our leaders to account.
Now the responses are rolling in, some from beyond Canada’s borders.
Here’s how Holman came to write the widely shared letter and what it’s helping to trigger.
As record wildfires raged out of control across B.C., spreading smoke into the Rockies and Alberta, Holman looked out the window of his Calgary home and thought about a book he’d read as a child. The World of the Future: Future Cities predicted “if drastic steps are not taken to control pollution and achieve some sort of ecological balance,” the city of the 21st century could become a “polluted pesthole.”
The book’s image of gas-mask-wearing citizens in a dystopian streetscape choked by smog “always stuck with me,” Holman said. The view of smoke turning the sun into a sickly orange dot was strikingly similar. “That was really troubling.”
Even more disturbing to Holman, though, was the failure of Canadian news media to accurately report the underlying reasons for this hellscape: the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming Canada twice as fast as the rest of the world.
Holman, an investigative reporter, associate professor of journalism at Mount Royal University and an occasional Tyee contributor, found that of the 182 media pieces produced about the wildfires last summer by outlets like the Calgary Herald and Vancouver Sun, only 14 of those pieces mentioned the scientific reality that global temperature rise caused by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities contributed to the fires’ unprecedented intensity and destruction.
On May 28, Holman published his open letter on The Tyee to the heads of major Canadian journalism associations, along with “Canada’s editors, news directors, publishers and station managers,” calling out “Canadian news media’s repeated failure to apply basic journalism principles to the climate change crisis confronting us.”
Since then, Holman’s letter has been shared over 12,000 times on social media, while catching the attention of prominent journalists and media leaders in Canada and the U.S.
“He makes some good valid points,” Martin O’Hanlon, president of the media union CWA Canada, told The Tyee. The union recently agreed to send Holman’s letter to its 17 locals, representing about 6,000 members across the country.
Mark Hertsgaard is the environmental correspondent for the Nation magazine in the U.S. and is leading an initiative called Covering Climate Now to radically improve how newsrooms report the greatest existential challenge to ever face humankind.
Holman’s letter, he said, “is exactly the kind of thing that’s needed.”
What’s a crisis by CBC standards?
Holman thinks that the failure of media outlets to properly communicate the terrifyingly urgent reality of climate change partly comes down to a conflict between two foundational values of journalism: a dedication to telling the truth and also to being objective — or at least to be perceived as objective.
“Because the evidence surrounding climate change is politically contested... we don’t know how to appear unbiased in that environment,” he said. “By telling the truth you appear biased to large swathes of society as well as entire political parties and whole governments.”
Media outlets downplay the urgency of climate change to avoid looking like activists, Holman says, and thereby risk becoming “complicit in a disaster” with unimaginable consequences for humankind.
A good example in Holman’s opinion is CBC’s reaction to news that the Guardian is changing the language it uses to report on global temperature rise. “‘Climate change’ is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the situation; use climate emergency, crisis or breakdown instead,” reads a recently updated style guide for the London-based publication.
CBC’s director of journalistic standards Paul Hambleton said the national public broadcaster wouldn’t be instituting a similar change, explaining that “the ‘climate crisis’ and ‘climate emergency’ are words that have a whiff of advocacy to them. They sort of imply, you know, something more serious, where climate change and global warming are more neutral terms.”
A quick and non-exhaustive Tyee search revealed that CBC appears to have no problem referring to “Hamilton’s identity crisis,” the Granville Island “parking crisis,” the “Rohingya refugee crisis” and Canada’s “overdose crisis.”
O’Hanlon thinks that “absolutely journalists have to be very careful choosing their words. But you go with the preponderance of evidence. If you’ve got 97 per cent of the world’s scientists telling us it’s a crisis, then there’s nothing wrong with journalists reporting that it’s a crisis.” He continued, “how else can you do it, otherwise you will be accused of bias.”
The CWA Canada president said that though “we’re not totally endorsing [Holman’s] letter,” it’s circulating the document to its thousands of members as a reminder of what good responsible journalism on climate change should strive for.
O’Hanlon doesn’t think the Canadian news media’s failure to properly cover the planet’s destruction should necessarily fall on individual journalists or editors. “When it comes to covering climate change, like anything else, [journalists] go out and do a quick story, the best they can do. Could there be better coverage, could there be more coverage? Of course.”
He instead points to a plunge in industry revenues that has led to over 10,000 jobs lost in Canada over the past decade or so. “The problem is newspaper companies that have cut staff to the bone and that’s a very important thing to be highlighted,” he said.
Some of the other responses Holman received are less encouraging. One major industry association, News Media Canada, explained via a spokesperson that it wasn’t proper to influence the editorial independence of its members by telling them how to cover climate change — an argument Holman responds to by saying all he’s asking of their members is that they “behave as journalists.”
Holman meanwhile is waiting for official responses from the Canadian Association of Journalists and Unifor, Canada’s largest media union.
Holman’s letter immediately resonated with Hertsgaard, however. “I applauded it. We have to be honest with ourselves and within our profession that too many of us have been falling short and there’s no time left for that, it’s just not acceptable any more.”
Hertsgaard, the author of Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future and Hot: Living through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, has reported on planetary destruction for such outlets as the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Time and Mother Jones. “I’ve been covering climate change for 30 years now and have been frustrated frankly with the way that too many news outlets either ignore or otherwise misreport the climate crisis,” he said.
In late April, Hertsgaard argued in a story published in the Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review that “the media are complacent while the world burns.” He and his co-author, CJR publisher and editor Kyle Pope, used that piece to unveil “a brand new playbook for journalists fighting for a 1.5°C world.”
They are now working with the Guardian and other media outlets to transform the way that the climate crisis — its severity and also the solutions that can help society mitigate and adapt to it — are communicated to the public. The Covering Climate Now initiative is helping co-ordinate a week of climate coverage leading up to a crucial United Nations summit in New York on Sept. 23.
“Our fundamental theory of change is we want to convene a conversation among our fellow journalists to talk about how we do justice to what we see as the biggest story of our time,” Hertsgaard said. “That requires acknowledging that too many news outlets are still not stepping up to the plate... at this point in 2019, climate silence amounts to climate denial.”