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How can China’s climate journalists better engage the public?

China-focused environmental media organisation Chinadialogue looks at 2018’s best climate journalism in China and talks shop with the people who wrote it.

Frequent extreme weather events around the world are sounding the alarm on climate change. Europe and the US have seen citizen action on it and the international media are carrying more reports. Research has found that reporting on climate change in the five most important US newspapers (the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today and Los Angeles Times) has tripled over the last four years.

In May, the Guardian changed its house style guide, recommending reporters “climate change” with “climate emergency” and “climate sceptic” with “climate change denier”. In a recent speech, veteran newsman Bill Moyers called for today’s reporters to cover climate change in the same way the threat of the Second World War was reported.

But in China, reporting on climate change has been somewhat muted in recent years.

Not that there is a shortage of topics. China is vulnerable to and clearly affected by climate change. The country has seen frequent extreme weather events such as heatwaves and storms, with climate impacts and risks on the increase. And with the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, China has become a key defender of the climate process, a role that has attracted attention both at home and overseas.

But climate reporting in the Chinese media has long been driven by coverage of overseas conferences. Many associate the topic with those meetings and political manoeuvrings. Some Chinese journalists agree the approach to coverage needs to change, in favour of stories and angles that engage the public.

To discover and encourage quality Chinese reporting on the climate, chinadialogue and CANGO, the China Association for NGO Cooperation, held an event to celebrate outstanding Chinese climate reporting from 2018, and invited the authors to discuss the challenges facing climate reporting with almost 40 colleagues from the media and NGOs.

Show what ordinary people want to say, back it up with actual scientific support, and the people will answer the call.

Jiang Yifan, freelance reporter

Outstanding climate reporting in 2018

Best news reporting
Bu Ye, Feng Lifei, China Science Daily
Chinese climate experts read the new IPCC report—a rapid transition is essential for the 1.5C target

Excellent news reporting
Zhou Chen, Caixin Weekly
The Katowice Climate Conference: this is the best outcome
Chen Su, China News Service
Outlook for the Katowice Climate Conference: a long and difficult road

Best feature
Liu Jia, Southern Weekly
Are Arctic temperatures actually high?

Excellent feature
Cui Guohui, China Meteorological News
What is causing frequent spikes in Arctic temperatures?

Most innovative journalism
Zhang Zehong, He Wei, Long Hui, Lü Yan, Zhu Qian, Wang Jing, Thepaper.cn / Weather.com.cn
Why is Shanghai now being hit by typhoons?

Below are some highlights from the speeches.

Jiang Yifan, freelance reporter:

In the past, climate reporting was aimed at policymakers and businesspeople. Now it needs to be written for the public.

It is essential that we report on events happening outside of China, such as big climate conferences, because this is a global issue. But identification and reporting of local issues needs to happen as well, as that’s the only way to shift public opinion and encourage changes in policy and business practices.

How can climate reporting better engage the public? Style is important. There needs to be a narrative, drama. But substantive content is more important. Show what ordinary people want to say, back it up with actual scientific support, and the people will answer the call.

Climate reporters need to build links with experts in meteorology, hydrology, ecology and agriculture, in order to avoid errors in reporting that will leave their work vulnerable to criticism. And cooperation between scientists and journalists can strengthen awareness of climate change among scientists. News and science need to work together.

Liu Jia, Southern Weekly reporter:

I wrote no more than five climate change pieces the whole year, and those were all in response to extreme weather events.

The amount of climate reporting seemed to fall off after the Copenhagen talks in 2009. The negotiations just weren’t as interesting as they used to be, and the public were a bit bored of them. Did we miss the opportunity for a golden era of climate reporting? My colleagues and I wonder about this.

Later I realised there had always been problems and challenges in the response to climate change, but differently manifested. In the past, people paid attention to the political manoeuvring at top-level climate change talks, but as the internet has developed, it’s actually made climate change topics more accessible. Now everyone’s reposting social media stories about homeless polar bears and so on, and that’s a very interesting phenomenon. There are elements to climate change stories that can produce an emotional response in the public.

People say traditional media has suffered with the advent of online alternatives, but that has also meant opportunities. For example, a traditional outlet like ours can ride on the interest created by social media to publicise the facts about climate change.

Cui Guohui, China Meteorological News reporter:

First, there can be no question of the reality of climate change. I studied meteorology, and this is a basic fact. But climate change reporting needs to stick to the facts, it needs to filter out certain material. Too much scaremongering or sensationalism will make readers fatigued.

A good piece of climate reporting needs in-depth background research. There’s a trend for reporters to become more research-focused nowadays, and I’m strongly in favour of that. The media should be a thinktank serving both government and the public.

Feng Lifei, China Science Daily reporter:

Why does it always seem that there’s more climate reporting overseas? One reason is that a lot of climate science is published in international English-language publications such as Nature and Science. Some foreign reporters follow climate change closely, and so they have a language advantage, which makes climate reporting easier. It might be a bit harder for Chinese reporters to keep up with international scientific topics. But we should also be paying more attention to what’s happening locally. Climate reporting should, whenever possible, visit the scene. This leads to a deeper and richer understanding of climate change issues.

Lu Yan, Thepaper.cn data journalist:

There are many high-quality datasets for both meteorology and the climate that can fuel good data journalism. Even if Chinese data isn’t available you can access information from NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and NASA. The key is what stories you use those datasets to tell. There are a number of experiments with data-driven journalism in China at the moment, but the problem with data-driven climate journalism is that we haven’t yet developed these into leads on good stories. We need to work harder on this.

Wu Yixiu is team leader of Chinadialogue’s Strategic Climate Communication Initiatives. This article was originally published on chinadialogue. 

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