How to tell moving climate stories

Well-told human-interest stories are key to moving readers and prompting climate action. How to write them in China?

A farmer tends to his drought-stricken field in Thailand. Image: UNDP Climate, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Reports on the climate are proliferating, but can you really take them all in?

In Europe, where climate reporting is well established, many may feel there is an onslaught of bad news. Better to not read it, and be able to relax.

In response to this “climate news avoidance”, German psychologists have come up with recommendations for reporters, suggesting a more emotionally engaging approach.

First, they say, reporting should focus on how climate change impacts the most important aspects of society, such as health and the economy.

Second, it should acknowledge and validate readers’ feelings. Reporters should let the reader know that emotions arising from the content of the story are normal and widely shared. This acknowledgement, the psychologists report, can help people feel connected, encouraged to talk about their own experiences of climate change, and to deal constructively with their feelings.

Finally, reporting should consider the available solutions to the issues raised in a story, as readers are more likely to respond positively if they know others are doing the same. This might include highlighting the positive impacts of climate protection, international collaboration on climate action, or guidance on taking individual action.

The researchers found that story narratives featuring conflict and unhappy endings were more likely to arouse emotions and subsequently prompt greener choices. 

The issue of people avoiding climate news altogether exists in China too. But a bigger problem there may be indifference to stories that people do read. So, how can reporters get their audiences to pay more attention to climate stories? Some of the suggestions in the report, especially those on how to have an emotional impact, are applicable in China.

Good climate reporting has emotional impact

Telling stories that are relevant and interesting to readers is a cornerstone of good journalism, whether about the climate or any other topic.

Emotions are an important part of “persuasion theory”. In public interest advocacy, as in political messaging and marketing, emotions can change attitudes and then behaviours and choices. This is true for positive emotions as well as negative ones such as disgust or anger. Many researchers have tried to quantify the impact of different narrative structures in climate reporting.

Danish scholar Brandi S. Morris and colleagues established that narratives structured as stories are more likely to achieve “narrative transportation” than purely informational ones. Such transportation – a sense of being lost in a story, immersed and removed from the real world – is common when enjoying film and TV, reading, or even consuming the news. When absorbed in a story, our emotions respond accordingly.

The emotional impact of strong stories can be clocked on an electrocardiogram, an instrument for measuring your heartbeat. The researchers found that story narratives featuring conflict and unhappy endings were more likely to arouse emotions and subsequently prompt greener choices. In follow-up interviews, participants who had their emotions triggered were more likely to be saving energy, reducing or recycling waste, and making donations to charities, than those in a control group.

So, what do we write about, and how do we write it, to prompt an emotional response and then appropriate action?

What topics work?

Climate reporting is often laden with scientific terms and the latest data. That type of serious reporting is persuasive and authoritative, but can also be dull and hard to understand.

This holds true for Chinese climate reporting. An analysis of framing in China’s climate reporting, published in the International Journal of Communications, found that climate change impacts were the most common topic, followed by attribution of responsibility, international collaboration on climate action, and conflict. Human interest stories were least common.

That matches the impression of many people who work in climate communication: while climate science and progress in international talks are important, there aren’t enough human-interest stories.

When it comes to straight reporting on climate science and negotiations, it can be difficult to write digestible and engaging content. A Chinese reporter I once interviewed admitted that it was difficult to write climate stories in “normal” language.

That is partly due to jargon in the source material or its translation. Take as an example, this passage from the Chinese version of a press release produced by the United Nations Environment Programme:

“The report points out that inadequate mitigation will require more adaptation and result in more loss and damage. This means there is a link between mitigation and adaptation. Linking adaptation and mitigation actions from the outset in planning, finance, and implementation can enhance co-benefits. It could also limit potential trade-offs…”

With climate change negotiations and research taking place in a largely Western context, directly translating overseas documents and papers, without explanation of specialist terms, will make them hard to understand.

It is understandable that this happens. Reporters often draw on material which has been carefully written and there is little room to elaborate and be creative. Priority is often given to reporting on moves by national leaders, international talks, policies and cutting-edge research. There is no doubt that human interest reporting is harder. It takes longer, requires more interview time, and struggles to keep up with the rapid pace of modern journalism.

Chinese journalists are envious of specialist climate reporters overseas, who can watch glaciers melt in Scandinavia one day and be in Africa to see a drought the next. Money and resources allow for good stories. But Chinese media only spend on, or receive funding for, big climate talks with Chinese leaders in attendance.

But it is still possible to produce human interest stories from affordable destinations and dry negotiations.

Several pieces of work that won the 2022 journalism awards hosted by Covering Climate Now, a New York-based NGO, found human interest stories in the overarching climate narrative. One award winner, an HBO documentary called Through Our Eyes: Uprooted, looked at the impacts of climate change on several elementary school students in the US. Sisters on a family farm struggling amid a cycle of drought and flood, having to evacuate in the face of extreme weather events, waiting out a hurricane alert in a motel – climate change is an increasing source of concern in the everyday lives of those children.

Such tales can be found in China too. Some years ago, news outlet The Paper caused a stir with a report on climate refugees in the county of Xiji, Ningxia. There is a lot of overlap between areas of China that are poverty-stricken and ecologically vulnerable, and there are bound to be climate stories to tell there.

Another award-winning report was on the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow. Reports on those talks often favour the important over the interesting, with impenetrable vocabulary and political statements. But this piece from The World, an American public radio news program, interwove stories from herders in drought-stricken Kenya with reports from the negotiating tables in Glasgow. The descriptions of the emaciated livestock of the herders left the readers with a much clearer idea of what the negotiations over “loss and damage” meant.

Creating impact with human interest and detail

That report on the Kenyan herders reminded me of a story from China two years ago – the elephants on the move.

As mentioned, it is not easy for Chinese journalists to find the budget to travel to places like Kenya. However, there are many climate stories waiting to be told much closer to home.

Two years ago, a journey by Asian elephants in Yunnan province, outside of their usual range, received huge attention. Guangming DailyCaixin and The Paper all covered it extensively, with vivid and detailed reports of how wild animals and people were interacting and coming into conflict. For a while, people across China were following the elephants in real-time. Reports covered the habitats, water resources and food that the elephants relied on. Unfortunately, next to no stories mentioned the climate change context or asked experts questions from this perspective.

Every writer has their own way of writing a good story. But two researchers from Oregon State University have reviewed studies into how narratives can best be used in climate change communication, and made five suggestions for producing more readable and interesting stories.

  • Use narrative form and content rather than dull facts.
  • Identify the audience and tailor the story accordingly. Use language relevant to the audience to establish the setting, the problems, and their causes.
  • Chose characters the audience will be invested in, such as classic heroes, villains and victim roles.
  • Stress the causality, risk and human agency in climate change. Show the reader the importance of the issue and how they can make changes.
  • When discussing risks and benefits, focus on gains over losses. Put possible benefits at the heart of the story.

That framework may seem simple, but it is valuable guidance.

What if we wanted to write about those elephants in Yunnan from a climate change angle? In terms of content and form, scientific research findings would of course be important. But it is dramatic detail that grabs people’s attention and makes them consider the role of climate change in the story.

Yunnan provincial media would have different audiences from national outlets, and so would tell the story in different ways. Local people will be concerned about specific local issues caused by climate change. Other readers would be more interested in the challenges climate change brings to Yunnan and the whole south-west of China. There would also be differences between more traditional reporting and new media. Some readers want detail and background; others a 30-second video.

The reporting on the Yunnan elephants used various techniques, and created vivid characters – the government, businesses and reserve officials. That storytelling multimedia approach could be used to highlight the climate change angle of the elephants’ story.

When emphasising links with the audience, different media could focus on the agency of their different audiences. What small changes could help the elephants in some way get back to normal? Could getting a story trending or going viral on social media help gain the attention of officials with policy-making power? Or could buying agricultural products from the reserve help fund and maintain a better home for the elephants?

Finally, when discussing risks, alongside emphasising the loss of elephant habitats due to climate change, it may be possible to discuss what beneficial interventions could be taken. After all, everyone wants to see a happy ending – or at least a story with a chance of one.

The elephants’ story is still being told. Since 2022, research has been done on the link between climate change and the expansion of their range in Yunnan. But the findings lagged behind the news story and did not make much of an impact.

The elephants had many “fans” watching their progress – and that could be an opportunity for climate communications. Will the elephants be on the move again this summer?

This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.

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