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How can journalism do a better job of covering climate disasters?

Reporting on disasters has always been fraught for journalists, and the people and communities they report on – and these issues are likely only to intensify as we experience increasing disasters due to the climate crisis.

Marie McInerney reports from important and timely discussions in a recent webinar hosted by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Although not directly discussed during the webinar, her report highlights the critical importance of building the capacity and sustainability of the public interest journalism sector as we face an era of increasing disasters and climate disruption.

This article is published as part of our contribution to the global Covering Climate Now initiative, with the support of our climate and health reporting fund at Patreon.


Marie McInerney writes:

San Francisco Chronicle journalist Lizzie Johnson is sitting on a tree trunk in the High Sierra in California, near bushfires that have been burning for more than a month, as she links into an online global discussion about media coverage of bushfires and climate change.

She’s there in the high country because she’s been covering the fires through the day but it’s also because she and her editors have committed to staying put for the longer-term in the fire-ravaged communities they cover.

When you spend a lot of time in a community that’s been on the frontline of a fire disaster, you get to overhear very candid conversations about how people feel they are being reported on, Johnson told last month’s Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma webinar on Covering fires amid a changing climate.

A lot of the time, she says, they feel taken advantage of when media “parachute” in, particularly if they don’t feel those reports get their story right.

And that’s crucial to trauma, she says. For many survivors, at that point in a disaster or crisis, “really all they have left is their story, that is the most precious thing to them”.

“They might have lost a loved one, lost their home — then to lose their story in a way that does not feel truthful or accurate is just more pain on top of pain.”

In the wake of the 2018 Camp Fire blazes which destroyed about 19,000 homes and killed at least 85 people, Johnson packed up her San Francisco apartment and moved part-time for more than a year to Paradise, one of the worst affected communities.

She started to introduce herself as the Chronicle’s “fire reporter”, though she presumed she would return to the general news round at some point.

But the fires, more frequent and fierce than ever, have kept coming.

Catastrophic wildfires are now an almost annual occurrence in California, with eight of the state’s 10 largest fires in history having burned in the past decade. This year’s massive August Complex fires set a new record, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Focus on recovery

As well as reporting on the crisis stage of the blazes, Johnson has dedicated herself to writing about recovery, or whether recovery was possible, “writing about normal things and how not normal it is once a community is decimated”.

When she goes into affected communities, she seeks out community leaders to tell them “I’m not going to go away, I will come back and talk about the issues you might think others need to know about”.

She says there’s frustration that when the flames are burning, all the journalists want to be there, but there aren’t as many covering the “unsexy” issues of how you grapple with the aftermath, what to do because the town is contaminated and the people can’t live there or when fires burn so hot that all the underground infrastructure of a town starts to melt.

“You have to start writing and showing and story telling what it’s like to live with climate change in the ways in which people’s lives are so forever altered.”

Lizzie Johnson and the panel discussion

New challenges

Opening the webinar, leading American journalist and academic Bruce Shapiro, Executive Director of the Dart Center, said the growing intensity and devastation of bushfires that have raged in recent years on the US west coast and in Australia last summer pose new challenges for journalism.

“The scale of destruction, the risk to journalists’ lives, the risks to communities and the challenge of reporting the aftermath has always been part of the terrain of covering fires,” he told the US and Australian journalists and media students attending the webinar.

“But now the scale is greater and we can add to that the challenge of contextualising these events within the science of climate change.”

That’s particularly so when media are so often told ‘now is not the time to talk about climate change’, as they were during last summer’s Australian bushfires, said former ABC journalist and foreign correspondent Karen Percy, who moderated the discussion.

“Why is that the case?” she asked. “I know why politicians don’t want to, but why also communities?”

Panellist Lauren Markham, a California-based author and journalist, said she understands why someone who has just lost their home or community might not want to feel like they’re being “lectured” about climate change, given there is an “entire economic and political apparatus that exists to stop people believing (the science)”.

But she says that’s also why it’s important to focus on the aftermath, warning that “the more we’re covering climate change events as concise events…with a clear boundary around when they begin and end, the more we abstract climate change”.

Markham says she has long been struck that “in the popular imagination”, the lifespan of a fire crisis is very short from start to end, and has become even shorter in recent years with so many wildfire disasters on the US east coast — “we have whiplash”, she said, adding there are now so many fires in California that people forget their names.

Percy adds that in Australia we had the 1983 Ash Wednesday and 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. In 2019-20 we had Black Summer, which burned from September to March.

Johnson said it can be infuriating to try to connect the dots over and over again about the science behind the increasing frequency and ferocity of bushfires.

But rather than trying to hit people over the head with the role of climate change, she tries to report on What does climate change feel like? –  “slipping it in the side door” so people are already invested in the story before the science is raised.

While Johnson’s dedicated focus on wildfire reporting sounds an obvious need in journalism right now, it’s still unusual, to the point that Markham has written an in-depth article for Columbia Journalism Review about her.

Johnson’s work also featured in a Longform Podcast here, in which she describes this report: (republished in the Reader’s Digest from the (paywalled) Chronicle: 150 minutes of hell: a freak fire tornado lays waste to the Californian landscape).

Another big issue for media coverage of bushfires and climate change and other public interest journalism is the deepening crisis facing media outlets globally as their revenues dwindle, with advertising dollars lost to the big digital platforms.

That’s only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, which has seen the closure of 150 print and broadcast newsrooms in Australia alone this year, at the cost of at least 1,000 jobs, affecting particularly local news coverage.

But Johnson says she’s lucky. Asked whether ever-increasing constraints on newsrooms or might mean she can no longer commit to fire-affected, fire-risk communities for the long-term, she  told Croakey:

The Chronicle has steadfastly remained committed to fire coverage. I’m lucky in that I don’t feel concerned about their commitment.”

Bruce Shapiro on new challenges for journalism

Issues of consent

The webinar also talked about issues for the media of ‘consent’ for people and communities who are experiencing trauma amid a disaster.

Dr Denis Muller, a Victorian media ethics academic and a former news editor at The Age, researched media coverage nearly a decade ago in response to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, including asking whether or not people experiencing such trauma can actually give consent to be interviewed.

While he praised much of the coverage and found that telling their story was a big benefit for most survivors in the days following the disaster, he wrote that consent in such cases seemed more likely to be “instinctual” than informed, and put a special onus on the journalist to behave ethically.

The issue of consent is an ongoing concern for Karen Percy, who is chair of Dart Asia Pacific. She always tries to be respectful, “but I wonder how much consent has that person really given me if they are dashing from home in a state of crisis or trauma or stress?”.

Markham admitted that, as a print journalist, she might have more room than broadcast media to negotiate that consent space more gently, not switching on her recorder right away, “giving (people) time to think, giving them time to hear and digest the questions you’re asking…even the consent question is really critical”.

She understands the urgency of the deadline from the journalist’s perspective, but said that often gets prioritised over the experience of the people being interviewed.

“I know it’s always a race against time and there are some real public concerns about getting the information out there quickly….but to get a story that is complex, true, interesting and ethical is something that takes an investment of time.”

Johnson fully agreed, saying that often when she drops into to fire zones she feels like an untrained therapist, trying to help someone understand their experience.

She believes most people understand consent and have a story to tell, and even may feel better telling a stranger than if they were telling a friend or family.

But she tries to take it slowly and signal when the harder questions are going to come, checking if the person is ready to manage them.

“You don’t want it to be ‘please tell me the hardest thing that’s ever happened to you….okay, great, I’m going to go now!’,” she said.

She tries to take time to sit with people, asking what they made of the experience, where they are finding hope, what they have planned for the day, and then “taking slow steps back out” of a traumatic interview.

“It’s not right to ask someone to go to those hard places with you and then leave them to figure out how to get out of the hole themselves,” she said. “By taking the time to ask real questions that are also unrelated to the trauma they’re going through, you’ll end up with a richer story.”

Vicarious trauma

Veteran ABC TV senior cameraman Peter Drought told the webinar that his first experience of covering bushfires came in 1983, with Australia’s Ash Wednesday blazes that burnt across Victoria and South Australia and killed 47 people.

He remembers turning up in jeans and a t-shirt, with limited technology, no mobile or satellite phones or other means of getting footage out. Media crew just jumped into the back of fire trucks and followed the fire fighters into the fires, he said.

Now there is a lot better technology and resources, including training and personal protection equipment (PPE) to wear. “But the fires have got bigger,” he said.

More than 170 people died in Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, including more than 30 in Marysville alone, while the 2019-20 megafires in New South Wales and Victoria left massive destruction, laid out in the recent final report of the Bushfires Royal Commission.

It catalogues 24 million hectares burnt, 33 people killed, over 3,000 homes destroyed, nearly three billion animals killed or displaced.

Australian media now face more regulations covering bushfires than they did back in the 1980s, though it varies greatly by state, Drought told the webinar.

Victorian media have to do online accreditation every two years, which is highly regarded and recognised across Australia, “but our state doesn’t recognise anyone else’s”, he said.

That can have unintended risks, he said. In huge fires, where Victorian media crews may need relief, restrictions on interstate crews can lead to “a lot of cowboy media breaking rules, heading down back roads to try to get access because the media units of the emergency services won’t facilitate it,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic was also looming as a worry until Victoria got its second wave under control, but it has also curtailed much coverage of the aftermath of the 2019-20 fires, overtaking it as a news priority and also stopping media from visiting regional communities.

But also different to coverage these days, versus his early years, Drought said, is the shift in recognition that people working in the media are also affected by trauma.

It used to be a case of ‘suck it up and deal with it, it’s what you’re paid to do’, he said, but now he is a founding member of the ABC’s peer support program which was developed in collaboration with the Dart Centre. See these many resources.

Drought told how recently an ABC crew parked their car in a fire area, got themselves and their gear out and walked away just as a burnt tree snapped in half and fell on the car, completely crushing it.

“They were both fine, but that journalist still can’t sit under a tree, whether it’s for a picnic or work,” Drought said. “He gets very nervous.”

The cameraman didn’t take it so badly, “but his wife said ‘you’re not going to any more fires, we’ve got kids’.”

Drought says peer support representatives spend a lot of time talking to colleagues and referring them if needed to specialist support. It’s not only for those who have covered bushfires, but for journalists covering their first car accidents, dealing with upset families at a crime scene, also editing staff who often have to manage footage which is raw and uncut.

“Without a doubt it makes a huge difference being able to talk to a colleague,” he says.

Markham agrees that many people still don’t want to admit to vicarious trauma.

“They think ‘I’m paid to do this, my house didn’t burn down, I didn’t have to walk from El Salvador by myself as a 17-year-old kid’.”

But she thinks that those who experience it should not think of vicarious trauma as over-indulgence. It is, she says, a real hazard of the job that can get in the way of a person’s work but also should be seen “as a function of human compassion and human care”.

In writing about the impacts of vicarious trauma for immigration attorneys, Markham was struck by learning that trauma and vicarious trauma leave similar marks — that if we are traumatised vicariously, our bodies and our brains often don’t know that the trauma wasn’t ours to begin with. The symptoms are often quite similar if less potent.

It’s a stunning metaphor, Markham says, of the great human understanding “that what happens to one of us matters to all of us”.

Peter Drought

This article is published as part of Croakey’s ongoing contribution to the Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented collaboration involving hundreds of media outlets around the world. It is co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian. Croakey invites our readers, contributors and social media followers to engage with these critical discussions, using the hashtag #CoveringClimateNow. See Croakey’s archive of climate and health coverage.If you value our coverage of climate and health, please consider supporting our Patreon fundraising campaign, so we can provide regular, in-depth coverage of the health impacts of the climate crisis, taking a local, national and global approach. All funds raised will go to a dedicated fund to pay writers and editors to put a sustained focus on the health impacts of climate change. Please help us to produce stories that will inform the health sector, policy makers, communities, families and others about how best to respond to this public health crisis.

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