Writing for Change: Can Storytelling Save the Planet?

by Theresa Leisgang (@besal)

Greta has not spent a single Friday in school since the beginning of the year. Little was the Swedish girl to know that one day over a million children in 1,700 places around the world were going to join her, demanding a radical change in climate politics. How did this happen? The story of a 16-year-old on strike went viral.

Greta’s call for new approaches to tackle global warming comes at a time when the United States is withdrawing from the global climate agreement, and when even in Germany, the home of the Energiewende, indifference marks the political climate in the face of rising sea levels. A schoolgirl has succeeded in bringing back discussions about “tipping points” to front pages around the world. Greta has not only inspired other young people to take part in the #FridaysForFuture movement, but her success has also motivated more than 23,000 scientists to support them.

What can the story of Greta Thunberg teach us about dynamics in environmental journalism? Can journalism change the way we look at the environment? Should journalism inform or educate the general public? Should it become a constructive agent for change in society? What role have journalists played in the adoption of environmental policies like the Basel Convention on toxic waste? How can environmental historians, media scholars, and journalists enrich each other’s perspectives? Questions like these were at the core of lively discussions at the Center for Advanced Studies at LMU Munich on 28 and 29 January 2019.

Junior and senior scholars from Europe and the Americas responded to the invitation by Simone Müller (Rachel Carson Center, LMU Munich) and Evi Zemanek (University of Freiburg) to attend the international conference “Writing for Change: Environmental Journalism Then and Now.”

Who could be a better host for discussions about the history of environmental journalism than researchers at the Rachel Carson Center, which takes its name from a highly influential writer? Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962, brought environmental concerns to the American public, inspiring a whole movement and the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (1, 2).

The workshop was accompanied by live tweets, with a hashtag inspired by Rachel Carson: #writingforchange.

Follow these accounts to learn more about environmental history and journalism: @haztravrcc, @mrneuzil, @Umweltredakteur, @DLHeidenblad, @RosDonald, @jonas_stuck, @AyushiDhawan2, @AyeDic, and @besal.

This thread leads you through day one of the conference: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1089802595529641984.html.

In his keynote speech, professor and journalist Torsten Schäfer (Hochschule Darmstadt—University of Applied Sciences) shed light on the historical context, ethical dimensions and social relevance of environmental journalism, a domain of journalism he called a “new key discipline.” Reporting on the issue of climate change comes with several challenges: It is neither sexy nor easy to understand. It lacks news values like timeliness or urgency (cf. the concept of “slow violence” coined by Rob Nixon (3)), specific places (droughts affect whole regions), or stars—Greta Thunberg is an exception…

So journalists have to find a new approach that goes beyond the dominant framework of technology and economy. Alternative frames to tell stories of climate change are society, arts, culture, health, and daily life—in other words, topics that matter to people (cf. the #MetsUnite movement in the US that Rosalind Donald would go on to discuss on the second day). An important tool for writers is storytelling, since “facts convince the mind but not the heart,” as Torsten Schäfer explains.

Another key problem in climate journalism is the lack of resources: of money, people, and especially time. Improving research conditions would mean creating more funds, working in teams, and building stronger networks between journalists and scientists. To make climate stories more prominent, structures need to change, according to Schäfer. He is convinced that “we need to offer more advanced training courses, create study programs for environmental journalism, and deepen knowledge about sources.” That way, we will also take the role of science in shaping society more seriously—a process already initiated by the alliance between the schoolchildren of #FridaysForFuture and the Scientists for Future movement.

Get an overview of the keynote in this Twitter thread: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1090246020968124417.html.

From the Bible to Greenpeace: The History of Environmental Journalism

What’s the weather like? Have you heard of the earthquake? Stories of nature and the environment have always fascinated humankind.

Mark Neuzil (University of St. Thomas) traced the history of environmental journalism all the way back to the Bible, where in the book of Isaiah, we find the first record of environmental degradation being attributed to human pollution: “The earth is also polluted by its inhabitants, for they transgressed laws…” (Isaiah 24:5)

Neuzil took the audience on a journey through time to show that successful writing always follows archetypal stories. His advice: Use storytelling techniques to make climate change tangible. Think about old myths like the great flood, think global stories locally, find a hero to accompany on his quest: “Write lovingly about earthworms!” To get his students in Texas attuned to nature writing, he sends them out into the wild or lets them have a philosophical conversation with an apple.

As proof that experimental writing can be fruitful in talking about complex issues, consider this: poets initiated the development of an environmental movement in Argentina in the 1960s. Ayelen Dichdji (National University of Quilmes) speaks of a “counter-culture” created by journals like Eco contemporáneo or Mutantia, since mainstream media did not take up environmental issues at the time. Rachel Carson’s writing was a source of inspiration for the editors, just as it was for people in Europe.

David Larsson Heidenblad (Lund University) and Doubravka Olšáková (Czech Academy of Sciences) presented on how environmental movements started growing in Europe. At the time, the Czech author Josef Velek was not satisfied with merely reporting news, but incited his readers to take action: he co-founded the biggest Czech youth movement, “Brontosaurus,” in 1974.

Barbro Soller became the first Swedish journalist employed full-time to write about environmental topics in the 1960s, a time of a widespread belief in the “technological fix”: large parts of the environmental movement were pro-nuclear power before Soller’s writings. Her goal was to translate scientific findings and warnings into everyday language. This is an endeavor that reminds us of Greta Thunberg’s role today: Thunberg reminds journalists to break down complex realities into narratives that any reader, even a child, would understand.

Have you ever wondered how a small group of hippies was able to create the most visible environmental organization in the world today? Unsurprisingly, their media strategy has played in important role in that development. Greenpeace choreographed their actions against nuclear power plants, whale hunting, or oil mining in a way that would produce spectacular images to hand out to news outlets.

The French television channel ZED comments: “The creation of Greenpeace is probably the most exciting and heroic environmental adventure of the twentieth century. Not only has Greenpeace literally invented the concept of ecology, it has also changed people’s mentalities and international politics forever.” For more background on Greenpeace, visit the Environment & Society Portal!

Greenpeace is, of course, not the only organization making use of photos to appeal to the audience on an emotional level for environmental topics. Anna Katharina Woebse (University of Gießen) traced the tragic story of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. After taking pictures of war zones and catastrophes for decades, he had taken in so much sorrow from the degraded environments he had visited, that he collapsed. What healed him from his burnout was the series “Genesis,” for which he travelled the world to document unblemished faces of nature and humanity, telling stories of resilience, strength, and hope.

Climate change is real, but what if politics won’t listen? Nataša Simeunović Bajić’s (University of Nís) presentation on unreliable sources and “fake news” in Serbia in the second panel led to a discussion about the role of journalism: Can a society only become environmentally conscious through journalistic reporting? What responsibility does politics have to inform society about environmental hazards?

Anna Mazanik (Central European University Budapest) gave insights into the Soviet press and environmental awareness under socialism. Soviet environmentalism has been described as a “little corner of freedom” in the context of a repressive regime. In the 1950s and 1960s, investigative reports were commissioned by national newspapers and journals, e.g., on the issue of the Baikal, which led to a successful campaign to stop construction work in the sensitive ecosystem.

Concerning freedom of the press, Russia is more restrictive today:

Greta and the Polar Bear: Environmental Journalism Today

As we have seen, writers have played an important role in the development of momentum for environmental movements in the past. But where are we at now? Who defines criteria for “good” environmental journalism? What are the current trends in environmental reporting? Is Greta Thunberg a “Twitter writer?”

Alison Abbot, a journalist from Nature based in Munich, joined the event for a vivid conversation about challenges and prospects of the sector. She has been travelling to interview ecologists in Ethiopia or olive farmers in southern Italy for years, always interested in environments that are changing, but not in being the change herself.

The Tuesday panels shed light on different trends in environmental reporting and its evaluation. Beatrice Dernbach (TH Nürnberg) recommended a less personal, more analytic approach. Journalists should not tell their readers what to think, but rather what issues to think about. The greatest challenge in environmental journalism today is therefore the ability to give enough context to a complex topic.

A practical approach to improve science journalism and get away from the scandalization of environmental issues was taken by Wiebke Rögener with her research project “Medien-Doktor” (media doctor) at TU Dortmund. She defined clear criteria for identifying constructive, balanced reporting:

  1. Exaggeration/understatement
  2. Evidence presented in the article
  3. Experts and sources
  4. Pro and contra arguments
  5. Complexity
  6. News factor
  7. Opening up possible solutions
  8. Spatial dimension
  9. Timescale
  10. Context and costs

Visit http://www.medien-doktor.de/umwelt/ to find the evaluation of current reports on the environment published in German media.

Rosalind Donald (Columbia University) presented an interesting case study of engaged journalism in the United States: TV weather presenters united under the premise of using the sympathy of their audience and their enormous reach to talk about climate change in ways that matter to people in their homes and in their communities. When using the weather forecast as a platform to educate people about climate change, hosts are skating on thin ice in a country governed by denial and ignorance. That does not stop meteorologists like Bernadette Woods Placky, member of #MetsUnite, using clear and strong words to make climate change tangible for her audience: “It’s a jobs story. It’s an agriculture story. Connect it to the farm bill; boom!”

“Writing for change” requires skills. These skills are yet to be developed, and could be facilitated through additional training in journalism schools—and through academia focusing more on popular scientific publishing. Journalist Linda Solomon Wood put it this way when she called 2019 “the year of the climate reporter”:

“We’ll need reporters who know how to file freedom of information requests, read and grasp the nuances of corporate reports, check official numbers on carbon pollution, and compare public corporate spin with shareholder reports. These climate reporters will need to read widely, keep current with science and track the politics of climate policy. Above all else, they will need to write well so that they can make complex facts accessible to a popular audience.”

To facilitate a broader understanding of complex issues like climate change, science and journalism will have to strengthen the bonds between them. This is the only way that climate stories can move beyond clichés of the solitary polar bear to creative storytelling formats that will make a change in society’s environmental awareness more broadly. Take a first step now and check out these projects:


(1) Müller, Simone. “Das Umdenken herbeischreiben?” Interview in LMU magazine, January 2019: https://www.uni-muenchen.de/forschung/news/2019/mueller_umweltjournalismus.html

(2) Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

(3) Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

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