Last week in the Root, an African American news outlet that’s part of the Slate Group, Charles Ellison asked where the political conversation around climate change was among African Americans. “President Barack Obama might be the only black person on the planet who cares about climate change,” he wrote.
Tracie Powell at All Digitocracy opened the conversation wider yesterday by placing some of the blame on outlets like the Root: “[A] reason for the relative silence is that hardly any news organizations, local or otherwise, are reporting on how climate change is specifically impacting ethnic communities; ethnic news media aren’t making the connections either.”
I’ve worked at a number of outlets — black, “white,” and otherwise — so I have a few observations here.
First, I’m not sure why black people and the media that serve them are picked on as if they are uniquely ill-informed on the topic. Why not ask why women’s publications aren’t better about covering climate? One might argue that black outlets have a responsibility to report on this because of the extraordinary impacts climate change will have on black communities. But women are just as vulnerable — so much so that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has an entire program devoted to gender. Sports are not immune to global warming, as heat- and asthma-related deaths testify. Why not ask why Sports Illustrated isn’t illustrating this?
My second thought is that there are ethnic outlets that cover climate change — Colorlines, New American Media, and Politics 365 come to mind. But then there are outlets that cover it by other names, through reporting on pollution, health disparities, public transit needs, and the federal government cutting funds for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and green jobs initiatives.
Could these news outlets do a better job of explaining how these issues relate to climate change, and how climate change could make many of them worse? Yes. The mainstream media could use a lot of improvement on making these connections as well. Comprehensive coverage from mainstream outlets would ideally include thorough reporting on racial, gender, and class impacts.
This came up in Powell’s All Digitocracy discussion, where she interviewed climate expert Marshall Shepherd, co-author of a recent report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science summing up what we know about climate change, and who is an African American. “Why are ethnic media critical to this discussion,” Powell asked, and “can’t black and brown people get what they need to know about climate change from mainstream publications?”
Here’s Shepherd’s response:
“No, because the mainstream media is not even versed in some cases on the unique vulnerabilities that ethnic minorities have to climate change. They tend to cover the larger picture but not the unique health, energy, well-being, and economic challenges we face.
“Remember, any marginalized population will suffer more from additional stresses on them. And the irony … is that ethnic minorities will suffer more even though we have a disproportionately lower carbon footprint than others.”
Earlier in their conversation, Shepherd said that ethnic media is “slipping on this issue completely.” But the media in general is slipping when it fails to report on the unique problems concerning women and people of color. As Shepherd alluded, people of color did not create the climate change problem, and neither did women. So why should their media outlets be chiefly responsible for explaining it?
Still, asking whether black people care about climate change is the wrong starting point for any discussion. I’m not alone in thinking this. Akoto Ofori-Atta, senior editor at Essence.com, will be exploring how to improve black media publications during a John S. Knight Fellowship for journalism at Stanford University. (Sounds like a few other people are thinking of this as well, and not just because #Whitlock.) One of the problems she’s identified is that black online publications sometimes find “an attachment to starting from the assumption that certain things are just true, like blacks not caring about climate change. But of course they care about climate change, and that should be the point of entry.”
There’s nothing intrinsically “wrong” with black media that prevents it from tackling large issues like climate change. Its barriers are detectable — a lack of resources being the main one. But historically the black press has not shied away from big problems, despite being consistently underfinanced. Black media was, in fact, born from tackling one of the toughest issues to resolve: racism. The black press knew it couldn’t eliminate this problem alone, but it dented it significantly by exposing lynchings. And it further nipped away at it by reporting on the less extreme signs of racism overlooked by mainstream media. “Jim Crow” wasn’t written on all of these signs. Some were labeled as “redlining” or “states rights” or “anti-busing policies.”
The simple but true part about all of this is that explaining climate change is difficult, for all reporters. Few of us — black or white — have received training on either the scientific causes or the social impacts of it. When the IPCC drops an assessment report, or the EPA announces new regulations, trust that it’s a steep learning curve for all journalists.
The science alone is toilsome, but the bigger challenge for me is explaining this for family members, friends I grew up with, and the communities I grew up in. Because they very well could have the toughest challenges coping with climate change impacts, I feel an extra responsibility to relay this in ways they understand. This means linking it to things that touch their lives regularly: asthma, transportation, racism, hip hop, religion.
That kind of intersectionality is taxing. It’s easy enough to mess up the climate science part alone; the stakes rise when adding other issues to the pot. I am sure that I have not always gotten it right. But for the reasons stated above, I do not have the luxury of ignoring it.
And while I name climate change by name, I’m far from the only reporter of color writing about the issue. It could just be that those other reporters are calling it something different.