Covering local climate stories

by Ilana Hirschfeld

In recent years, national news outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times have greatly increased their reporting on climate change, employing dedicated climate journalists to cover climate change science, impacts and solutions, sometimes as front page stories. Yet this treatment of climate change as a critical story, demanding regular coverage, is still mostly reserved for national and specialty publications. In local papers, climate issues receive far less coverage, and are usually reported by journalists covering other beats such as politics or economics.

This means that most Americans rarely hear how climate change will affect the areas where they live. It also means that climate topics are covered least by the outlets that Americans rely on and trust the most. “Climate change is or will impact all of us, but many Americans don’t see it as relevant to their lives,” says Laur Hesse Fisher, Program Director at the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI). “We’re working to help change that.”

To connect climate science with local priorities, ESI launched the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative Journalism Fellowship in April 2021, supporting new reporting on climate change by local journalists across the U.S. This four-month Fellowship offers a select group of journalists a stipend and a budget that allows them to produce deeply reported, longform or serial pieces that bring climate change science together with local on-the-ground impacts and solutions.

“This project aims to weave people’s lived experiences and priorities with how climate change is playing out locally and the options that we collectively face,” says Hesse Fisher, who leads the Journalism Fellowship. “Our goal is to meet people where they are.”

An exceptional community of journalists

The inaugural cohort of ESI Journalism Fellows consists of five experienced journalists, chosen for their histories of strong local reporting, the importance and relevance of their projects, and to reflect a wide range of climate challenges and solutions in different regions of the U.S.

Tristan Baurick, an environment reporter for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate, will cover the potential for offshore wind development off the coast of Louisiana. Reporter and editor Dustin Bleizeffer, a Report for America corps member who covers Wyoming education and energy issues for WyoFile, will capture how Wyoming residents are seeing the environment change in the places they love and tie this to climate science. Melba Newsome, an independent journalist specializing in health, environmental and investigative reporting, will report from communities in southeastern North Carolina where climate change is making environmental and health disparities ever more severe. Nora Hertel, a government and investigations reporter at the St. Cloud Times, will explore the potential for carbon sequestration in the fields and forests of Minnesota. And Alex Schwartz, a Report for America corps member and environmental journalist who writes for the Herald & News in Klamath Falls, Oregon, is investigating the interplay of climate change and water rights in the Klamath Basin.

A focus on local storytelling

According to a study by researchers at the University of Colorado and the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, using local stories to identify changes to climate is more likely to convince individuals that climate change is happening. Unfortunately, local reporting is on the decline. Over the past 15 years, about 2,100 newspapers — more than one quarter of the country’s total newspapers — have permanently closed, leaving over 65 million Americans without a local paper.

This has deprived many Americans of the very outlets that are best positioned to connect climate change with local concerns. “Now more than ever, Americans are seeing massive environmental changes and large-scale clean energy deployment in their backyards, and are wondering what to make of them,” says Hesse Fisher. “By tying personal experiences to the science, we hope to stimulate more support for climate action.”

All five ESI Journalism Fellows have participated in a series of workshops with climate experts and environmental reporters, and have received funding to pursue their projects, technical support to develop multimedia publications, and access to literature, databases and other relevant resources at MIT. The Fellows will publish their pieces in their respective media outlets upon completing their Fellowships this October. They will also have the opportunity to present their findings at an ESI People, Prosperity and the Planet event this fall.

“We’re impressed with the passion, dedication and talent of our first cohort of journalists,” says Hesse Fisher, “and the goal of our Fellowship is to give them what they need to make a real impact with their reporting. Now more than ever, Americans need to hear stories on climate change that dig into the dangers and opportunities right here at home, from voices they know and recognize.”