By Sherry Listgarten
An Interview with Carbon Brief's Leo HickmanUploaded: Apr 26, 2020
Where can you find the best information about climate change online? How has President Trump affected climate journalism? Is reporting on coronavirus repeating the same mistakes that we saw with climate? And what about online discussions — are they worth the trouble? Read about this and more in my interview with Leo Hickman, the director and editor of Carbon Brief. Carbon Brief is a UK-based website focusing on climate science and policy. It is, in my opinion, one of the best resources available today for readable, in-depth climate information.
Leo Hickman is director and editor of Carbon Brief.
Hickman spent much of his early career at the Guardian, where he was a journalist, editor, and author for sixteen years, specializing in the environment. Before taking the helm of Carbon Brief five years ago, he was the WWF-UK’s chief advisor on climate change. The following is a summary of our conversation.
Why was Carbon Brief started?
When Carbon Brief was started about ten years ago, the UK media was doing “a pretty poor job” of explaining climate science, according to Hickman. “With certain key topics, including climate, the media had a tendency to cover issues with a lot of bias.” That was particularly concerning because the UK media has a disproportionate influence on English-speaking media given its early placement in the news cycle. It ripples first into the Australian media, then around to the US in the American morning. So Carbon Brief was formed to provide “a kind of online rapid rebuttal, a fact check”, and it did that job for a few years. (1)
How has Carbon Brief’s mission evolved?
When Hickman took over about five years ago, he felt that things had improved some, and he wanted Carbon Brief to “move away from advocacy type of rebuttal journalism to a very straight ‘explainer’ type of journalism”. With climate science moving so quickly, and getting more detailed and more complex, he wanted to help readers understand the important issues. “We aim to take the reader by the hand and effectively walk them through quite complicated science.” Hickman says that Carbon Brief is relatively unique in that it can do long, in-depth features on particular questions, something that traditional news media often cannot afford to do. “We hopefully have that sort of specialist niche to provide authoritative and reliable journalism that other people can use as a touchstone and as a reference point online.” Carbon Brief has a big readership among journalists, so he believes that “we’re raising the bar indirectly, leading to higher quality journalism… I hope we are still acting as a kind of corrective force for mainstream media.”
So you wouldn’t say Carbon Brief is a news organization?
Hickman is clear that Carbon Brief is not a news site and makes this analogy: “What's that expression you have in football in the US, where the quarterback ‘sits in the pocket’?. I think of us as sitting behind the offensive line, we sit behind it on purpose, intentionally.” His staff may follow a story for several weeks, making note of the questions that come up, before digging in and doing a comprehensive feature. As he puts it, “We write with a long tail, the idea being that our pieces will still be readable and fresh and relevant months later. There’s no point in our investing weeks of time to research something if it’s going to have a shelf life of just two or three days.” Articles can take months or even up to a year to write. Sometimes this can be frustrating for their audience, who would like to see the article sooner. But the science can be complicated, and they want to address the key questions. Hickman points to Carbon Brief’s coverage of the Australian bushfires as an example of where they waited for the dust to settle before diving in. The feature was in part a review of media coverage, but it also used the review as a device to address many of the open questions by incorporating what scientists were saying.
How can Carbon Brief afford to do that kind of work? What is your business model?
“That’s a great question. If you are the New York Times or The Guardian or The Sydney Morning Herald or whoever, you don’t have the time or space to spend weeks and months on one particular article… When I was at The Guardian, we relied on people paying around two pounds a day to buy the print or ‘dead tree’ version of the paper, and we relied on advertisers. That model, as we know in particular right now with the coronavirus pandemic, is under severe strain and it's then rippling into and affecting the quality of journalism, I believe. So we operate under arguably one of the best forms of business model I can think of — we are philanthropically funded.”
Hickman explains that every year they get a grant from the European Climate Foundation, a non-profit that sponsors a variety of climate-related projects across Europe. (2) Carbon Brief maintains an “editorial firewall” around their work, and is free to hire knowledgeable specialists to research and write in-depth articles. It has been working well, and in fact Hickman has received inquiries from people who are interested in improving media coverage in other domains, wondering if the philanthropic model would work for them too.
Do people actually read long articles?
Hickman has been surprised by this. “If someone had told me when I started at Carbon Brief that we would be publishing a fourteen thousand word Q&A on how climate models work, I’d have thought well, that's a crazy commission. No one's going to read that. Why would anyone want to read that?” But it turns out that people really appreciate these “foundational pieces”, and get a sense of “reassurance and confidence” from seeing that an issue has been comprehensively addressed. “I was surprised by how much this is true. If we were to study it, I think that our pieces probably got longer over time.” He adds: “I've probably done the exact opposite of what most editors do. I actually encourage our writers to go longer with our pieces rather than edit them right down into little kind of bite size pieces…. Our audience likes us to be the definitive piece on a topic.”
Carbon Brief has effectively built an archive of about 200 core pieces that cover all bases of climate science, whether it’s climate sensitivity or tipping points or attribution of extreme weather. “And you can go into them as deep as you want to. You can go into them for that graphic and that will be your takeaway. Or you'll go in and read it from top to bottom. We intentionally write our pieces quite chunked up on purpose, so you can go in and just jump straight to the bit that you want to read.”
Switching gears a little, would you say that coronavirus journalism is experiencing some of the same issues that climate journalism did? Or have some lessons been learned?
It’s a bit early to tell, says Hickman, but he’s certainly seen some parallels. “One thing it has been fascinating to observe has been that the people who are the traditional climate skeptics, the people who have prominent media positions who attack climate science, are now doing exactly the same for Covid-19.” He goes on to say that it’s very easy to mislead with science. “Both are statistically heavy news stories. We're seeing all kinds of numbers and charts and graphics flying around…. It’s very open to abuse for cherry picking, where people can just pull out (data to make) whatever point they want to make, whether this is an over-reaction by the government or an under-reaction by the government or whatever. People can just go in and find that little number that they want from a chart or a graph. And we've seen that playing out for twenty years with climate change, with the same people, the very same people, twisting the facts.” Hickman also gives the example of “false balance”, in which media may host a show in which someone is “for” and someone is “against”, even when in reality there is little debate about the facts. “That doesn’t really work for science.”
But he is optimistic in the sense that many of the environmental writers are now covering coronavirus, so they can bring along what they’ve learned.
What are some of your most popular articles, and why are they so popular?
“The way I look at this is, the more human you can make a story, the more connection and impact it’s going to have. There was an analysis we did last year, where we looked at the inter-generational injustice of climate change — how much of the carbon budget kids these days will have access to, versus what their parents and grandparents had access to. It was quite scientific, quite numeric, but really starkly highlighted the injustice of climate change from a demographic (age) point of view.”
Hickman also mentions that search ranking and tweets from people like Greta Thunberg make a big difference. “Our most popular article of all time, one of the top search results on Google if you look for something like ‘climate change causes’ is a piece we did maybe two and a half years ago, which effectively is just saying climate scientists believe that 100 percent of warming is due to humans. It’s really, really simple, actually a very uncontroversial finding the IPCC report sort of said for 10, 15 years…. But that's a classic example of something where there's obviously a widespread desire to understand the issue.”
Why are people so curious about something that has generally been well understood by scientists? This alludes to what Hickman refers to as “the Trump effect”. “In the last 2-3 years, we've seen great traffic because Trump has made climate change such a partisan, divisive issue. It’s actually kind of weirdly helped our journalism a lot because it means a lot more people are now Googling and wondering about climate change and arriving at our articles.... And now our US readership is much bigger, by far the biggest country in the world now for our audience.”
It’s important that people talk and ask questions about climate change, but online climate conversations can be tricky. Do you think they are worth the trouble?
Hickman has had real-time feedback from his readers for almost 15 years now, ever since the Guardian added comments under their articles in 2006. “I think it’s generally a healthy thing for journalists to have that level of real-time engagement with the reader, rather than waiting for a letter to the editor to be written like in the olden days… It brings journalists out of the ivory tower and puts everyone on the same level. So on that point, I think it’s good.” But he goes on to say that “there are also an awful lot of bad faith actors out there, who are just trying to wind you up and waste your time…. So it's a balance really of trying to work out what is a good faith, constructive time to engage with readers, and when you can just see they are time wasters. And I don't always get that call right.” (3)
Do you have sites to recommend for US readers interested in climate change, besides Carbon Brief?
Hickman said there are many good sources in the US, and related an interesting story about the New York Times, which he says today has “some of the best climate journalists in the world”. Apparently 3-4 years ago, the paper had largely disbanded its large environmental team, based on the reasoning that climate issues should be integrated into the section of the paper they are impacting, whether it is business or travel or similar. But when Trump started calling climate change a “hoax”, the Times editor figured he had better start staffing up again. So it’s been “a kind of a roller coaster” for that paper, and their coverage is again top-notch. “I think climate journalism is actually in quite a healthy place at the moment, possibly because of Trump, because I think news editors have realized that this is going to be one of the stories of the century. You know, in terms of a journalistic beat, it's not going away, unfortunately.”
Notes and References
1. One of my favorites of this type of writing from Carbon Brief was this analysis of emissions from watching a Netflix movie. Another very popular one is this one about EV emissions.
2. The European Climate Foundation in turn is funded by a number of large philanthropies, including the local William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
3. I am grateful for the thoughtful and generally respectful readership we have here on this blog. Your comments make the blog more interesting and relevant.
Current Climate Data (March 2020)
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