Storytelling Insight

Communicating Climate Change

As part of my research into news storytelling, I spoke to Dr Adam Levy – a Climate Scientist and Journalist. Adam runs a YouTube channel as “Climate Adam”, a persona he uses to make climate science videos that are information rich, but engaging and accessible.

I was interested in talking to Adam for a couple of reasons:

  1. YouTube is an important source of news and information for young people, and it’s important to understand why and how they engage with channels like Adam’s. The nature of the platform means creators are able to experiment with storytelling techniques and I wanted to get Adam’s take on how he goes about deciding on things like the tone, content and duration of his posts.
  2. It’s clear that young people are engaging with the specific issue of climate change in a different way than they’re engaging with other news stories, and I wanted to see if I could understand that better.

I’m interested in how young people engage with the news not just because they’re young and I have ambitions to make “news for young people”. Instead, I’m interested in their interactions because they largely get their news via their mobile devices and that is clearly where we need to focus our short to medium term innovation. The age of the linear TV news bulletin is, at best, uncertain, so it makes sense to look at how best to produce news for other devices. That means understanding how the people that make most use of those devices interact with them.

You can watch my full interview with Adam here, but here are some of the key things which came out of our conversation.

We started by talking about tone, and Adam’s “Climate Adam” persona. As you’ll see from his posts, Climate Adam is a slightly goofy character who’s often made fun of by other characters in the videos. Adam feels it’s important not to appear to be on a different level to the viewer, and making fun of himself in this way helps him achieve that. Importantly, he also feels this helps people to feel like they can reach out to him if they feel like there’s something they don’t understand, or they have further questions.

Adam doesn’t think there’s a problem with the detached, authoritative reporting style we see in traditional TV news bulletins, but does think it’s important for there to be a range of options for how we communicate and consume these issues. That was an interesting counterpoint to thoughts which came up in other conversations I had  — with Rachel Corp, Editor of ITV News, and Robin Kwong, New Formats Editor at The Wall Street Journal. They both think that viewers and readers do still think it’s important to trust the person that’s telling them the story and feel like they do have knowledge, credentials and authority. Perhaps this is a function of all three dealing with different audiences, but it also probably indicates that we want different things at different times and speaks again to the importance of having a diversity of means of communication.

Although Adam does make sure to produce posts that are timely and align with big announcements or news stories, he also says that “context is everything”. By that he means it’s important to put all of his posts in the wider context of the science or events that have gone before — not just reporting “on the day” events. He thinks this comes largely from his scientific background, where a new report or paper can’t be meaningfully understood unless it’s put into a wider context. This is perhaps something that traditional broadcast journalism is weak on, as time constraints often mean the focus has to be on immediate events, and some of that wider context is missed.

Adam feels the reason young people care about climate change in a unique way is because they have grown up with it always being an issue, and really always knowing that not enough is being done. They do feel like older generations have “dropped the ball” and they’re increasingly motivated to not accept that passively. He says he’s come across a lot of fear and anger and as long as that doesn’t lead to despair, it can be an important motivating impulse.

On that front, while lots of Adam’s videos are heavily scripted and humorous he’s also noted that unscripted, personal and emotional responses to particular events — such as the birth of his niece — have also proved successful and resulted in a different form of engagement with his viewers. People appreciated hearing how those things made him feel and that created a feeling of “community” because they resonated with other people too.

Adam had some really interesting things to say about how the climate change story is treated by traditional media, in that it’s put in the “wrong place” as a standalone issue, rather than something that should be part of how we look at the economy, farming, technology — indeed almost everything. The news is heavily “silo-ed”, perhaps because we have traditional specialist correspondents and not enough focus on looking at climate change which touches every part of our lives.

Similarly, Adam also made the point that, in the Budget for example, traditional media will largely only report on things that are announced or included, but rarely reports on things which are missing. So — for example — if there’s nothing about climate change in the Budget, nothing about climate change is reported. However, that omission may be as newsworthy (perhaps more) than the things which are included.

On one of the hot topics in journalism, Adam is clear that the time when the basic science of climate change was up for debate has long passed. He thinks debate is important, but it should focus on genuine questions within the scientific community — such as “what’s the best way to get to net zero?” rather than false debates about whether climate change is real or not.

The important things which I’ll take away from our conversation are, thinking about how we de-silo news and make our reporting more integrated and holistic. We also need to think hard about the tone of our reporting, and finding the balance between not talking down to our audiences but still being credible and trustworthy.

Has this sparked ideas for you?

Do get in touch if you want to pick up on any of these thoughts.