On Monday, New York Times climate journalist Raymond Zhong sat down with Professor Claudia Dreifus of the Columbia University School of Professional Studies to talk about his work and process.

On Monday, October 30, the Columbia University School of Professional Studies (SPS) hosted a conversation entitled “How We Cover the Biggest Story on Earth: Climate Change” to explore the nuances of science journalism in relation to climate change, a particularly relevant issue to modern readers. The event featured an interview between New York Times climate and environment reporter Raymond Zhong and prize-winning science writer Claudia Dreifus of the Sustainability Management Program from SPS.

After reporting on technology and business from China and Taipei, Zhong went on to be part of the team that won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in public service for coverage of the pandemic. For the past two years, Zhong has been writing for The New York Times’ climate desk. When asked why he came into climate writing with little experience in science journalism, he answered simply that he has always been astounded by the natural world. As a young child, he was fascinated by National Geographic and the beauty of complex ecosystems.

Delving into what makes the Times unique, Zhong emphasized the newspaper’s ongoing commitment to climate change coverage, as demonstrated by their reestablished climate desk. In particular, he expressed that the Times was dedicated to investing in “even the boring stuff.” A recent article that went up about the American energy grid and the energy department’s efforts to reduce consumption falls into this category for Zhong, as an essential story despite its uncatchy headline.

On the desk, writers focus on a wide range of climate-related issues, from foreign policy to energy use and its social ramifications. Zhong’s work is primarily analyzing academic papers and making a scientist’s work accessible to “an intelligent fifth grader.” He wants to recover the “discovery” behind a scientific paper, reporting on the origins of a hypothesis or ideas when they first formed. When Dreifus later asked him about the five biggest mistakes scientists make when talking about their work, Zhong named scientists’ failure to limit jargon and make their work accessible to general audiences. 

In the sphere of accessibility comes reader engagement as well. How does Zhong grab the attention of readers, inform them of climate science, and encourage them to take action? Within the publishing process, Zhong advocated for a balance between graphics and writing to deliver information in the best possible way. While every scientific paper has graphs and charts to express data visually, not all graphs tell stories equally. “You can’t just reproduce an academic paper,” he said, and the bar for graphics at The New York Times is especially high. 

Additionally, the shift from mathematical models to tangible outcomes has been reflected in the media. Since the 1970s, when predictive models were first produced, climate change has become a more visible issue. Since June, temperatures have been “cresting over the average,” with October set to be the “hottest October on record.” With this increased prominence of heat waves and sea level rise among other effects, readers are more invested in day-to-day weather coverage provided by the Times.

Looking ahead to the future of science journalism, Zhong outlined a need to cover the topics implicated in the conversation about climate change: the private sector, policy needs, and social ramifications. As of now, climate writing focuses primarily on understanding greenhouse gas emissions and processing data. While publicizing this information is necessary, we also need to know about possible adaptations to the changing environment.

Following the interview portion, Dreifus opened the event to audience questions. One of the first questions was asked by a graduate student, who wanted Zhong to elaborate on his vision for increased coverage of policy or the private sector. Zhong emphasized the work of local governments as many communities are experimenting with different forms of government such as merging. This restructuring has widespread effects on policy and is important to cover.

The next couple questions focused on the “paralyzing effect” that media can generate: does pessimistic climate coverage push readers towards apathy about the environment? While Zhong agreed that the Times’ articles often omitted “hope” from their coverage, he was unsure about the role of journalists in remedying this. Should hope be embedded in reporting on politics or war? At any rate, he did believe that the media could remind people of why climate work is important and why the earth is worth protecting in the first place.

One of the last questions was centered around how climate journalism could widen its lens beyond scientific data or United States-specific issues. The New York Times features work by journalists in Iraq and Northern Africa, among other regions, to highlight the diverse populations that respond to climate change. Additionally, Zhong emphasized how climate coverage was “folded into everything else,” showing up in articles about politics and international affairs.

In closing the event, Dreifus posed a final question for Zhong: what about his beat makes him optimistic for the future? While certain technological solutions appear complex and unlikely, the economics of solar and wind power are changing and their rollout is actively happening. There is evidence that we are overcoming barriers, and this is “hugely encouraging” for readers and journalists alike.

Image via Bwog Archives