Good and bad climate journalism with Denise Hruby

The journalist, who has worked around the globe, came to Harvard to research how media can elicit climate action from political and industry leaders.
Jan 22, 2024

“I don’t see why the climate is not on the front page of every newspaper every single day,” says Denise Hruby. “Every story has a climate change angle: every election story, every economic decision.”

The 2024 Nieman Fellow is spending her year at Harvard investigating how journalists can better report the biggest story of our time. The Austrian-born Hruby has the cred to tackle the question: After a decade reporting in Asia, she has focused extensively on climate in Europe, covering topics like melting glaciers in her native Alps and how climate change is affecting the economy for National Geographic Magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other outlets. 

Hruby, who is also a National Geographic Explorer, recently sat down with the Salata Institute to discuss the climate stories she wants to read, why blaming individuals makes the transition to renewables harder, and how focusing on solutions alone sidesteps the problem. 

Journalist Denise Hruby stands in a a field with low-lying structures in the background. She holds a camera.
Denise Hruby in the field. Photo Credit: Hannah Reyes Morales

How did you begin reporting on the climate? 

Hruby: Early in my career, when I was working for a newspaper in Cambodia, our newsroom received a press release from an NGO working on adaptation to sea-level rise. I brought it to the editor because I wanted to cover it. But he called it a hoax. He said the NGO was simply trying to get more money from donors. And that was the end of the discussion. Yet this was a very liberal news outlet known for wonderful investigative reporting and strong human rights coverage – so, not what you would expect. 

While I was there – this was more than 10 years ago – the paper never directly discussed climate change. We reported on it, of course, because there were droughts and floods affecting hundreds of thousands of people, but we never directly linked these to climate change, because just hearing “climate change” made that one editor dismissive. 

I moved to China a few years later. And China at the time – this was 2015 to 2018 – was really trying to get air pollution under control. And I think this happened in part because it wasn’t an issue that affected only a marginalized community, but everyone, including those in power and their families. With air pollution, it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, we all breathe the same air, and so there were days when the political elites couldn’t send their children to their expensive private schools because the air was so bad. 

We’re reaching – or have already reached – a similar point with climate change. Everyone’s affected. It’s our job as journalists to help people understand that. 

How had Europe changed when you came back from China? 

Hruby: There was so much more awareness of climate. Everybody was starting to talk about it, not just the green parties. Even within the far-right parties, some of my sources were telling me that they were thinking about how they could include climate in their programs because they worried about losing young voters. Since then, they’ve decided to go in the other direction. 

There are huge economic opportunities in implementing climate action, but we also need to be realistic about the fact that this is going to be hard for a lot of people, and the far-right parties see that many are unhappy about the changes that will be necessary. And so, the far-right parties have seized this opportunity to tell people that we can continue living the way we have without any consequences. That’s a lie, of course, but it’s comforting to a lot of voters. 

You grew up in the Alps. How does that inform your climate reporting? 

Hruby: I grew up in a pretty pristine environment and spent a lot of time outdoors – hiking, foraging, winter sports. That’s just the local culture. I would never have thought that anything about the way I experienced my childhood would change. I have several godchildren now and they grow up so differently. For example, winters used to be all about snow. It would snow in November and we would have snow on the ground through March. Now, it feels like a rare, special phenomenon. 

So much of my culture is based around snow, winter, and skiing. When I was young, 60 percent of Austrians skied on a regular basis; one’s socioeconomic background didn’t matter, only your proximity to the slopes. Now that number has dropped dramatically because we don’t get as much snow. So, we’re not just talking about an economic loss, but about a loss of culture. 

While I was abroad, I saw the changes in the Christmas photos my family would send. At some point I realized there was no snow in the photos anymore. One year doesn’t raise eyebrows; that’s winter, it changes. We’ve had Christmases without snow before. But when it’s every winter, it becomes stark. That’s what drew me to move back to Europe to report on the climate there. 

As a Nieman fellow, you are researching how journalism can elicit climate action from political and industry leaders. What is the role of the media in confronting climate change? 

Hruby: The role of journalism has always been to give people the information they need to make the best and most well-informed decisions about their lives – whether that’s about their own community, their personal lives, or who they’re going to vote for. Journalists have always had this hope: You bring an issue into the daylight, you report on it; then people can use that information to make better and more informed decisions, and perhaps even improve their own lives, those of others, their community, their country. I’ve done investigations that have led to lawsuits, that have been used as evidence in political hearings, so I was lucky enough to see the impact journalism can have.  

We have the same role when it comes to reporting on climate change: giving readers the information they need to understand the issue, and how we can get out of this mess. People – whether everyday people or politicians and industry leaders – still need to make their own decisions, but they need to have information to make an informed decision.

So, the journalist should not take a position on the climate?

Hruby: No, but I find that an interesting question. That almost suggests that there’s an A or a B depending on your politics. Journalists report the truth, and the truth is that climate change is already destroying our way of life, and that things will get much, much worse. And we need to be clear in saying that the only way out of this is by cutting our emissions. That’s not taking a position, that’s reporting the truth. 

If I were to write a story that says smoking causes cancer, I doubt that anyone would accuse me of being partisan, or that I somehow have a personal vendetta against the tobacco industry. It’s simply what science has found to be true. You can decide to smoke. But you need to know the consequences, and, crucially, you need to know how you can quit, and, yes, that a future without cigarettes would be better. 

It’s similar with climate: You need to know that if we continue emitting all these greenhouse gasses, we are headed for a very, very bleak future. But you also need to know that we have all the solutions, that we can wean our economies off emissions, and that while it might be hard right now, doing so would result in a much brighter future than what we’re looking at now. 

Yet this has become divisive in our polarized political ecosystem: A not insignificant minority of people believe that climate change is some sort of hoax exaggerated by the media. How can climate reporters rebuild trust with readers?

Hruby: You’re absolutely right. It’s been turned into a political issue in this country when it shouldn’t be. And I hope this is not happening to the same extent elsewhere in the world, though in many places it already is. 

There are several things we can do. One thing is to avoid antagonizing the local communities perhaps hardest hit by the economic transition, those that depend for their livelihoods on industries that we must reform or where we must find alternatives. It’s not helpful to tell, say, coal miners in Appalachia – who have been mining for generations and who helped build this country’s wealth – to tell them that everything their community has ever stood for is wrong. We must understand and acknowledge what they’ve contributed. And we must show a new way forward and a new future; that it’s not us against them or the liberals against the conservatives, but that we’re all in this together. 

You can’t do this from Washington or New York. You need to go to local communities. You need to honestly listen to them, not with a specific story or angle in mind already, and then write about them in a way that is respectful and acknowledges how hard their position is, that it’s their own industry that is letting them down. 

As individuals, it’s not that we are failing each other. It’s our political and industry leaders who are failing.

What else are climate reporters missing? 

Hruby: A lot of papers in the U.S. are doing an incredible job and have invested so much in climate reporting. 

There is a lack of reporting on the young generation and their concerns; reporting that’s at eye level with them. I think many young people do not feel heard, especially by what’s now called the traditional media or the mainstream media. There’s a huge opportunity to pick up these young readers by reporting on climate.

A big issue is also that a lot of the reporting is – naturally – very negative. Sure, climate change is inherently a negative story. We’ve made some progress, but we are so, so, so far away from where we need to be. So, a lot of reporting upsets people. It drives climate anxiety and climate fatigue. People read that climate change has caused another flood, another heatwave, and they don’t want to read it anymore. 

These doomsday stories – we do need them because it’s the news; it’s what’s happening. At the same time, we know that people want to learn more about solutions, about a way forward.

I don’t want readers to finish a story and feel like all is lost, that we’re all doomed. That doesn’t serve our readers, and it’s not what they want. They know that they have agency, and that’s why they want to hear about solutions. 

Sometimes solutions stories seem to give false hope, though, to suggest something is scalable when it is not. Is that false hope dangerous? 

Hruby: Yeah, I think the obvious danger is that people think, ‘we’ve got this, we’re done here’, that someone else is already taking care of the problem.

I see a lot of solutions stories that seem so desperate to offer good news that they gloss over the fact that it can’t be scaled, or not to the extent that we would hope. Solutions journalism should look at a solution and all the criticisms of it. That’s one thing.

The other thing is that we must strike a balance between all the present-day negativity and showing a path forward. We need to think more deeply about how we report climate stories. 

In every story about a heat wave, a wildfire, or the rising sea levels, we must start pointing our readers to potential solutions – both in terms of adaptation and mitigation. If these solutions are falling short, which they generally are, at least for now, we need to include the reasons. People need to be better informed about the way out of this mess and how they can contribute. It could be just a line or two, just enough so that readers understand that yes, climate change is really, really, bad, and it’s going to get worse, but there are things that can be done about. 

That’s a huge opportunity for journalism. First, very selfishly, because it would help publications attract new audiences that are turned off by all the negativity – and retain others growing weary. Second, and perhaps more importantly, stories that also point to solutions would better serve our readers – and help us fulfill our journalistic responsibility.

These days, many media outlets have big climate desks, maybe a dozen or more reporters at major newspapers and wires. Plus, there’s a whole industry of websites covering climate. Does it ever seem there is too much climate journalism? Could all this content feed a fatigue that turns readers off thinking about the problem? 

Hruby: I don’t think so. Because there is no other topic, no other issue that’s going to impact us more. Nothing else matters more. Presidents come and go. Democracies sometimes backslide, sometimes they do better; things change all the time. But climate change is going to affect every single person on this planet in ways that we can’t even yet fathom. Given how fundamental and permanent these changes are – not just for us, but all the other species on the planet and all the future generations – I don’t see why the climate is not on the front page of every newspaper every single day. 

That said, I do think that it’s not always helpful to have climate as this separate thing. Just like papers have a politics or economics section, many now have one for climate. The fact is that climate affects everything else, and so I think that we need to move to a point where newsrooms don’t just have this one or two or 10 climate reporters, but where every single reporter in every single newsroom writes every – or at least every other story – thinking about the climate angle of that story as well.

What advice would you give a smaller newsroom, maybe a local paper that’s strapped for resources, on how it should go about reporting the crisis.

Hruby: You don’t need one dedicated climate change reporter. Sure, it helps, because that person can help other beat reporters think about climate. But you can also ensure that every reporter has a basic understanding of the science of climate change by tapping into some of the resources out there, like online training specifically for journalists to learn about climate. Give everyone a few hours to do that and ask your reporters to think about the climate angles in their stories. 

Every story has a climate change angle: every election story, every economic decision. Even sports: Think about how your local stadium is preparing for, say, flooding? How is your local team going to play during a heat wave, how are the athletes going to stay safe? If you bring climate into the beats you’re already covering, you’ll not only have a plethora of new stories, but you’re going to better inform your readers, and you’re going to better serve your community. 

Let’s come back to your own reporting. What was the most rewarding story – one with a climate angle – that you’ve done? 

Hruby: The first that comes to mind is one I wrote recently, about a biologist who has been trying for decades to protect this incredibly rare ibis. It’s his life’s work. These migratory birds are now unable to fly south across the Alps, probably because the warming climate had not only delayed their migration, but somehow changed the conditions they needed to traverse the mountains. Instead of accepting that these birds will die out, he taught them a new migratory route, flying ahead of them in an ultralight aircraft, which looks incredibly spectacular. He succeeded, and I profiled him for the New York Times

It was one of the top-performing profiles of the year, and the responses were just overwhelming: hundreds of readers said how inspired they felt, how much they needed this glimmer of hope. They also pointed out how much of a difference one person can make if they’re really committed, even when there are a lot of naysayers, or when the odds are against you. Being able to give readers some hope felt very rewarding. 

However, I also believe that we shouldn’t place too much emphasis on what individuals are doing. This goes back to one of your earlier questions. So many stories are about individual solutions, what you can do in your own backyard. While all of that is important – and I applaud everyone who has taken measures like installing solar panels on their roof, we need more of it – the inverse is blaming individuals for their actions, for mining coal when it’s the only job they can get, or driving a car. When we point fingers at each other, we overlook that it is our political and industry leadership that has the most power. It is they who need to make the changes. It’s not going to be just individuals.

I think that’s also what causes people to feel overwhelmed. On the one hand, we’re being told it’s up to us: don’t fly so much; don’t drive a car. And all those things. While all of that is true, a lot of these changes for many individuals aren’t possible without the right policies. I came to Harvard from Europe. How was I going to do this without boarding a plane? Or take the first apartment I lived in in Vienna, which was heated with gas. How am I, as a tenant, going to change how the entire building is heated? We’ve got to be realistic about what one individual can do. If you beat that drum too much, ‘Oh, you have to change yourself, it’s on you’ – that’s just not helpful. And it’s exactly what a lot of people who are in power want us to think. That shifts the blame. 

What keeps you up at night? 

Hruby: My work – and how journalism can do better. If you think about the past, there are so many examples when journalism played an instrumental role in righting a wrong, just by shining a light on it, or where we really helped the public understand how damaging something was. Just think about how journalism helped people understand the ozone hole, which was caused by our use of CFC gasses, and what action needed to be taken. Then in the ‘80s, our governments agreed to phase out CFCs, and now the ozone layer is on track to recover. I want journalism to be a bigger contributor now as well. 

I think most of my fellow journalists are on board with that. We know what a big crisis it is and we’re looking at how to better report it, what stories to cover. We’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past, but I think that now we’re generally on an upward trajectory within the journalism world. That makes me quite hopeful, at least about my industry. I can make a little bit of a contribution within my realm and by what I do.