MEDIA: On climate change and Colorado wildfire coverage

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Colorado mountains in the smoky haze seen from south of Johnstown, August 2020. (Photo Evan Semón Photography)

Colorado is on fire again.

Last week, four major blazes scorched forests with flames leaping tree to tree during historic drought conditions as the planet warms. Main highways shut down for days. Blazes forced residents to abandon homes, and they threatened fragile natural attractions like Hanging Lake. Apocalyptic images of the state’s fourth largest recorded wildfire at the time competed for attention on social media feeds with photos (and news coverage) of breathtaking sunsets caused by the smoky haze.

Amid local coverage, some journalists and news outlets made a clear early point to mention climate change for context as part of their reporting on the fires; others left such mentions out. (This week was different, as you’ll see below.)

I wondered why, and created a Twitter poll offering four responses, the maximum number of responses Twitter allows, for those covering the fires:

To be clear, I do not believe the results, doubting heavily that 65 Colorado journalists actually weighed in — or even covered the fires. (Twitter doesn’t show who voted in these polls.) Regardless, the question drew out an illuminating discussion among some who drive the news agenda in different parts of the state. Responses at times offered a picture into Colorado’s rural-urban divide when it comes to the relationship between some news producers and their audiences.

“If we mention climate change, we immediately lose the attention of readers, to their detriment and ours,” wrote Niki Turner, publisher of the rural Rio Blanco Herald-Times in Northwest Colorado. “If we mention it, people literally turn away and won’t listen to anything else we say. It’s a terrible position to be in.”

Erin McIntyre, co-owner of the small Ouray County Plaindealer, backed her up. Sometimes, McIntyre added, “the story is more of a ‘breaking news’ story and there isn’t room to get into that because it’s just too big to tackle in the space/time constraints.” (For more on the discussion, see here; find an argument against the former point here.)

This isn’t a new debate. Two years ago, Columbia Journalism Review criticized local coverage in California, writing how climate change played “second fiddle” as the state burned. The report’s author, Jon Allsop, saw it as “part of a broader trend of news organizations doing detailed enterprise reporting on climate, then neglecting to cite it in quick-turn stories on natural disasters.” A year later, he wrote in CJR how as California burned once again, “news outlets [neglected] climate change again.” In Colorado, there has indeed been enterprise reporting linking fires to climate change in recent years. And like in California, there also has been a lack of mention of climate change in some early stories about the blazes as they burn.

Below are a few paragraphs that did appear in local Colorado wildfire coverage last week.

From Sawyer D’Argonne at Summit Daily News:

The results of ongoing climate change and a history of questionable land-management policies are already impacting the kinds of wildfires we’re seeing today, often more frequent and more intense.
From Chase Woodruff at Colorado Newsline:
Nineteen of the 20 largest fires in Colorado history have occurred since 2000, during a two-decade-long Southwestern drought driven in large part by rising temperatures caused by climate change. The Western Slope has warmed by an average of more than four degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels, and long-term reductions in stream flows along the Colorado River and other river basins across the state have led to a dry period more severe than any the region has experienced since the 16th Century.
From Jessica Snouwaert in the Colorado Springs Gazette:
Large wildfires have become more common across the West since the 1980s as the climate has changed. The higher temperatures and drier landscapes increase wildfire risk, help fires spread faster and make them harder to extinguish, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
From Billy Jenkins at KOOL 107.9FM in Grand Junction:
As the Earth continues to get hotter, climate change is likely to bring more hard-to-predict occurrences. But as historically unusual weather happens more often, people are getting used to it. Direct evidence of climate change — extreme heat, for example — is seen as normal. That may make it hard for people to grasp how much climate change is affecting the planet, according to a study published in the scientific journal PNAS.
From Andy Stein in 5280 magazine:
How did we get here? We’ve seen very little rain produced from this summer’s Monsoon season, and [the] over past several months we’ve experienced major drought across the state. As of August 13, 100 percent of Colorado is abnormally dry and 94 percent of the state is experiencing a moderate drought. There are several areas — primarily in southwestern and eastern Colorado — facing extreme and exceptional drought, as well. Coupled with rising temperatures and the effects of climate change, much of Colorado is primed for burning.

The last one, however, caught a dart from Colorado Newsline editor Quentin Young, who said “Good to see ‘climate change’ in there. Except climate change isn’t *coupled* with the drought. Climate change is largely *to blame* for the drought, or aridification,” as his outlet has reported. “Climate change,” he reiterated, “is water change.”

This week, it seemed more climate change mentions were popping up more in non-breaking wildfire news stories, including in The Denver PostThe Aspen TimesThe Colorado Sun, and on TV at KOAANewsline’s Aug. 17 coverage went further, reporting, “Rising concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the earth’s atmosphere — mostly the result of fossil-fuel combustion — have caused many parts of the state, especially on the Western Slope, to warm by an average of more than four degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels.”

The debate over whether and when to mention climate change in wildfire coverage, and how, reminded me of something former Gazette reporter Liz Forster once said while speaking to a class about her approach to coverage from a science-based perspective. Forster majored in environmental policy and minored in journalism at Colorado College and said her major informed much of her work as a journalist when she worked at The Gazette from 2017 to 2019 beginning as an intern and becoming the paper’s environmental reporter.

Now an environmental law student at the University of Montana, Forster told me over the phone this week what it was like being a young reporter who advocated for mentioning climate science prominently in beat coverage of climactic events at a regional newspaper with a fairly conservative audience. Early on, she says, her references might have been met with a key-stroke delete during editing, but after sustained conversations about it things changed. “That was something I really respected about my editors,” she adds. “They were willing to push past that political message when I was there and support the reporting that I did.”

Forster also said she sought to treat some quick-turn wildfire coverage like a breaking news crime story: Get the news quick up on the web, sure, but then return to the story and update it with context like the number of homicides that year or other important nuance. That’s the beauty of news in the digital age. “I don’t see it as any different as that— as putting in that broader context,” she says. “So maybe the ultimate question is do [reporters] understand … are they asking what is that broader context … when it comes to wildfire, or again, is there someone in the newsroom who says ‘That’s too political, take it out?’”

Michael Kodas, senior editor of InsideClimate News and author of the book Megafire, believes there are times when it isn’t particularly appropriate to mention climate change in early reporting on raging wildfires. The relationship between climate and wildfires is complicated, he says. In his own reporting on blazes he has been criticized by readers who accused him of insinuating climate change was a driver while others argued he must be a climate denier because he didn’t go into it enough.

Climate change is big, and it’s something readers can do something about, he says. But there are also other actions individuals can take to mitigate bigger and bigger fires each year — like not developing land in certain areas, or living on it, re-thinking fire-suppression tactics, and more. Focusing on one of the other issues, though, can lead to criticism for not underscoring the impact climate has on wildfires, he says, when there are almost always multiple factors that require a certain amount of detail in reporting. It’s hard to do them all justice in a breaking news story that takes into account different ecosystems and differing relationships to climate. Some fires have clearer links to climate related issues than others.

“I do think that there are plenty of stories about wildfires that don’t mention climate change that should, and I very often see stories, like breaking news stories about the wildfires here in Colorado, where as a longtime newspaper journalist — even as focused as I am on climate — I probably would have made the same decision,” he says of not making a mention. “The people who are picking up this story want to know if their house is going to burn down,” he says of readers concerned about immediate threats.

Thankfully, and especially in the digital age, wildfire coverage for news organizations is iterative. Outlets repeatedly reporting on a wildfire as it burns can get into the larger context as they do — eventually with climate change as a main focus. On Wednesday and Thursday, two of Colorado’s most far-reaching news outlets did just that. Colorado Public Radio produced an Aug. 20 story headlined “Colorado Wildfires Are Climate Change ‘In The Here And Now’ — And A Sign Of Summers To Come.” On Aug. 19, The Denver Post’s Bruce Finley published his own 1,300-word take-out drawing a direct climate connection in the headline.

Here was the lead: “Climate change hit home in Colorado this week, exacerbating multiple environmental calamities: wildfires burning across 135,423 acres, stream flows shrinking to where state officials urged limits on fishing, drought wilting crops, and record temperatures baking heat-absorbing cities. This is what scientists, for decades, have been warning would happen.”

Indigenous storytellers can share their experiences at Native Lens on RMPBS and Tribal Radio

How has life changed for Native communities during the COVID-19 pandemic? A new partnership between Rocky Mountain Public Media and KSUT Tribal Radio in Ignacio, Colorado, seeks to find out.

From the Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education:

Native Lens invites Native and Indigenous stories to be seen and heard. Tribal college student, Charine Pilar Gonzales, who is studying cinematic arts and technology at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), was recruited as the Native Lens lead editor based on her contribution to the Rocky Mountain PBS productions “Press of the West” and “Ben Nighthorse Campbell[“]. …

The Native Lens project presents an opportunity to highlight storytellers from tribal colleges and Native communities throughout the Four Corners and beyond, enabling them to share their stories widely on multiple platforms. When released, the Native Lens’ call for submissions will encourage any Native and/or Indigenous person, and those who work, live, and serve Native communities, to submit a two- to five-minute video or audio documentary, sharing personal experiences on “how life has changed (or remained the same) since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Holding a platform for Native and Indigenous people to tell their own stories, we can create discourse about how to address systemic issues we face as individuals and as Native nations, which will also allow us to exercise visual storytelling as a medium that can increase respectful growth and ethical change,” Gonzales told the publication. “Native people controlling their own narrative is powerful,” she added.

“Collectively, native visibility in the media hasn’t been widely controlled by the people that it actually actively affects,” says Mandolin Eisenberg of Taos Pueblo in a video clip at the NativeLens site.

 

 

All someone wanting to participate needs is a cellphone camera and a personal story to see their work on Native Lens. “No filmmaking experience necessary,” says Earnest House Jr. of the Keystone Policy Center. Find out more here.

Coloradoan and Pueblo Chieftain pledge ‘to better reflect our communities’ with diversity

For the first time, Colorado’s two major USA TODAY network newspapers, the Coloradoan in Fort Collins and the Pueblo Chieftain, said they would provide a census of the race and gender makeup of their newsrooms — and make it public. View the results for the Coloradoan here, (and what the editor has to say about it here), and the Chieftain here.

Newspapers in Colorado used to provide such information to an annual survey of the American Society of News Editors, but some stopped sending it.

From Colorado’s USA TODAY network editor Eric Larsen in a column this week:

Today, I’m pleased to say that I work for a company that will actively fight for social equity, not only in the stories that we tell, but in our actions. Today, the USA TODAY Network is launching a sweeping initiative to transform its newsrooms into places that truly reflect the communities we serve by 2025. …

We’re constantly working to broaden the perspectives that we present. But some of those perspectives have been historically absent in our newsrooms. Today, it’s more clear that we have to do a better job of telling stories of diversity and inclusion both inside and outside of our walls. …

But it’s clear that we have work to do in the recruitment and retention of people of color — especially Latinos. Diverse hires we’ve made in recent years have gone on to new jobs at the Denver Post, Denverite and Boulder Daily Camera. While we’re proud to provide a springboard for journalists who want to move to larger markets, we need to work harder to build pipelines into pools of diverse candidates.

Read the whole column here.

Welcome Rachael Johnson, Colorado’s new pro-bono press freedom lawyer

As newsroom budgets dwindle and press freedom challenges have increased, the national Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press decided to provide some help to local journalists — including here.

As part of RCFP’s Local Legal Initiative, the group is focusing its attorney firepower on five states: Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Colorado. Here’s why, according to its website:

Unlike many jurisdictions, Colorado does not have an administrative appeals process or ombuds office, meaning public records requesters interested in challenging a denial must do so in court. In addition to the substantial legal need in Colorado, the state has many new and innovative reporting partnerships. And a new building in downtown Denver will soon house a number of diverse news organizations, including the Associated Press, several nonprofit newsrooms and the Colorado Media Project.
Attorney Rachael Johnson, who the RCFP says comes “with more than a decade of experience in both journalism and media law, most recently as a staff attorney for Hollingsworth LLP, where she specialized in complex litigation matters,” will handle public information and open meetings issues in Colorado. More from RCFP:
Previously, she directed the review of documents sought through Freedom of Information Act requests at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and served as a senior writer and creative communications advisor to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Johnson has also worked as a journalist, editor, and producer, as well as represented pro bono media clients for the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society’s Online Media Legal Network.

In a statement, RCFP’s legal director Katie Townsend said “there is a substantial opportunity to improve the press and public’s right to access government information and proceedings in each of these states.”

Johnson starts in Colorado Sept. 14. If you want to reach her, try the RCFP’s hotline here. “Our hotline is always available to any journalist with legal questions, in Colorado or elsewhere, so reporters should still feel free to reach out if they need help before Rachael joins us,” said the group’s spokesperson Amelia Nitz.

Colorado Press Association joins JournalList

Last fall, this newsletter reported on the activities of Coloradan Scott Yates who is trying to combat misinformation online by enacting standards to certify journalistic organizations. In June, he launched JournalList, a startup that seeks to sort out which outlets are professional journalistic operations based on associations they belong to. He argues a simple line of code, a trust.txt file, might help.

Here’s how Yates, an entrepreneur and former journalist, explains it:

Groups of publishers come together in any form. Think anything from the members of the Associated Press to the Wyoming Press Association. … Those associations join JournalList, and then encourage their members to do the same. … Anyone who publishes news on a URL and belongs to any association will want to join on this site. This will help advertisers, platforms and more know that you are who you say you are. … JournalList will compile the data, and publish it in a machine-readable format the advertisers and platforms will love.
Now, the Colorado Press Association is promoting his work to its members. From a recent CPA email:

We’ve taken the first step for you by posting our own trust.txt file, but you will be helping yourself much more by taking the next step and posting your own. It’s a new thing, but it’s really easy and may help a lot.

Through JournalList’s trust.txt files, you can list all credible associations you are a part of (like CPA!) plus your official social media channels and ownership of other websites. The file will be “a positive signal” to determine whether news posted online is trustworthy. It should also make it easier for platforms to detect fake social media accounts claiming to be connected to reputable news organizations.

Learn more about how JournaList works here.

More Colorado local media odds and ends

🤦‍♂️A recent New York Times story about a fatal house fire in Denver carried no Colorado dateline, cited or linked to zero local news outlets, but did attribute information to Twitter.
💸Two Colorado cities paid up in settlements for First Amendment complaints.
⚠️Eugene Volokh writes in Reason about the First Amendment and protesting outside someone’s home.
🚓CBS4 in Denver reports the ABC affiliate in Colorado Springs, KRDO, “approached police … after receiving a tip” about an officer.
👀Newsweek apologized, per the AP, for “an op-ed that questioned Sen. Kamala Harris’ U.S. citizenship and her eligibility to be Joe Biden’s running mate, a false and racist conspiracy theory which President Donald Trump has not dismissed.” (The op-ed’s author has Colorado ties.)
📺Bad TV graphic alert: “…there are not 155 cases of covid19 at Colorado College today. There are 155 people quarantined for exposure to a case. Covid19 is still a mess, but details matter.” (Indeed.)
📡The libertarian Independence Institute in Denver, which was broken into, plundered, and vandalized, boasts, “Our three separate video studios create the right’s media center.”
☀️From Jeff Roberts at the CFOIC: An audit of the state’s Sex Offender Management Board is a reminder of the Sunshine Law’s “unspecific meeting minutes requirement.”
🎙️This CPR story “leaves behind the political finger pointing and dives deep on what the stalemate in DC means for some of the smallest businesses in Colorado.”
📜The Colorado Magazine is “a publication for all Coloradans.”
📓Denverite journalist Donna Bryson blogs about what it’s like covering people experiencing homelessness.
⚖️The University of Colorado’s ‘Mini Law School’ registration is open again. (As a 2016 participant, I highly recommend it.)
*This column appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE

1 COMMENT

  1. Screw climate change.
    Focus on clean air, water and land.
    This will get automatically to fixing climate change without the political baggage.

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