By Sydney McGovern, Ava Borskey
BATON ROUGE, LA – As the threat of climate change grows each year, the American South is at a crossroads.
Record-high temperatures, severe storms and rising sea levels threaten the livelihood of those living on the Gulf Coast and could impose the equivalent of a 20% income tax on county-level income over the next few decades, a 2017 paper in Science Magazine found.
But in many regions most impacted by hurricanes and rising waters, fewer than 40% of residents believe that global warming will personally affect them. And in many Southern counties, half of the residents don’t believe climate change is happening at all, according to a Yale climate opinions map.
Climate change reporters in the South are acutely aware of this paradox.
“There’s just so much misinformation around climate issues here,” Lyndsey Gilpin said. “You are sort of always up against that in the South, and I think that’s the case everywhere these days with misinformation, but especially here.”
Gilpin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Southerly, an independent publication launched in 2018 that strives to provide consistent and accurate environmental news for the American South.
Southerly began as a topic-based newsletter during the 2016 election year, when Gilpin realized how frustrated she was with the gaps in news coverage in the South, particularly concerning climate-related issues.
“There’s journalists that come in and write about it and leave,” Gilpin said. “Otherwise, there’s just not a ton of reporting because people think that folks in the South don’t care, which is not true.”
Gilpin said Southern audiences should be given more credit: they may not want to talk about climate change using the same language advocates or politicians do, but they still care about the environment in which they live and depend on.
“People know that things are going on and that they’re different than they were before,” Gilpin said. “They know it’s changing, and sometimes they don’t want to talk about it in the terms that I think climate change activists or climate reporters want to talk about it in.”
Tristan Baurick, an environmental reporter for The Times-Picayune and New Orleans Advocate, agreed.
“I think that there’s a sense in those places and a lot of Louisiana that environmental issues are really important and affect a lot of people,” he said. “People on the coast, their livelihoods are just so connected to the environment and the health of the environment.”
The roadblock to engaging more conservative, southern readers may not be the substance of the reporting. Sometimes, the issue is simply the phrase itself – climate change.
“Reporting in a more conservative place, I feel like it’s a trigger word that sort of allows them to just kind of turn off their minds to the issue,” Baurick said. “It’s a reason for them to discount the story, the journalist, the newspaper.”
But perhaps just as problematic as the public’s weariness of the hyper-politicized issue is that newsrooms aren’t investing in climate change reporting as they ought to, according to many environmental reporters.
Mark Schleifstein, a reporter at The Times-Picayune and New Orleans Advocate, began his career in environmental journalism in 1974. He has spent the entirety of his career in the South and was among the first journalists covering environmental issues in Mississippi and Louisiana.
In his nearly 50 years of experience, he has noticed a shift in the way the environment is handled in the newsroom.
“We’ve been talking about what the public says about climate change, but my greater concern, as a reporter, has to do with the culture inside the newspaper and the editors,” Schleifstein said. “There continues to be more concern about economic development rather than the impacts of those economic decisions.”
A growing proportion of environmental journalists aren’t associated with any news organization. Nearly one-third of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ members are freelancers, making up the largest block of SEJ membership.
Gilpin, who freelanced for some time while jumpstarting Southerly, said that local newsrooms don’t always have the budget for full-time environmental reporters.
She remembers fighting with editors about the newsworthiness of environmental issues occurring in lesser-known places in the South.
“It’s still a lot of uphill battles,” Gilpin said. “What’s happening in places that aren’t getting attention already?”
Gilpin said place-based reporting can help catch those stories that fall between the cracks and ensure places on the front lines of climate change get consistent news coverage.
But providing that coverage can take its toll.
Covering the recovery process of Lake Charles, Louisiana, which was hit by two major hurricanes six weeks apart last year, has been difficult for Southerly’s reporters, Gilpin said.
“Our reporters had to take a break from it at some point because it was just so hard, and I think that I’ve found myself in that situation too,” Gilpin said.
Baurick said that constantly covering hurricanes, storms and flooding can become a blur. Every time it rains, it’s another climate story, Schleifstein joked.
And readers experience a similar feeling, sometimes referred to as ‘apocalypse fatigue.’ A constant news cycle of extreme weather patterns doesn’t always entice audiences to pay attention.
“That’s a very understandable reaction to the issue because it does seem so big. It seems so complicated, and it also seems so bleak, like there’s no solutions,” Baurick said. “I think for a lot of people, they would rather tune it out than read it, or they’re just like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s bad. I don’t want to hear about it anymore.’”
One of the ways to break through to fatigued readers is bringing to light climate solutions like offshore wind, Baurick noted. But striking the balance between hopeful possibilities and dismal projections can be tricky.
While running statistic-laden stories is sometimes necessary, Gilpin said it’s powerful when readers can see themselves represented, whether that’s a farmer with decreased crop yields or someone in Appalachia experiencing more frequent landslides due to mining.
“I really think that we have a responsibility to explain what’s going on and make sure that the proper decisions are being made by state and local officials and by industry and others in terms of how they’re dealing with it,” Schleifstein said.
Gilpin said that part of journalism is connecting those dots to show people that what’s happening at a national level is affecting them.
Part of that comes from providing answers to basic questions and ensuring that readers have access to accurate information they need to know, like how to get the money they’re owed after a disaster or go about community organizing.
“We have a responsibility to the places and the people we cover to make sure that they know what is happening and are able to have their voices amplified,” Gilpin said.