The Evolution of Climate Change Reporting: Q&A With Barb Moran, Environment Correspondent for WBUR

Apr 18, 2022 Hilary Katulak

At Inkhouse we help innovative companies combating climate change get their stories told. Over the past twenty years, climate journalism has undergone a massive shift. As the awareness and urgency around climate change increase around the world, it is now one of the most important topics for newsrooms. 

We had the privilege of speaking with Barb Moran, a reporter for WBUR’s environmental team, about her experience. For 25 years, she has worked as a science journalist covering public health, environmental justice and the intersection of science and society. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, New Scientist, Technology Review, the Boston Globe Magazine and the Hartford Courant, and she also produced television documentaries for PBS, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel and others. 

Barb spoke with Inkhouse about how the narrative around climate change has shifted, the hardest part about science journalism, what stories most excited her, and more. 

What inspired your interest in climate journalism? 

Barb: I always wanted to be a writer ever since I was young, and I was also interested in science, but not so interested in becoming a scientist myself! When I got out of college, I got a job working for a senior citizens’ magazine and started to do a lot of medical writing. I liked it, thought it was really important, and decided it’s what I wanted to do. I then went to graduate school at BU for science writing, and from there did a lot of documentary filmmaking and magazine writing about various science, medical and environmental topics – especially the cross over between science and society. 

It’s probably about 10 years ago when I really started focusing on climate change specifically. People have known that climate change is real for over 50 years, but I think scientists really started to understand how quickly things were happening and how much was happening around a decade ago. The more I understood what was going on, the more I knew it was what I needed to focus on. For a long time I felt like a person shouting at a wall, but a few years ago I felt a huge shift. Around that time we had our first big year of catastrophic wildfires, and I remember that being the first time scientists started coming out strongly saying it was influenced by climate change. I think from that point on, everybody woke up. 

When I went to work for WBUR they were just starting a team to cover environmental issues and a lot of climate change. From then until now there has been a big awakening around the world to the issue. 

How has science journalism and climate reporting changed since you first got started?

Barb: It’s funny, when I first went to WBUR my main goal was to get the words climate change on the air! I was really trying to convince people that is happening. But now I think we’ve succeeded, and people know it’s happening – at this point, I think everyone can acknowledge that climate change is real. 

Now I think we’re at a point where the public is overwhelmed and burned out by climate change – and the doom and gloom that comes with it. And I think a lot of people wonder what they can do about it. I have shifted away from being the doom and gloom lady (although it sneaks in sometimes because some of this news is really bad!), and try to focus more on solutions. I am a journalist and not an advocate, so I don’t pick one solution over the other because I honestly think we need to be doing everything. We need to plant more trees, we need electric cars, we need to suck carbon out of the sky, and we need to use less water! To that end, I look for stories about what local people are doing around me. I think that helps listeners and the audience grab on to it. So, having a local slant and a solutions-focus is what I am mainly interested in now. 

What are some of the challenges of science writing and storytelling? What are some of your favorite things about it? 

Barb: In my opinion there are two really hard things about it. The first is the jargon! Scientists use a lot of jargon and shorthand, and translating that into something lay people understand can be a challenge – especially when the scientists are not helping you along. 

The other really tough thing is contending with scientific uncertainty. The movie Don’t Look Up actually did a really nice job explaining that. In the movie the scientists were saying there was a 99.6 percent chance the planet would be hit by a comet, and then they started getting questions like, so you’re not 100% sure? It’s the way scientists are - they talk in probabilities and uncertainties, which do not satisfy regular people. It can be tough finding a way to clearly and fairly report on what we know for sure, and what we don't know. I think scientists and science journalists alike struggle with that. 

The best thing about my job is that I get to be around scientists who are super into what they’re doing! They are really geeked out on whatever mushrooms, whales, invasive species, or bugs they’re studying, and they have almost a child-like enthusiasm.  It’s so fun to hang out with them and really infectious to be in their world!. I also get to have experiences I never would otherwise – like going out on fishing boats and into labs, it’s all just super fun. 

Where do you see the biggest innovations in climate research and/or climate tech? What are you most excited about and why? 

Barb: I’m currently working on a piece about food and climate change, and what people can eat to help deal with climate change. I like it because it’s really personal and it empowers people to know how their individual choices have an impact. These types of  small, low tech, personal solutions that can become widespread and make a difference really excite me. For instance, there is a whole movement going on of people tearing up their lawns or not mowing their lawns. It’s causing people’s lawns to get overgrown, but it’s also super good for pollinators and reducing our use of fertilizer – and I love that! It doesn't cost any money, and it's quirky, but it can make a difference. I love those kinds of solutions – the ones that are hyper-local, personal, and fun. 

There is also a ton of really interesting stuff happening at a grassroots level. I think people have almost given up on international and national leaders to make progress, and feel it’s time to do something about it. We’ve also seen a lot of the environmental movement and environmental reporting focused on the white upper middle class, but that is changing. Communities of color are getting hit the hardest by climate change, and so those communicates are doing a lot of interesting and innovative things. I really try to seek out and highlight what is happening on the frontlines. There’s so much great and important problem solving and innovation going on. 

How do you decide which stories to write and what topics to focus on? Is it mostly based on personal curiosity, or what you see as a gap in important coverage?

Barb: It's a combination. I get constantly bombarded with either story ideas that are pitched to me, things I read elsewhere, things that people mention to me, and things that I am personally wondering about. I literally have a 10-page long list of story ideas right now!  Some of them are waiting to be ripe, and I’ll hold on to them. And then we have weekly newsroom meetings which help to dictate what we pick up and when. When deciding to do a story it usually has to be both interesting and relevant to the current moment. 

I also work for a radio station, so I am always on the hunt for stories that are audio rich. For instance, stories about birds have a little more going for them than stories about worms! But we can make the worm stories work for radio, too.

Can you also talk about editorial focus for WBUR’s larger environmental team? 

Barb: We do a lot of energy reporting and reporting on environmental justice. Those are two issues that are underreported and super complicated. We’re also covering offshore wind really closely because it has the potential to be a huge new industry in New England, and could reshape the energy industry across the country. 

In addition to that, we’re really focused on reporting on solutions, and are making a concerted effort to move away from the gloom and doom. We also have an interest in stories that follow the money. For instance, the Administration is putting a lot of effort towards climate change initiatives, and first we were celebrating. Finally some federal investment! And now, there’s the big question of where all the money is going. So that’s one thing we’re really honed in on –  trying to follow where the investments are going and how the money is getting used.

EVs are also amazing, and I am floored by how fast the turnaround is happening.  All of a sudden people are buying EVs and we’re seeing so many charging stations. The transformation is huge and we’re super excited to follow it. And then lastly, we will continue to cover the effects of climate change that we’re already seeing. In Boston that means summer heat – we’re already seeing the health effects of that – and sea level rise. And we’ll look at how it’s affecting local industries like our fisheries and our maple syrup.

How can PR pros be most helpful to you?

Barb: If you’re pitching a story to me, or any reporter, you should have a look at the reporter's work before you reach out. There is nothing I find more annoying than someone pitching me a story that I did last month. It’s also super important that your pitch matches the journalists' coverage. I work for a Boston radio station, so my reporting is local or regional, yet I still get a ton of blind pitches for things happening in California or England. It goes a long way to spend a little bit of time knowing who you’re pitching, and what they cover and have covered. 

Also, if a journalist approaches your organization and wants to do a story you should return their calls and help them! I can’t tell you the number of times I have expressed interest in doing a story about an interesting initiative and my calls went unanswered, my emails weren’t returned, or folks didn't show up or send the assets they promised. Journalists are really busy people! I’m not joking when I say everyday my work is like a firehose in my face. The news is constant, and climate change news is constant, and if a company or organization’s PR team is making it hard for me then I’m not going to bother with them – I’ll go around them and find another way to do the story. 

Most reporters are not looking for a dirty secret or to catch you in a lie. There are definitely some reporters that are, but science reporters are usually just trying to figure out what’s going on and trying to understand some complicated thing, and I think it’s in a company's interest to work with us. 

With that said, I work with some amazing PR people and they make my life and job so much easier! 

Any closing thoughts?

Barb: The last thing I’ll say is I am amazed by how much the media landscape has changed. In the beginning it felt like I was screaming into the void, and now all of a sudden everybody is paying attention! Everybody is on board and climate change is a core part of almost every beat, it’s not just a topic for the environmental reporters. It bleeds into the health reporters, business reporters, the transportation reporters – it’s part of every desk now. So it’s really interesting for me to reflect on how much has changed. 

I also spend a lot of my time mentoring young reporters who want to cover environmental topics. It’s really heartening. Today’s youth climate movement and all the young reporters and young activists gives me a tremendous amount of hope. 

Read more of Barb’s work and follow her on Twitter at @MoranWriter

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Topics: Journalism, Earth Day, Reporter Q&A, Climate Tech, Climate Change, Inkhouse Energy Practice, Changemakers
Hilary Katulak

Hilary is a vice president at Inkhouse and resides in Houston, Texas. She has over a decade of experience leading high-impact communications programs and a diverse breadth of industry experience spanning venture capital, education, technology, and healthcare.

Read more from Hilary Katulak

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