Emily Atkin Talks about Objectivity and Covering the Climate Crisis

Emily Atkin

Emily Atkin didn’t plan to be a climate journalist. After graduating from college, she landed a job as a research assistant for muckraking political reporter Wayne Barrett, who lived the ethos that a journalist should investigate anyone in power, regardless of their political sympathies. “He used to say that journalists are equal-opportunity garbage collectors,” Atkin recalls. “He spent a lot of time digging up facts,” she says, “and then once the facts were on the table, he gave them [the politicians] huge middle fingers for being corrupt.” Atkin decided that she, too, wanted to be a political reporter.

But when her search for her dream job in Washington, DC, didn’t pan out, she applied for positions reporting on climate change, which in the early 2010s was still an obscure beat at many publications; she thought she’d get a job in the less competitive beat, then switch back to politics.

Her plan worked out, and she ended up covering the 2016 presidential election for ThinkProgress and the Sinclair Broadcasting Group. But once she was there, campaign reporting seemed small in comparison to the hugeness of the climate crisis she had become familiar with. Climate reporting “felt more in the spirit of what I had wanted to do from the beginning, which was to help solve big problems in society,” she told me. “And climate change is the big problem.” So she decided to go back to the environmental beat.

In 2017, she started to write for The New Republic, where she held onto Barrett’s confrontational spirit: As the magazine’s climate reporter, she exposed that, under the Trump administration, the EPA’s science office had removed science from its mission statement, among other scoops. She often found herself remembering the example of her late mentor: “He was angry, but it was always angry on behalf of somebody with less power than him,” Atkin says. “His anger was always based in compassion and reason, and justice.”

In 2019, Atkin created Heated, an outspoken newsletter that ranges from reporting on the communities on the front lines of the climate crisis to critiques of how the media covers it. Now, with over 50,000 subscribers, the newsletter, which started as a daily publication and now runs weekly, has become Atkin’s full-time job, and she has become a prominent voice in climate journalism.

Here, Atkin talks with María Paula Rubiano A. about the challenges of writing about climate change as a one-person operation, and the meaning of objectivity when you’re writing about an existential threat. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

 

You’ve been covering climate change for almost a decade now. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like when you were starting out?

I went to work for [Think Progress,] a really liberal publication, to cover climate change when I was 23, and it worried me that I was going to get painted as some liberal journalist, which I didn’t want. [Later, Atkin took a job at the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group to try to counter that narrative.] I was really adamant about my objectivity. And then I would cover the science of climate change and I would get fully attacked.

You were really young. How did you deal with that?

“You remember that other very classic journalistic saying—about [how] journalism is something that somebody else doesn’t want printed, and everything else is just public relations.”

I used to have heart palpitations. My heart would just break out of my body every single time somebody sent me an email or [complained to me] on Twitter. I remember, very clearly, writing an article in 2014 called “Everything You Wanted to Know about the ‘Polar Vortex.’” That article went really viral. And I got so much backlash from people saying that I had said that the polar vortex was caused by climate change, and that I was blaming the [cold and] snow on climate change, which I hadn’t done—I had just talked about the science connecting those two. I put every single caveat in the book in there. Even though I knew I had done everything right, I couldn’t work as the criticisms were coming in. I was being called an alarmist, a liberal journalist, fear-mongering. It really affected me personally, because as a journalist your objectivity is really important to you, you know—it’s basically your integrity being questioned.

And then I realized: As long as everything was right in the story, this was just sort of the cost of doing business. You remember that other very classic journalistic saying—about [how] journalism is something that somebody else doesn’t want printed, and everything else is just public relations.

In a recent story in Heated, you called out reporters for covering extreme weather events without referencing climate change, presumably in part to avoid being confrontational. What prompted that piece?

You know, the goal of climate denial is not actually denial. It’s doubt and delay, right? That is why the fossil-fuel industry created climate denial in the first place. It was never to get everybody to deny climate change; it was to make climate change too politically controversial to touch, so that people just wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about it, and so that would just fade into the background. What journalists are doing when they don’t mention climate change for fear of the reaction is actually that they are being biased towards the fossil-fuel industry.

A lot of times when I’m having these conversations with other journalists about how to approach climate change, I just want to stop and ask them, “Why do you do this job? Why did you become a journalist? Was it just to present everyone’s side, and then throw your hands up?” Probably not.

I want to dig deeper here, because on its surface, the idea of “presenting all sides” seems like an important aspect of objectivity and a practice that many journalists agree with. What makes the difference when it comes to covering climate change?

I think [objectivity] is a concept that has been sort of warped a bit to [imply] that objectivity means that you give all sides equal footing. But no. Objectivity means you give the facts equal footing. You’re objective to what the truth is, right? And the way that it got warped is that we’ve just thought, instead of the quality of information, what we were balancing was the quantity of information. And so that gave bad actors—people who have no loyalty to the truth—the opportunity to just put the greatest number of asinine arguments out into the world and force journalists to cover all of them. And some journalists have no allegiance to which one of these are actually true, because if they start taking a stand on one side of it, then they just get painted as biased.

How do you recognize if you’re being manipulated as a climate journalist? How do you realize, Hey, these are bad-faith actors?

We have to ask more about not just what people are saying to us, but why they’re saying it. Once you understand why climate-change denial exists and why climate change is so politically polarizing, then you become more confident talking about it, despite the backlash you receive, because you will understand you are being objective by covering it; you’re just not playing into the denial campaign.

It really surprises me how important it was to you to be perceived as objective, because now you run a newsletter in which you voice your thoughts and concerns very openly. What changed?

“What I do at this point is opinion journalism. But opinion journalism is still a type of journalism, and it’s based on facts.”

I realized that I was always going to get labeled as an opinion writer, no matter what I did. Just because it was so extreme at the time to say, “It’s fucked up that people are lying about climate change, and fossil fuels are the problem.”

So now, do you see yourself as an opinion writer who cares about objectivity? How do you resolve this tension?

What I do at this point is opinion journalism. But opinion journalism is still a type of journalism, and it’s based on facts. So the way that I approach [reporting and writing the newsletter] is the same way that I’ve always approached journalism, except I’m now comfortable saying, “and fuck these people for lying.”

Do you have an example of how you do that?

So when I criticize, let’s say, the infrastructure package for not having a lot of climate stuff in it, I’m not saying it needs more of this policy because I like it. I’m saying it doesn’t have enough in it, scientifically, to solve the problem. And so the opinion I put in there is that I’m pissed about it. But I’m still being objective about what needs to be done, right? Politicians—powerful people—promised to solve this problem. In order to hold them accountable, you need science journalists to tell the public whether or not they’re actually fulfilling their promises.

Accountability is a big part of what you do. What do you think shaped this vision of journalism for you?

I see journalism as a really aggressive profession. My mentor was [the] investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. He didn’t care about skewering people, because the facts showed that they deserved to be skewered. That’s what shaped my whole understanding that we—politicians and journalists—are not enemies. We’re adversaries [in] the political system. We [journalists] make them [politicians] better to make everybody else better.

Let’s talk about Heated, your newsletter. What was it like to transition into a one-person operation?

“The way I went into it was just like, I know this is gonna be a lot of work. But I’ll just work as hard as I can until I burn out. And I realized that’s the same extractive mindset that got us into a climate crisis.”

I would say that I would never recommend it to somebody who hasn’t had a lot of institutional experience beforehand. The institutional support of other people—for catching your mistakes, for improving on your arguments—is invaluable.

How do you challenge your own ideas now that you’re on your own?

Because of the experience I have, being edited, and then being an editor myself, I can mostly trust myself. I’ve been edited by great journalists for so long, so it’s built into my process now that I have to question my own ideas, make sure I’m not going forward on a take unless I have the support for it. Because I don’t want to put out bad, unsupported stuff. But I do have people that I trust, who I will ask if they think [my take is] a good idea on a particularly tough subject.

In the last couple of months, you’ve made two major changes to the newsletter. First, you decided to make it a weekly instead of a daily publication. And a couple weeks ago, you completely changed the structure, including some good- and bad-climate-news headlines. Can you tell me why?

For the first, like, year and a half, I legitimately wrote four stories every single week. And then the pandemic happened. And I got completely burned out. [And I realized] we’re already overwhelmed by so many things, you don’t need a story about climate change in your inbox every day—what you need is for the stories about climate change that you read to really matter.

I [also] realized I had to make sure it’s working for me. Because the way I went into it was just like, I know this is gonna be a lot of work. But I’ll just work as hard as I can until I burn out on it, and then transfer it to somebody else who can do the same thing. And then—you know—if they burn out, we’ll get another person or whatever. And I realized that that’s the same extractive mindset that got us into a climate crisis—that we can work and extract and extract, we can burn out everything, and then we’ll just … I don’t know … we don’t really have a plan for what’s next. It’s always a weird thing for me to realize these things. Like, Am I doing to myself what oil companies are doing to the planet? Really?

Do you find the new setup a more sustainable workflow?

I’m still very new to it. But so far, yeah. I got an office. I go there at least three days a week, and I’m observing normal nine-to-five working hours in my office, and it’s really helping my brain kind of focus back, because I have really bad ADHD. I’m giving myself six days [between newsletters]. In that time I’m going through all my emails, checking news websites, looking at curated lists on Twitter. I usually have in my workspace a cable news channel, usually CNN or MSNBC, going on in the background. I’ll also make phone calls and research for the main story.

And in other areas, like paid subscriptions vs. free, do you think Heated is also sustainable at the moment?

About 10 percent of the audience is paying, and 90 percent of it is free. And that’s great. And whereas I used to be working to grow that all the time, right now my goal is just to maintain it. I’m happy with where it is, because I make enough money to support myself and to save, which is more than I ever really thought I could ask for in this profession. And I’m not hungry to be rich. I just want to be happy. Which I think is another climate lesson, right? Growth for the sake of growth is not sustainable. And it doesn’t make you happy.

 

 

María Paula RubianoMateo Guerrero

María Paula Rubiano A.

María Paula Rubiano A. is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a freelance science journalist writing about biodiversity, environmental justice, food, and sustainability for ScienceYale Environment 360AudubonAtlas ObscuraEl Espectador, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @Pau_Erre.

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