Allison Agsten is the inaugural director of USC Annenberg’s Center for Climate Journalism and Communication. In her role, she conceptualizes programs, develops partnerships, and collaborates with faculty and students to shift public perception and response to climate change. Previously, she has worked in journalism, communications, and public engagement capacities including as a producer at CNN, Director of Communications at LACMA, and Curator of Public Engagement at the Hammer Museum. Allison holds a BA from UCLA and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School.
Climate Education and News Is Something Everyone Should Pay Attention To
Vijay Chattha: Today we have a special guest. We've had investors on, we've had entrepreneurs on, but we're also having leaders in education coming on and talking about how to build the next generation of climate storytellers, which is critical, and we're going to find out why today. So excited to have Allison Axton on today. She is the inaugural director of the USC Annenberg Center for Climate Journalism and Communication Center. In her role, she conceptualizes programs, develops partnerships, and collaborates with faculty and students to shift public perception and response to climate change. Super important. Previous to that, she worked in journalism, communications, and public engagement at CNN, as Director of Communications at LACMA, and as curator of public engagement at the Hammer Museum. And in addition, she served at USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. So thank you so much, Allison, for joining today. I am excited to have you. Let us get into it. So, first of all, tell us about the Annenberg Center for Climate Journalism and Communication. What's it all about? How did you get involved?
Allison Agsten: Well, thank you for having me, Vijay. First of all, I cannot believe it, but I have been at USC for, Oh, my goodness, one year as of this week, and it's been an incredible journey. So far. The idea behind the Center for Climate Journalism and Communication is that we would center this work and a school that is really expert at doing the exact kind of thing that we're training for. So while we are definitely looking out for students, training students, we're also very focused on training communication professionals, and journalists. So right now, for example, I just wrapped up training for 25 ABC journalists in eight different markets over five months, helping them get a better sense of how they can include the climate and any type of story they tell. So the idea is not to turn them all into climate journalists, but rather help sports reporters learn how to incorporate climate. Meteorologists are generally pretty, pretty good at this.
VC: So as some of these people are coming in when somebody like, for example, ABC News, journalists coming in, what are some of their biggest questions? What are some of their training and information needs that they have?
AA: Above all, they just want to know how their stories can make an impact. They are willing to do this work. But they want to know how to do the work in a way that viewers will be responsive. They want their work to not only be resonant, but to be accessible to virtually any audience, and I think that really beyond just journalists, any climate storyteller has those same interests, those same desires, how can I help anybody who's listening to me make sense of the science the information I have, and how can I ensure that it actually makes a positive impact?
VC: What we are seeing, it seems to me, at least from somebody who has studied communications and works in it, that there is a fair amount of climate storytelling happening. And it also seems to me that it's, it's definitely one of the times now you can see where it's, it's making an impact. So I mean, with the Biden inflation Reduction Act, I mean, that seems like 30 years of awareness, and lobbying and information required to get something so difficult past. What are the like, sort of, do you see this as sort of milestone driven approaches? Or do you see are we in a moment where there have been milestones? Are there certain milestones ahead that you see that are critical?
AA: I think we're seeing a milestone actually unfolding before our very eyes and the story of this Alaska pipeline. I think this conversation has been largely driven by hashtags by tick tock and other users. So we're seeing issues of major national concern and even beyond just climate change effects, all of us really gaining traction in social media in a way that I think those of us who've worked in communications, we're not surprised to see it, but it's certainly exciting to see it.
VC: I agree with that. And sort of how have you seen this sort of topic change? So even back to your days and CNN like, are you seeing what are the sort of aspects that have sort of nuanced or there's more depth? Or there's more global covers, like how do you see that time from CNN to now in this space?
AA: Well, first of all, I started at CNN in the early 2000s, which is like eons ago in the communications, landscaping, and particularly in the climate communications landscape. So I'm not sure if I wasn't tapped in enough yet, because I'm just not remembering or this is actually the case but I never remember where I don't remember working on any stories about climate change myself, and I don't remember seeing them regularly on the network versus now you can tune in on the news and let me tell you, I've done the research. Everybody has a climate unit.
They have at least one climate reporter. There's climate editors, there's climate visualization specialists, there's people that for networks that are just focusing on I'm thinking of the Washington Post, they have maybe 30, maybe even more people now that are focused on things like you know, a climate newsletter, who could have imagined so just the volume of content related to climate in the news just continues to go like this every year and I don't think that that's going to change I do think that that's something that has changed and for the better is this, what we call the news business, this idea of false balance. So it used to be if you were going to cover climate, you would have maybe a legislator or an activist on and they'd say, we have to pass this bill because we need to protect the rivers in this region.
And then you'd have an oil person come on and they'd say, What makes you think that we're going to have an oil spill that causes climate change? What makes you why, like, you know, a contrary opinion in that way. So what I have really seen a change in this regard is that this false balance is not really an issue anymore. I know in my work, and at the center, and with our dean, we start from the baseline that climate change is real. Climate change is happening now. And climate change is happening in our communities. And that's something that I teach journalists and teach students is that you don't need to bring somebody from extractive industries on to give another perspective on it. This is a fact at this point. 99% of actively publishing scientists agree.
VC: Yeah, that's amazing.
AA: And it was so annoying when that had to be the case before. At least we realize how far we've come.
VC: That's true. That's getting happy news, by the way, today is refreshing given whatever that has happened. How about, sort of like, right wing media, are you engaging them? Are they interested? Is this just like, not of importance or like, are you seeing any change?
AA: You know, within the last year, I've done some research on how outlets are covering climate. And I looked at CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox. One of those six did not have a climate unit or any climate reporters. Can you guess which one? Yeah. So there's still an issue. on that level. Something that I have been seeing lately is more coverage about climate change from religious news outlets. I think that's also positive. That's exciting. I can't tell you that that's like more than my anecdotal observation, but I'm definitely seeing that more more in my alerts that I have set up that I go through every single day. I think that's promising.
VC: Yeah, cuz there's got to be a crossover there. Right. So if you can find a different dimension, then that's valuable. Yes, sir. Are you seeing like, how about other countries? Like, we know America and Americans don't often know anything about anywhere else but like, is how is the journalism movement? of climate in other countries is that I would guess that there's probably some some very authoritarian regimes that maybe don't spend the time there if they're making their money with oil and gas, but like, what are you seeing?
AA: I am definitely seeing much more training happening in Africa, which is another promising sign. There are good stories. There are good climate stories out there. I think he is one of the great leaders in climate coverage. If not, the leader is the guardian. Out of the UK, they set the standard in so many ways. They're essentially their climate journalism style guide. I don't think they call it that. But to give you a sense of what I'm talking about, is what's often used and referred to by journalists who are writing about climate and they are even very explicit about how they handle climate images, which I really appreciate. As you mentioned, I also work at the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies at USC where I have an appointment as their first curator so the visualization of climate change is an issue of particular interest for me. Also at Oxford, there is a climate reporting initiative that is really impressive doing great training and publishing interesting data that I know I use in my conversations with people about where this is all headed.
VC: That's great. And so I've noticed even Guardian has a climate tech writer in San Francisco, that’s incredible.
AA: They're doing such great work. I think they have set the standard for a long time, but I'm also very closely watching the Washington Post because they're doing such good work. They have ramped it up big time. If you are interested in reading more climate news, that's really well done that you can trust. And those are the two outlets that I recommend right away. I also get a Bloomberg newsletter and I think that one's great too.
VC: Yeah, agreed. Okay, so I was talking to a friend this weekend. And it was disheartening to him. And most people did not know that there was a huge flood in Pakistan last summer, and that the if put 20% of the country underwater. I mean, if that happened in America, 20% of the country was submerged in the topography changed, it would be global news. So that's one concern is that most Americans don't know these things happening around the world. The second one is that I actually heard about it from Tik Tok, and I didn't see it in the media. And the visuals are powerful. In such a short format. So one, like, what are you doing to work on bringing global crises to the US? Stage two, how do you leverage thinking about social media as a channel?
AA: Well, first of all, I will say that that story with Pakistan is, I think, representative of a larger issue that we sometimes see in the media, I think, regime changes from climate change to regime change. We often don't know what's happening in countries besides our own and I bet anybody who's listening now, maybe even you, we've had this experience where we are traveling, we're outside of our country, we turn on the news there and we cannot believe the global perspective that we get that we're not getting. So I think that's a bigger issue that climate is wrapped into. I do think that one of the great challenges about reporting on climate and other regions is the basics of having the boots on the ground to cover those stories, particularly, you know, in local news, markets, obviously they're not going to have their but they're going to have to rely on affiliate footage and reporting. And sometimes that is less desirable than reporting on a story. That's, you know, in the hometown of, you know, the viewers. And I actually think that, though, it's really problematic that we don't know about this massive and devastating flooding in Pakistan from a storytelling perspective. It makes sense to me from behavioral science research, that the stories that resonate most with people are the ones that they're experiencing more personally.
VC: Yeah. Makes sense. And then I want to come back to another topic there. But let's talk about social media, right. So Oh, yeah, sorry. The power of it. Right. The Influencers, the creators, how are they? How do they play into the center? Are they trainable in this regard? Are there it's more than just a channel for mainstream media, right? It's its own media.
AA: I have so many ideas for that. I hardly know what to do. It's about time, the day and resources to support the people that are out there on Tik Tok telling us the stories that we need to hear and that frankly, we're like not hearing anywhere else. I'll bet that that Pakistan flooding story came from someone who was in Pakistan, is that right?
VC: It could have been, I think, actually, when I went into it on Tik Tok, it was European press, an Asian press that someone clipped and then they put a commentary on top of it. Interesting. Which is great to know that at least the European press cares about some of the stuff happening in Asia or maybe they affiliate or something like that.
AA: Absolutely. I also think that like that, that's, again, I asked who's, who's the one originally telling that story because I think that that we naturally trust the people who are going through the experience themselves you I can talk to you about Paxton flooding and gather all the facts, or somebody who's in Pakistan can show the video and talk about what it's like for them and their family. And I'm going to listen to that person in Pakistan certainly way before. You know, listen to somebody like me who was far removed. I do. I think that providing training for social media communicators is just there's so many possibilities there. And I don't really see it happening anywhere. I really hope that we can get into that space soon. Once I have the resources that's high on my list.
VC: Yeah, it makes sense. And you're right I mean, first of all, all the footage is local, right? For these kinds of things. Like it's a smartphone, right? It's a camera that's capturing these things. So one more question on the different types of media out there. So it seems like another opportunity for local media and there's been some challenges with the local media itself, right. It's been hurt in many ways by losing classified ad revenue from the newspaper side, maybe even advertisers. Maybe young people are not tuning in to the local news, but it seems like local news has been you know, if anyone that follows us on Minaj has probably seen some of the things happening with newspapers across the country, but it seems like it's having its own crisis. How do you see that and how does it fit into what you think about this?
AA: Yeah, it's heartbreaking on a number of levels. And this is a really big issue and climate coverage. What it will say is that when you look at research about the most trusted sources for climate information, like up there at the top is your local news meteorologist and in fact, local news meteorologists is the number one driver of viewer loyalty for morning TV programs. And as you probably know, most folks that are broadcasting weather at this juncture, they are meteorologists, the meteorology association in the United States considers them to be the citizen, the be the substance scientists at their station. I really agree. Those are the scientists at the station. So those are the people that have the actual background in this material and they're the most trusted folks on TV. Much more interesting than the national news. There's obviously a big opportunity there. And there are a number of initiatives to really help train those folks. Give them the background, give them even the graphics that they need to do those stories through some other universities like George Mason University, which has a climate communication program that I really admire, and that has been doing that work for a long time.
VC: Yeah, agree now let's talk about 30 universities, right? So I want to ask how many universities are starting to invest in climate programming in a bigger way than just sustainability as a major? So Stanford made a big announcement with John Doerr. This program at USC, where do you just give me give our listeners a lay of the land of what's happening in academia.
AA: Climate change is blowing up at universities. I think everybody realizes that it has to be woven into the curriculum in some way and everybody's getting at it differently from this massive gift from Mr. Doar to Stanford that will start a whole school focused on climate like that's terribly exciting. Harvard has a big new well funded initiative. Maybe a couple 100 million dollars. Don't Don't put me on that, even though we're being quoted on that right now as I'm talking about it, but it's it's publicly available information. So you're seeing these top tier institutions put their money behind it, and there have been universities that have been doing this work, you know, already. I would say in Boulder, they have the both the science aspect and they're doing some of the communications work. So it's that's that's interesting to see how those two things can flatten but you're only going to see more of it. Absolutely. I think, I think some of these universities whose names you know, well that don't have a major climate initiative. You'll hear about one in no time soon.
VC: No, even my school pen had mentioned to me that there's one that they're working on and has already been funded. Absolutely. Seems like a huge new learning opportunity for young people now. I had heard some stats that even some of the graduates coming out of MIT, like the majority want to work on climate change. And that's pretty special, right? In terms of how the new generation is thinking, and how are you, what was your program like, how did that come together? Is it that sort of? Yeah, just some of the history of this program?
AA: Yeah, it was really the dream, the vision of Dean Willow Bay at the Annenberg School who knew that this was the kind of issue that needed to be considered through a climate lens. She knew that there weren't any other journalism schools. So there were schools of communication that were thinking about this. And she and our awesome Advancement team secured some seed funding from Bloomberg Bloomberg Philanthropies, which got us started and then some other folks jumped on board so that we could test this idea out and get it going from the beginning. Dean Bay knew that it would be important that we consider professionals who are already out there in the field. Like let's get to people who are telling the stories right now, and ensure that those are the right stories for this moment.
VC: Amazing, amazing, and sort of where do you see this going from here? As you mentioned, the social media training could be another module what would be the wish list of where this goes?
AA: I really am excited about the possibility of doing social media training. I really think that it's a mistake to not get into that work as soon as we can. Working with students as I do. I am getting a sense of the level of interest in doing that work. And so we're talking about beginning some light programming, some public programming type of offerings for that, but I would love to get into something more formal soon. I would love for the school to be able to bring on some pretty incredible communicators in residence, people that have that kind of on the ground experience that we're talking about, that can teach us I have access to like the most brilliant scientists and communicators at USC, but I'd love to have some more people work with students and professionals that have really, really been doing the work. So I'm thinking about how I can craft some programs to uplift those voices. And speaking of unheard voices, it's just super important to me that this program does not just consider but center the voices of people who are living through climate change. Frontline communities, indigenous people, we know that people of color black people in particular are most impacted by climate change. So I'm really trying to think about how we can create programming which is top of mind and top of the program.
VC: Love that. And maybe we can talk more about that offline but also now I just wanted to jump around. So from climate hot takes. You had mentioned that you're done with the polar bear photos.
AA: Oh, I'm so done with them. It's my personal pet peeve, the polar bear and the iceberg as a symbol of climate change is over. It does not mean anything anymore. We plug it in for any story about climate change, to the extent that I think we visually just gloss right over it. In fact, a polar bear mother and her cubs were used just yesterday to illustrate a story in The New York Times about the oil pipeline in Alaska, and I think that's a mistake. I think we can do better.
VC: We're tired of seeing it or they don't like it or they're thinking about the Coca Cola commercials.
AA: That’s funny, you know, I was just reading a journal article about this yesterday, conflating the polar bear and the Coca-Cola image and I had never thought of that before. So you're you got you certainly got that connection before I did. I think that it's been so overused. And I also think that the polar bear is so very foreign, that it's hard to connect with. Like it seems like something from another universe in a way for somebody like me sitting in Los Angeles, you know, you up north. Losing a polar bear is like losing a cute animal, but it's not the same as you know, maybe some of your neighbors right now, while we sit here. You know, in our latest weather event, it's just storming here and probably there to like what's going on in your neighborhood? I bet some people around there and some animals around there are really suffering as a result of this weather so those stories are probably going to mean more. Those pictures are going to mean more than the polar bear starving on the iceberg.
VC: So we're going to cancel the polar bear.
AA: I love the polar bear and that's the thing that kills me. It's very hard. For me to say this as an absolutely insane animal lady with three dogs and a giant lizard. You know, like, I don't want to say no to the polar bear. I love the polar bear. I want the polar bear to survive as much as anyone. The polar bear is not working in this context. Context is everything. Can I just say context is everything. And polar bears as the image of climate change is not moving hearts and minds anymore.
VC: And let's talk about another pet peeve, right sort of one of the biggest, possibly the biggest challenges in climate communications is greenwashing.
AA: We just today published a report called ESG on sire and it is about awareness and narratives of ESG. We did some research using data from signal Labs, which showed us that that is the number one rising narrative in the ESG conversation, which ESG is environmental social, and governance and this refers to practice a lens through which companies are increasingly looking through for their activities to try to really calculate if they are being responsible. So in the ESG conversation, the number one thing that folks are concerned about is greenwashing. And I think you also see just from the left and the right, a lot of concern about ESG. In general, whether on the left it is a lack of regulation or on the right there is concern that ESG practices are really hindering capitalism.
VC: Yeah. Yeah. And let's let's sort of as we're sort of like concluding today's chat, I did want to think about sort of your, the work you do and right and all the journalists that listening to this, or the social media folks, what are like some of the best tips you can give right now. What could you tell them right now about how they can be better climate storytellers?
AA: So this is what I know from behavioral science research. And this is what I know from what climate storytellers the best of the best tell me, which is that we need to help our listeners understand that climate change is happening now. Climate change is not decades away. It's not your kids or your grandkids problem. It's actually your problem now. So when I say shrink time, tell the climate change story of today. That's going to increase resonance. When I say shrink distance. I am talking about how this affects your community and you've heard me kind of like get at this 100 different ways in this conversation. This is what people can really process what they can take in or they can respond to is what's happening in their own neighborhoods. Are you experiencing flooding in our neighborhoods? Are you having the coldest winter ever, the hottest summer ever? How is this affecting crops if you're in a farming community? How does this affect your kids ability to, you know, play outside on asphalt if you're in the city, bring those stories, those climate stories home and tell the stories up today?
VC: Perfect, so people can save the flight.
AA: Yeah, and those are hard things to say in some ways because I think those tips are the tips I like to give them that's how I like to give them but it's not lost on me that they're very reductive. So what do you lose, you lose the story about Pakistan, flooding, if you're in Los Angeles, and I don't want that either. So I don't want to say we have to find a way to do it all. We're all just going to do our best. But if you're just getting started and you're trying to figure out how to make an impact, that's one way I will say this works for you even if you aren't in climate communications. This works. If you're thinking about seeing your family for some upcoming holidays and you don't really know how to talk to your uncle about it. Like ask him. You know what's uh, what's the weather like in Poughkeepsie? You know, I'm telling myself oh, you know, like I grew up in a very rural area when I go home to a very, very rural, very, very conservative area. I asked folks like what's hunting been like lately? Like, what different patterns are you seeing with the animals and sometimes I'll just leave it at that. I'm just seeing an idea that something could be going on here.
VC: I love that. And just as we sort of winding down, journalists, listeners, influencers, what do you recommend they get, sort of how would they get knowledgeable, like, I think that's a big thing now too, like, there's so much coming out. There's so many nuances. There's a lot of technology as well. Some of it's gonna work, some of it won't work. Some of it's too expensive, right? Like, are there particular books that you recommend that are sort of, like gotta start foundationally with these things? Are there certain people that should follow on social media? Are there certain outlets you mentioned in the Washington Post as being one of them and guardian, but you know, just laying it out there for people?
AA: The number one way that I learn about climate stories and pick up trends before I'm reading about them anywhere else, is my simple and free Google Alerts. I have a couple set there. So basic one is like, you know, in quotes, climate journalism, and maybe the other one is like climate communications. And I just make it kind of like a personal rule. It's almost non negotiable. Some people are like this about exercise or eating healthy. I'm like this about reading my climate stories. So I opened it up. I see you know, like the top with the top three stories are, let's say my climate journalism, Google news alert for the day. Sunday's I don't know if in any of the stories I'm like, I know that story. I know that story. I know that story. Sunday's like a wait a second. I'm realizing that I have seen a trend here. This is why I'm actually talking to you about these religious outlets, publishing more climate stories. I'm not actually saying that based on some formal research, I'm saying that based on what I observe by being serious about my Google Alerts, this takes almost no time. And I think it's actually the best kind of learning in some ways, like this ABC training I did was over five months. I think we can extend learning over a long period of time. It can kind of embed in our psyche in a different way. If you do that, if you just today set up a Google alert for climate journalism, and you gave, I'm telling you no more than three minutes a day to look at those stories. You will know more about what's going on in climate journalism.
VC: First of all, that's the VSC secret weapon, Google News Alerts. So like, nailed it. I would even say now on top of that, right? Add topics like reforestation, right, direct carbon capture, whatever, at some, anything that you're questioning, put it in, get the alert, and you'll see you learn so much. Basically, you're learning and passively.
AA: You are so right. Yes, I'm obsessed with krill overfishing now. Do I have a krill overfishing Google Alert? Yes, I do. Have I learned everything from it? Yes.
VC: That'd be a fun little like communication. thing. Everybody shares their news alerts with each other.
AA: That is as I'm sure you've seen, like how everybody, like people, will share a screenshot of all the different Wi Fi networks in their neighborhood. I live in a supremely dense neighborhood in Hollywood and the names of my neighbor's Wi Fi networks. Give me joy even on the darkest day.
VC: I love that. I love that we need joy on our dark days.
AA: We do and there is joy. There is hope out there even in this climate space.
VC: Olson. It's been amazing to speak with you. I'm looking forward to many more conversations.
AA: AJ, let's cook some stuff up together.
VC: Let's do it. Let's start with a news alert. Let's have a new one like Steven.
AA: I love that idea. I think that's really, really cute. I'm into it. All right.
VC: Thank you so much, Allison. Allison Axon from the USC Annenberg Center for Climate Journalism and Communication. Check out what they're doing, support the organization if you have ideas, and thank you so much for today's conversation.
AA: Thank you, Vijay.