‘Coming to our senses’: How Grist writers personalized climate change coverage

Climate change is one of the biggest stories of our time. Journalists across all beats are covering the impacts of devastating floods, tornadoes, and wildfires as well as dangerous heat waves and pollution levels.

Reporting on these catastrophic effects is a vital public service, but climate change also alters our world in subtler ways.   

Grist published a series called “Coming to our Senses” that looks at the small ways climate change affects our daily lives — specifically through the five senses.  

We reached out to Grist reporters Joseph Winters and Kate Yoder to learn more about how sensory reporting can help audiences better understand the high stakes of climate change. 

We’re curious to know how journalists use their senses to inform their storytelling. Can you describe why you chose to emphasize the five senses in reporting and writing about climate change?

Winters: When we talk about climate change, we often focus on its most dramatic impacts: more wildfires, desertification, rising sea levels. It’s important to talk about these things so people understand what we’re in for without much more ambitious climate action. But global warming is also changing the world in slower ways — for instance, by making nature’s soundscape quieter. And those sensory changes can tap deeply into people’s emotions. Sound, sight, smell, taste, touch — these define our relationship with the planet at the most fundamental level! What a loss to no longer be able to sense things as they once were. I think tying this loss to global warming can help readers identify climate impacts they might have otherwise overlooked.

Yoder: Climate change can be a very overwhelming topic. Articles about it are often abstract, concerning rising CO2 levels, or depressing, looking at deadly heat waves and wildfires. But the warming world is also affecting how we experience our immediate surroundings, sometimes in subtle ways. The five senses were a natural place to start to explore this more intimate perspective. Basically everyone has had the experience of looking up at a sky and finding it hard to make out the stars because of light pollution, hearing bird calls, or feeling the sticky humidity of summer. We wanted to zoom in on experiences that had that point of instant connection and show how they were changing over time.

And, how did reporting, writing, and editing for this series differed from your usual methods?

WintersI wrote about sound, so I had to ask my sources to translate bird calls, whale songs, and other noises into words. Not only that, but they also had to translate the way the sounds made them feel — no easy feat! I mostly write newsier stories, so this level of probing was very new to me. I had to repeatedly ask things like, “But how did the loon call make you feel?”

Yoder: For the series, I wrote about the polarizing smell of gasoline and how electric carmakers are grappling with nostalgia for it. Focusing my research on the sense of smell was definitely a change of pace for a climate reporter. It led me to read reviews for gasoline-scented candles and Q&As where Lizzo and Kim Kardashian talked about their love for the smell. The weirdest thing I found was this publicity stunt where Ford had commissioned a perfume that would evoke the scent of gas to promote their electric Mustang. I had a really fascinating conversation with a perfumer, Pia Long, who told me the whole process of creating that mock-gasoline scent for Ford. It ended up being the perfect entry point for my piece.

What’s your advice to other journalists who want to personalize their coverage of climate change’s impact?

Winters: All the stories in the package offer different strategies for personalizing climate change’s impact. But the theme of the package is a good starting point — tapping into your sources’ five senses is a powerful way to convey how climate change affects people on an individual level. I’d recommend asking sources some specific sensory questions — what does XYZ feel like? What did you hear when XYZ?

Also, sources! They can make or break a story. I spoke with some key people who could wax poetic about their sensory experiences in nature, and their stories brought so much more depth to my article. Others gave drier interviews. I’d say — focus on finding the right people to talk to.

Yoder: I think for any story, sensory details are going to help people relate to it. There are a lot of different ways to personalize climate change. All the stories in our senses series had a similar starting point but ended up in very different places! Making the issue personal can be about telling your own story, or someone else’s, but it could also simply involve articulating a common experience — smelling gasoline, getting horribly bit up by mosquitoes — that will resonate with people, and offering a new perspective on what to make of that experience.

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