Fiona Shields ©The Guardian
Fiona Shields

Why the Guardian is changing images to portray the climate crisis

3 February Feb 2020 0900 03 February 2020
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To answer to the ever more dramatic world climate crisis, that science defines as a “catastrophe for humanity”, the British newspaper has decided to rethink the images, and words, that show the climate emergency. Fiona Shields, Head of Photography of the newspaper, explains the new visual communication lines on the issue

Faced with an ever more dramatic world climate crisis, that now scientists define as a “catastrophe for humanity”, the Guardian has decided to rethink the images, and words, used to communicate this emergency. “We have to consider how to illustrate particularly dramatic stories in an accurate and appropriate way, and show the impact that the climate crisis is having across the world,'' explains Fiona Shields. Head of Photography at the Guardian, both online and printed, she was previously news picture editor of the British newspaper, where she has been working for more than 20 years. Last October Fiona Shields published an article on the Guardian where she illustrated the new guidelines of the newspaper on communicating the climate emergency through images. She has spoken to us.

Fiona Shields The Guardian

Fiona Shields, Head of Photography at The Guardian. ©Linda Nylind

Why has the Guardian decided to rethink the images that deal with the climate emergency?
It all started because at first we changed the language we use for our stories on the environmental crisis, as the situation was becoming more and more severe. This new type of communication was announced in an article published in May 2019 on the Guardian. We introduced terms describing the world environmental crisis in a more accurate and scientific way. For instance, instead of talking about “climate change," an expression that sounds rather passive and not effective, we refer to “climate crisis," just like we prefer the expression “global heating” to “global warming," which is more proactive, and aims at changing the tone we use to deal with these stories.

How have you decided to communicate the climate crisis through images?
After changing the language we moved towards changing to more appropriate images in order to portray the seriousness of the situation. Climate Outreach, one of the research organisations we have collaborated with, has revealed that images influence the way the climate emergency is understood and acted upon. We have considered the relationship between images and readers, and the way we involve the public in our stories. Often, in the past, to speak about stories regarding climate we have used images of polar bears on melting ice caps: an obvious choice, as we know people love these animals, who have become the symbol of a species risking extinction. However, this choice is not necessarily an appropriate one. Researches show that people perceive these images as something remote and abstract: they speak about a problem that is not urgent, that does not impact them directly.

As a result of this new perspective what types of images is the Guardian using?
We try to use images that are relevant to the story, and in which there are people, in order to involve readers. We publish photos that show the direct impact of environemntal problems on people’s daily lives. This doesn't mean that we will not use photos of polar bears on an ice melting cap anymore. We will do this when it’s appropriate to use them, but not if we are dealing with a much more serious issue. What we now want to show is, for instance, the hardship of people suffering in heatwaves, or losing their homes, or young animals dying because of an unreasonably cold winter. Here is an example of the type of people centred reporting we're doing around climate catastrophes, such as the Australian bushfires.

What has changed in the climate crisis communication since the bushfire emergency exploded in Australia?
We have given a lot of coverage to the climate crisis and the bushfire emergency in Australia, which has been unrelenting since the beginning. We have produced heavily illustrated stories and stories about the situation for real people and the impact the bushfires have had on them: they have to flee their homes and lose their belongings and their livelihoods. The illustration that we have used has been entirely appropriate for that purpose. The Guardian approach has been slightly different from some of the Australian reporting, which has kind of shied away from touching the seriousness of the climate crisis in Australia.

What are the risks of using images that are not appropriate as regards the story?
Showing pictures of people having fun in certain weather conditions is not appropriate to speak about this emergency. Last summer British media published headlines about the dramatic effect of rising temperatures, with images of people having fun outdoors, and swimming in the sea. The contraddiction between title and image can compromise the effects of the story and the way the reader perceives the risks.

Why is it particularly important nowadays that there is a correspondence between the title and the image of the story?
One thing we really have to consider, especially with social media, is how our story travels. It is often seen in its kind of first instance on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram as an headline with an image. If you are opening for example a newspaper or a magazine it is very easy to digest the story or the display in its entirety. But your first experience of the story nowadays can be simply the one of the picture with the headline, and then you click the link and you get the full deptht of the story. Therefore it is necesseray that there is a strict connection between the image and the title. The emotional tone of the image must be in line with the issue depicted in the article.

Cover photo: Fiona Shields in the Guardian's newsroom. ©Alicia Canter