BBC journalist Matt McGrath has received the 1st Biophilia Award for Environmental Communication, established by the BBVA Foundation to recognize the work of professionals and organizations in any country that have contributed exceptionally to improving public understanding and awareness of environmental issues.
The reporter wins the award for his “extraordinary capacity to communicate complex environmental issues and science to global audiences,” in the words of the evaluation committee. “Throughout an inspiring journalism career of more than two decades at the BBC, McGrath has informed the public through exceptionally accessible and accurate reporting on global changes in the climate and biodiversity.”
McGrath (Tipperary, Ireland, 1964) has held the post of environment correspondent with the BBC since 2012, writing for the BBC News website on global environment stories and contributing to news bulletins on radio and TV. “His journalism, through broadcast and online channels, serves as a reference for millions of people worldwide seeking rigorous information on global environmental issues,” says the committee. McGrath, it adds, has had “a sustained influence on the way science is translated into policy and in shaping broader views among civil society.”
This influence owes in large measure to his ability to “demystify scientific research, and investigate climate and ecological challenges that affect development across all sections of the economy and society.” And, no less importantly, to his vocation to explore new journalistic narratives and formats. Hence the committee singles out his “evolving use of new platforms and technologies that continue to engage young audiences.”
Journalism in a “critical moment”
McGrath began his career as an editor of tech magazines. He joined BBC Radio 5 in 1997 as a specialist in science and technology, and in 2006 became a science and environment reporter for the BBC. In 2012 he took up his present post of environment correspondent with the corporation. Prior to that, he completed a science journalism fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2010-2011), funded by a Knight Science Journalism grant, the most prestigious of its kind in science and environmental reporting.
The stories he has covered in his time have been many and varied, from the “mad cow” crisis, the first cloned animals and the sale of the first transgenic foods, in the earlier days of his career, to the more recent United Nations summits and scientific assessments on the issue of climate change, which he sees as up there with the global biodiversity crisis as the two great challenges facing humanity.
“We are in this very critical moment and environmental journalism, I feel, has never had a stronger role to play,” said McGrath yesterday after hearing of the award. In today’s media landscape, awash with “fake news” stories that circulate freely on social networks, the reporter defends the primacy of specialist journalism that draws on sound scientific sources: “The key is to look to the reputable science, to the published science, to the organizations that we know we can trust; so we look to the IPCC [the UN’s panel of scientific experts on climate change], and the broad spectrum of science in the field.”
And the same holds true in the more personal terrain: “I have a deep commitment to the importance of communicating news and information in this field, which has too often seen lies and disinformation distort the political landscape.”
An innovative style of broad global impact
In his television reports and videos for the website, the BBVA correspondent, the committee points out, makes use of innovative narrative resources that manage to connect with the younger public and communicate complex environmental issues with extraordinary effectiveness, at a time when the avalanche of content means quality reporting has to fight to win through against trivia and straightforward disinformation. McGrath was among the first to apply new digital approaches to deliver the best environmental science to the online audience, using infographics, splitting stories into modules in response to the questions posed by readers, or helping edit the BBC’s new climate change chat bot. “I am always open to developing new ways of reaching audiences,” he affirms.
Proof of the effectiveness of these innovative formats is that his stories are read and shared on social networks by millions of people round the world. To take just one example, his article “Final call to save the world from ‘climate catastrophe’,” on the IPCC’s Korea meeting of October 2018, was seen by more than 3.5 million people, and shared on social networks over 750,000 times. Not just that, it held onto its readers for more than one minute, when the average engagement time for a news item is 30 seconds. And more than 36% of readers were aged under 35, equating to a global youth readership in excess of one million. “When we see so many people pore over our stories, the engagement they have with them, we know there is a massive yearning out there for information on climate change and the environment, and that people are desperate for some sort of solution,” says McGrath.
It is for this reason that the journalist retains his optimism, despite the political inaction that continues to hamper the fight again global warming. This and the recent mass protests by young people in the world’s major cities: “This protest movement is an amazing thing, and I would like to think environmental journalists have had a role in helping it come about. For years now, journalists and scientists have been warning that there is a big problem here. What we haven’t really had before is this kind of political engagement at street level, which is awakening politicians to the fact that they could lose elections on this issue. I think this is happening now, and it is a reason to be hopeful, and seeing it as a journalist is just incredible.”
It is precisely because the world is at so critical a juncture, and so sorely in need of sound environmental information that McGrath declares himself “incredibly humbled” to receive the Biophilia Award in its first edition: “Shining a light on environmental reporting and its importance as a critical part of the news agenda seems to me an incredibly worthwhile thing to do. There is a global environmental crisis going on, and there are things the public needs to know. This award underlines that fact and shows how critical environmental reporting is.”