3 October, 2019
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 business and 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 BBC 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.”
About the Biophilia Award
For more than twenty years, the health of our planet has numbered among the BBVA Foundation’s key focus areas, translating as support for scientific research, the funding of projects to conserve species, habitats and ecosystems, the promotion of social awareness around environmental issues, and the recognition of communication professionals who have contributed decisively to inform individual and collective engagement with the ecological challenges of our time.
Since 2001, the Foundation has promoted and funded research projects in the environmental sciences with a particular accent on ecology and biodiversity conservation. In 2004, it created the BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation, encompassing research endeavors, projects in Spain and Latin America, and environmental communication and awareness. The research modality was integrated in 2008 into the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, with the creation of the two categories of Climate Change and Ecology and Conservation Biology, which have since taken their place alongside the other six categories of basic sciences, biomedicine, information technologies, economics, humanities and social sciences. In their first eleven editions, around thirty of the world’s most prestigious ecologists, conservation biologists, economists, climate scientists and researchers in other areas have received the Frontiers of Knowledge Award (seven of whom have subsequently gone on to win the Nobel Prize).
The ecological challenges of our time are of such scale and magnitude that a global approach is imperative. In light of this fact, the BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation added a worldwide category in 2017, distinguishing projects to preserve species, habitats, and ecosystems.
From this global perspective, the new Biophilia Award for Environmental Communication, funded with an annual prize of 100,000 euros, recognizes the work of professionals and/or organizations in any country that have contributed exceptionally to improving public understanding and awareness of ecological issues, particularly the biodiversity crisis and the multidimensional phenomenon of climate change, bringing to bear the best available evidence and knowledge. As well as the breadth and quality of the impact achieved, the Biophilia Award recognizes conceptual innovation in environmental communication formats, channels and narratives.
The name of the award, which alludes to the “Biophilia hypothesis” proposed by naturalist Edward O. Wilson (2010 Frontiers of Knowledge Laureate in Ecology and Conservation Biology), denotes the deep connection that we as humans instinctively feel with nature and all forms of life.
Through this new global prize, the BBVA Foundation wishes to recognize and encourage the work of professionals and/or organizations who, by informing and strengthening the public’s understanding, awareness and engagement with regard to the environment, have contributed indirectly, but powerfully nonetheless, to forge an individual and collective mindset without which the future of life on this planet, in all its forms, would be seriously jeopardized.
The committee in this edition was chaired by Carlos Duarte, Tarek Ahmed Juffali Research Chair in Red Sea Ecology at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Thuwal, Saudi Arabia), with members Araceli Acosta, Chief Press Officer at the Ministry for the Ecological Transition; Caty Arévalo, Head of Communications at the Ministry for the Ecological Transition; Arturo Larena, Director of EFEverde, Bobby Magill, President of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and a reporter with Bloomberg Environment; Rafael Pardo, Director of the BBVA Foundation; and Megan Rowling, climate correspondent with Thomson Reuters Foundation.