Climate change in the media: the evolving narrative

climate change

One of the most controversial pieces of environmental journalism in recent memory was published in the New York Times Magazine in 2018, called “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” The writer, Nathaniel Rich, addresses the decade between 1979 to 1989 when humankind first came to understand the causes and threats of climate change. He argues that during this key period at the end of the 1980s to take action on climate change, “All the facts were known, and nothing stood in our way. Nothing, that is, except ourselves.” The piece has been heavily criticized by climate scientists and historians for its inaccuracy, as well as by other journalists like Naomi Klein who called it “spectacularly wrong in its central thesis.” Rather, Klein argues that “the late ’80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade” and “the project of economic and social re engineering clashed with the imperatives of both climate science and corporate regulation at every turn.”

While Rich may have misdiagnosed the root cause of the issue, the profound shift towards climate change realization in the 1980s did undoubtedly veer off course, and the media has played a crucial role in shaping environmental discourse and fuelling climate denialism ever since. In the book “Environment, Politics and Activism: The Role of Media”, Dr Somnath Batabyal, Chair of the Centre for Global Media and Communication at SOAS, argues: “Never neutral, the media creates discourses, builds campaigns and awareness, adopts and discards issues.” Until recently, a dearth of coverage on the issue in mainstream media has contributed to a lack of public awareness and political concern. But while the chance to rectify mistakes in climate policy and take action is quickly evaporating, good journalism can be a key part of the solution. As Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of the Guardian put it: “It is vital for the press and the media to be harnessed in this cause.”

A rule-breaking approach

Rusbridger was the featured guest at the Oxford Climate Society’s digital event “The Role of the Media in Addressing Climate Change” on January 22. He spoke about different media outlets and modes of reporting that can affect public perception and response to the issue, as well as the politicisation of climate change, objective reporting, the role of social media and the implications of misinformation. He discussed the creation of the Guardian’s 2015 “Keep it in the Ground” media campaign; a rule-breaking decision for journalists to campaign, rather than report on climate change. The campaign targeted medical and science foundations, partnered with campaigners and celebrities, and produced a range of content to be used by a network of other news outlets. Rusbridger explained that it was based on the premise that climate change is the most important subject of our generation, and that people deserve the truth about the severity of the crisis. 

Photograph: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

“Eat your peas” journalism

According to research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, more publications are starting to take sponsored content from NGOs and foundations with an interest in shifting policy choices. Rusbridger says that the best news outlets will employ knowledgeable science graduates to weave the complexities of climate change into a human interest narrative. But he is critical of the economic need for clickbait articles to drive media revenue, and he says that outlets should use metrics intelligently and carefully. Rather, he argues for the creation of a set of metrics that balance the need for economic viability with what is important for readers to know – a concept called “eat your peas” journalism. This is the reporting that Rusbridger says “you may not think you want to read, but boy is it important.” Notable examples include Bill McKibben’s 2012 piece in Rolling Stone titled Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math and Vann R. Newkirk II’s Atlantic 2018 article Cape Town is an Omen.

But this type of reporting is no easy sell – for readers or publications. The long-held failure to accurately report on climate change has arguably contributed to the public’s growing distrust of the mainstream media, and as the Reuters research points out: “any shift towards more campaigning journalism will also need to bear in mind the partisan differences in attitude to the subject … and the widespread desire for a lack of hidden agendas if trust is to be maintained.” 

COVID-19 as a “dress rehearsal”

Rusbridger compared his decades of reporting on climate change with the months of coverage on COVID, and he uses the following words to describe the counterproductive news cycle: “ignore, deny, underplay, ghettoize, marginalize, question, disparage, balance, shrug, pay attention, pivet, reassess, jump.” He drew a link between the two crises, and views COVID-19 as a “dress rehearsal” for the disastrous effects of climate change. Whilst he acknowledges the dangers of climate denialism and the spread of misinformation in conservative tabloids and social media, he also considers the potential of these platforms to use a strong human angle and audience engagement to give voice to those overlooked by the mainstream media. 

“Social media, at its best, provides transparency,” he said.For the first time in history, the audience can answer back …We do have agency in our choices and in how we use our voices on social media.” 

The heated discussion that arose out of the controversial article in the New York Times Magazine has shown that climate change is finally starting to get the kind of media commitment it deserves. Outside of its adoption as a political campaigning tool, good journalism will continue to play a key role in shaping the climate change discourse by adopting a solutions-based lens that provides consistent coverage of both local and far flung ecological issues. An excellent example is the 2020 Al Jazeera interactive The energy to stay: Senegal’s village of women, which provides a compelling narrative that links abstract science to localized weather events, and describes tangible, action-oriented solutions that build trust and encourage rich discussion. 

It’s a tall order, and as SOAS’ Dr. Batabyal writes “there is no one remedy, no easy solution” to the climate change debate. He cites the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who said “[t]here is no need to fear or hope, but only to find new weapons.” 

Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes

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