From Alarmism to Action: Rethinking Climate Journalism
Turning on the news this summer really felt like we are living in the prelude to Day After Tomorrow. Europe was on fire, China experienced unprecedented heatwaves, while South Korea was swept away by some of the worst floods they’d ever seen. Except in this version, Dennis Quaid isn’t coming to save the day (...yet).
With the news, for millions of us, being our trusted source of information, what’s trending in the media influences public conversation and the way we think and act. And as climate change is one of the most important issues we’re facing, you could argue that the news has the potential to inspire millions into action. Yet instead, the ‘objective’ tone of voice and the ‘doomism’ lens of how climate change is reported on often leaves readers feeling detached, disengaged and stuck in a state of hopelessness. Stories are also often polarised per media outlet and political agenda, with readers of different papers pitted against each other in their opinions of climate change.
Yes, climate change is becoming ever more topical in the media – extremely adverse weather events are now regularly being connected to human activity; most media titles are covering climate change-related events; even the language has shifted from “‘global warming’ and the greenhouse effect to more emotionally charged language like ‘climate emergency’ and ‘climate catastrophe’”. But with the “era ‘global boiling.’” Now here, climate change journalism still seems too tied to its traditional reporting principles, when we need more dynamic, pragmatic solutions communicated to the masses. We’re in desperate need of some unifying hope and guidance – but is the media doing enough to galvanize the much-needed action we need?
How objective journalism creates ambiguous uncertainty
The one thing that was drummed into me when learning about journalism was the art of writing objectively. “It’s about fact,” I was taught. “You need to keep opinion out of it.” And I still agree with the principle of the sentiment – how else are you to write something that appeals to a readership of thousands, all with their own opinions, interpretations and understanding? However when it comes to climate change, this fact-based-framework of reporting seems to be good at raising the alarm – but not helping people get out of the burning building.
Climate change is a vast, nuanced topic; with much of the subject inherently future-focussed and unknown, it’s understandably difficult to report on. There’s a reason “unprecedented” was referred to so much in COVID-times – we were living through something we’d never experienced before or comprehended, which resulted (in my opinion) in overwhelming reporting that lacked resolve. Uncertainty often feels overwhelming and, without actionable, accessible steps or the effort to make the content seem more relatable, it can leave audiences feeling either a lack of urgency, or clarity on how to act.
Dr James Painter (a consultant to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on communication issues) refers to this ambiguous model of climate change reporting as the ‘uncertainty model’. What he proposes in his book on Climate Change in the Media, (2013) is a shift to a ‘risk’ model – where vast uncertainty is presented into accessible and actionable risks that we can understand and relate to.
“Risk is an essential part of everyday experience”: pharmaceutical companies list risks in their medication pamphlets; organisations prepare risk assessments for events; children mentally calculate the risks of skipping two steps downstairs instead of one. We use the information we are presented with to help us to predict, assess and plan in uncertainty; it also helps the situation feel more relevant to us and therefore, when necessary, more urgent to act upon.
A ‘risk-based’ model of climate change media may not be a sole solution to driving climate action; however it may offer a way to help readers understand the overwhelm. We already have the facts, as we are presented with in most common forms of climate journalism today; what we currently lack are the side effects listed in the pamphlet. Detailing the associated risks in a relevant way may help people understand what steps to take to mitigate such risks, incorporating climate action into their day-to-day.
Negative narratives interfering with public debate
But while one end of the media spectrum may seem too objective, the other seems much more biased. It’s no secret that shock sells papers – in fact, we are more psychologically inclined to the bad stuff than we are the positive, in what social psychologists refer to as “negativity bias”. For a long time now climate change news has been fuelled by a stereotypical ‘doom-and-gloom’ narrative, especially by more right-wing media outlets, and this understandably makes it hard for a lot of readers to – or even want to – engage. But as the world literally burns around us, this way of reporting risks misrepresenting what’s happening in front of us and paralysing us in inaction.
Climate activists and large scale political and green policies are often sensationalised, “purposefully crafted to make viewers angry, often not taking time to ask valid contextual questions”. Take recent coverage on the Just Stop Oil climate protests, for example. I recently read a BBC FAQ about Just Stop Oil which, other than a few onward links to general pages about climate change, does little to educate on the impact between oil and climate change, or highlight any of the danger to human health and our planet if we continue with fossil fuel exploration. Yet there is significant focus on the immediate damage the protestors are doing as a result, and multiple references to what associate with being ‘wrong’ such as arrests, the law and obstructing important events or the vulnerable. This overall creates an undeniable tonal bias and clouds our ability to see what these protestors are actually fighting for.
Earlier this year, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue conducted an analysis of more than 8,000 climate-related news stories published in English, German and French media outlets, on how editorial teams engage with or promote ‘anti-climate activism’ narratives. They found that nearly half (40%) of outlets (both alternative and mainstream) contained at least one “anti-climatism” narrative; and the remaining alternative media outlets “still largely discredited the need for climate action”:
“Emotive, incendiary coverage on climate activism skews the focus to methods of resistance rather than the central arguments behind climate action. When amplified across the media ecosystem, this only serves to interfere with public debate on key policy issues (in relation to climate change)”.
Climate protests and activism can certainly - and sometimes justifiably - be controversial. But if we remove judgement completely and focus on it merely as a topic, you start to realise how little context is given as to why protestors go to such extremes, or information to understand what they are actually fighting for (which, more often that not, involves ensuring a better, fairer and healthier world for everyone). While coverage of their action is likely to be contested, there needs to be a compromise between engaging headlines and education. If all journalists focus on is the damage to public property or the interference of people’s day-to-day, the importance and long-term purpose of climate activism is discredited. Context and nuanced discussion must be provided for people to make a fair judgement on what it is people are fighting for.
Show solutions to fear
This blog is not to say there’s no place for shock and negativity in climate change media – both of which admittedly do a good job of communicating urgency and importance. In 2023, a team of Penn State researchers investigated if the impact of seeing frightening climate change news on a daily basis would lead to participants taking action. Their findings suggested that repeating doom-and-gloom headlines made participants view the issue as more important (as what’s referred to as an “agenda-setting effect”). Over time, simply mentioning ‘climate change’ in the news then activated pre-existing emotions and thoughts associated with climate change, which could motivate them to take action.
However the study concluded that, although fear can be impactful, communicating hope and solutions is the more important factor when it comes to climate change communication:
"For communication to be most impactful, people need to feel like there is still something we can do about it to make a difference," Myrick said. "That should hopefully motivate reporters and strategic communicators to include information about solutions to climate change in their messaging."
In the face of overwhelming challenges, it is solutions that hold the power to inspire, to bridge the gap between awareness and action. By embracing a solutions-based dialogue approach, the media has the potential to bridge the gap between knowledge and action, uniting us all in a collective endeavor to safeguard our planet and secure a brighter tomorrow.
As we navigate this uncharted territory, a dialogue-based model emerges as a beacon of hope—a model that cultivates a sense of collaboration, curiosity, and co-creation among audiences.
By reframing the climate narrative to center around solutions and positive change, the media can galvanize individuals to take steps, both big and small, that collectively steer us away from the precipice of crisis.
Not just an option but a responsibility
The media stands as a bridge between complex issues and public understanding. Climate change reporting, however, must evolve beyond alarmism and negative narratives to fulfill its transformative potential. By adopting a 'risk-based' approach, media outlets can convert uncertainty into actionable steps, enabling individuals to engage with the crisis on a personal level. Furthermore, a nuanced portrayal of climate activism, policies, and protests can foster understanding and inspire meaningful support. While fear has its place, fostering hope and solutions-driven reporting can harness the agenda-setting effect to drive sustained action. In a pivotal moment for humanity, the media's role in reshaping climate narratives is not just an option but a responsibility, with the power to kindle global change and safeguard our planet's future.
This transformation is not without its challenges. It requires a departure from well-worn patterns and the cultivation of an ecosystem where dialogue thrives. To achieve this, media outlets must prioritise inclusivity, providing space for diverse perspectives and lived experiences to shine. They must amplify voices that offer tangible solutions, showcasing real-world success stories that spark optimism and determination.
In a world grappling with the urgent realities of climate change, the media's role extends beyond mere reporting; it holds the key to igniting collective action and fostering meaningful change. As we stand at this critical juncture, it is abundantly clear that the conventional approach to climate communication falls short. We find ourselves in need of a radical departure from the norm—a departure that ventures beyond the boundaries of "business as usual" and delves into the realm of creative solutions and human connection. As we traverse this uncharted territory, the media's role becomes even more pivotal. It's a role that transcends reporting—it's a catalyst for a movement, a conduit for hope, and a source of actionable inspiration.