Climate Change in the Media: Public Perception and the Responsibility of News Outlets
December 2, 2022
What makes a good news story? The news has to be compelling and relevant to your life if it is to retain your attention. With an issue so broad and long-term as global climate change and its effects, it can be difficult for news stories on the subject to be as attention-grabbing as stories on politics or crime.
How often do you hear news anchors reporting on climate change as it relates to your community? It’s likely far less often than coverage for immediate issues like crime or individual weather events. Viewers want solutions, but the dwindling local coverage of climate change is making them less visible.
An outlier in climate change coverage has emerged within the last few months: the multiple high-profile acts of vandalism in art galleries and other public venues carried out by Just Stop Oil. Sensationalized coverage of “disruptive activism” is purposefully crafted to make viewers angry, often not taking time to ask valid contextual questions (such as asking why Just Stop Oil is funded by an oil industry heiress).
Optics is more important than ever when covering the climate justice movement. What is a healthy way to motivate the public to care about it? The tension between meaningful education and engaging headlines is a compromise that needs to be met somewhere in the middle.
Climate change is most often discussed in the media as it relates to individual extreme weather events. Since the threat is more immediate, there is often little time to delve deeper into the issue as it relates to longer term threats including economic hardships to the Global South, corporate emissions, and biodiversity loss. There needs to be a more constant stream of smaller positive stories about climate change throughout the year so that the public is given more context for unfortunate hurricanes or droughts when they inevitably occur.
Since the Media Sphere of today is so dominated by clickbait, algorithms, and manufactured anger, it may seem like climate change is not immediate enough to earn the attention of the public. A study from Ohio State indicated that factual reporting on climate change persuaded participants in the study to support climate change policies, even ones who were climate skeptics. As much as our perception of the mass media sphere indicates that the public doesn’t care about the issue, it is clear that when presented with vetted facts, it can be swayed to support action against climate change.
Optics and the risks of “doomism”
The way we talk about climate change is just as important, if not more, as the frequency of stories. Within the last 15 years, the rhetoric of climate change coverage has shifted from “global warming” and the greenhouse effect to more emotionally charged language like “climate emergency” and “climate catastrophe.” This is effective at conveying the dangers, but does little to offer context to new viewers or solutions to those familiar with the crisis.
If answers to the problem are not offered, audiences are left with no hope for the future. A thoughtful blend of scientific background information (explaining the greenhouse effect, who are the biggest carbon emitters, etc.) and poignant real life examples (climate damages locally and globally) can catalyze meaningful action against climate change.
The recent Just Stop Oil acts of vandalism demonstrate the potential for meaningful climate activism. Regardless of their motives to allegedly discredit “true” climate activism or the ethicality of attacking priceless art, every avid reader of a major news outlet knew the names and the faces of the organizers within a day. If outlets had the same passion for more peaceful protests, much more of the public would be better informed and motivated to change their habits to combat climate change.
Focusing too hard on the threat of a greater-than-1.5-degree-warming world may also have an unintended negative effect. If not presented with attainable solutions, audiences may lose all hope and accept a catastrophic future. Climate anxiety and “doomism” are on the rise, with many young activists falling victim to a whirlpool of negative thoughts in the absence of achievable goals. Misinformation and disinformation about climate change can also get lost in the mix of doomism, causing even more confusion about the science behind climate change.
Intimidating upwards graphs and nihilistic infographics get the most engagement and can be effective at communicating the risks, but obsessing over them and wallowing in fear does nothing to inspire the public. It is better to have clear, inspiring stories and positive coverage of climate activism that do away with the potential misinformation caused by doomism.
What deserves the spotlight?
Solutions and progress in the fight against climate change are the best ways to keep the public positive and motivated. There are good steps being taken to spread awareness among existing news outlets. According to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, climate change coverage across 59 countries has increased from 47,000 articles in 2016 to 2017 to about 87,000 in 2020 to 2021. The more people talk about the realities of climate change in a positive light, the more ideas for solutions can be offered.
Continued support and awareness of peaceful climate protests will increase visibility of the issue and the priority of the world’s young people. Young climate activists like Madhvi Chittoor and Greta Thunberg are vocal of their distaste for how world leaders and the media are covering the climate crisis. Platforming those who are at the forefront of the climate justice movement is imperative to the continued improvement of the public’s view of climate activism. Coverage for more outrageous demonstrations is important, but context and nuanced discussion must be provided alongside it to not discredit climate activism as a whole.
Climate change coverage in the media should seek to inspire rather than scare or anger. Despite how engaging fear-mongering clickbait titles are, outlets should avoid feeding the doomist downward spiral many “climate inactivists” fall into. Effective climate communication requires the full picture of climate change: comprehensive backgrounds on the basic science of the greenhouse effect compared to the real world impacts of a warmer atmosphere. Only then can solutions and a path to the future be determined.
EARTHDAY.ORG’s campaign Invest In Our Planet encourages everyone to make decisions to keep the planet sustainable for countless future generations. Media literacy as it relates to climate change in the news is vital to keeping the public motivated. Our campaign invites all to support meaningful climate policy and green energy solutions the planet needs.