There is a recognized need for improving coverage of climate change in the mass media. Since 2007 there has been a drop in the mention of “climate change” and “global warming” in the Canadian media. In 2007 you had the release of the Fourth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change and lots of engagement through Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. I attended a discussion, The Crisis of Climate Change Reporting, last week. The public forum focused on mainstream media outlets that only report on climate change when there is a major event or UN Conference. The discussion included a panel of journalists and environmental activists. They shared concrete ideas for getting the public better coverage on climate issues. A majority of people now believe climate change is both real and alarming, but pressure needs to be placed on the media to report on it. A study found that celebrity gossip and entertainment stories outnumber environmental reports three to one in mainstream media outlets.
Kate Sheppard, a reporter, made a compelling discussion point by saying “if you are looking for climate coverage it’s easy to find, but the people that need to be seeing this stuff aren’t and they certainly are not seeing it locally.”
On the closing of the New York Times climate-reporting desk in favour of integrating climate reporting across the newspaper, she said, “Not having editors devoted to the climate change issue will have the matter ignored. Climate shouldn’t of course be a separate niche issue because it affects things like health, international affairs and the economy.
“She adds climate change doesn’t necessarily have to be sexy but the current model shouldn’t be all about page views and advertising dollars. There should be collaboration between different media outlets so the climate change issues is popping up in publications where it might not normally appear and reaching a new audience. People already up on the topic don’t need to be convinced.”
Sheppard covered the Gulf oil spill.
“When it was plugged and done and over with people weren’t paying attention anymore and all the coverage and updates didn’t translate into a lot of action. The stories just didn’t get into the bigger picture. Journalism should be about solutions and not just problems.”
Bill McKibben quickly pointed out climate change awareness has been steadily going up with the mount of serious weather disasters going up. “Journalism has been getting weak but with rise of social media like Facebook and twitter stories can be moved around until they capture enough media attention that they get reported on.”
McKibben is an author and founder of 350.org.
Lead Nature Conservancy scientist M. Sanjayan, makes the case that all the climate change stories look alike.
“The stories appear to be very impersonal and not local; local is where the action happens. Very strong narratives with characters are key as well as writing about the impact of something happening nearby and now, not just happening in the future or in some other place. Stories should let you know how you can make a difference or be invocative and tell you something you haven’t thought of before. People become empathetic when they feel like climate change reporting is being preachy and smug because of the unprecedented use of sloppy language to raise the adrenalin level.”
Journalist Josh Stearns, mentions “In the United States there is a large media consolidation where larger media companies are unattached to the communities they serve. Freelancers and start-ups end up doing a lot of the legwork but they don’t have the legal protections the larger companies have. Also there is underwriting from industry, there is still a firewall to prevent media bias but mentions there could be better insulation from commercial and political pressure.”
He sees the media as not responding to the situation as an emergency and incremental shifts are not going to solve the journalistic problem or climate.
Susie Cagle is a writer and closed the discussion with a positive note.
“Communicating to people where they are is what I do, I try to make it sexy and acknowledge it but try not to make it overwhelming for people. You have to have a sense of humour even when what you’re covering is awful because people start to tune out when we start talking about the awful things so language and tone are important.”
Trevor Donald is the student communications intern with RCE Tantramar, a Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development. He is also a student at Mount Allison University, where he is studying geography and environment.