Climate Change and the Media
Written by: Maxwell T. Boykoff
The Climate Stories We Tell Ourselves
At the end of this calendar year, misinterpretations of Mesoamerican/Mayan calendars will prove correct and catastrophe will beset humans…Or another cycle will begin: world leaders will again gather – this time in the oasis of Doha – for the ritual dance called international climate negotiations. If the latter scenario plays out, delegates and leaders will most likely perform their parts while prospects continue to look grim for substantive policy action to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, whose authority goes extinct just days later.
As many grope for answers as to how we collectively got here in the year 2012 (or 14th baktun), part of the answer resides in how these issues have been represented in mass media over time.
Therein rests a paradox: as media attention has largely grown over time, rather than providing greater clarity on the issues and possible consensus on ways forward to address them, coverage has contributed to further confusion regarding causes and consequences of climate change, and has catalyzed ongoing contentiousness around questions of what to do about modern climate change.
To understand how and why this has been the case, my recent book, Who Speaks for the Climate?, explores contextual factors as well as competing journalistic norms that contribute to how issues, events and information have often become climate “stories” over time. Snags in the web of interaction between science, media, policy and the public have contributed to critical misperceptions, misleading debates, distractions, and divergent understandings – that are detrimental to efforts that seek to enlarge rather than constrict the spectrum of possibility for responses to climate challenges.
Examples abound. A few years ago, while living in the UK I came across this alarming headline: “Surge in fatal shark attacks blamed on global warming.” The news derived from the “hook” that shark attacks had gone up since the beginning of the calendar year. In the piece, shark expert Dr. George Burgess explained, “The one thing that’s affecting shark attacks more than anything else is human activity. As the population continues to rise, so does the number of people in the water for recreation. And as long as we have an increase in human hours in the water, we will have an increase in shark bites.”
Nonetheless, a few sentences later, journalist Richard Luscombe penned this possibly throwaway comment: “Another contributory factor to the location of shark attacks could be global warming and rising sea temperatures.” While speculative, and peripheral to explanations for shark attack increases, the Observer newsroom copy-editors swiftly slapped the misleading “Surge in fatal shark attacks blamed on global warming” title on the story anyway.
But the swerve in the central story narrative did not end on that day of misguided editorial action: the thread was picked up again ten months later by way of a short story which ran in the sister newspaper The Guardian titled, “Sharks go hungry as tourists stay home. As it turned out, in the interim months, the number of shark attacks actually went down, compared to the previous year. Dr. Burgess was quoted once more, saying that the global economic meltdown that likely reined in tourism (and toes in the water), paired with shark declines from overfishing, were probable reasons for this decrease.
To casual readers who may have made a connection between shark attacks and global warming from the earlier article, this updated trend may have residually influenced skepticism among readers about climate change. In other words, it was quite possible that a passing reading of this progression would suggest that global warming may not be as urgent an issue as one may have previously thought. For people who likely have more immediate concerns in life, this follow-up piece also provided the subconscious psychological salve to help them cope with one less worry.
The shark stories illustrate the sorts of challenges involved in communicating about climate change and global warming, where subtle signs are at work in everyday life – mixing with our values and belief systems – to congeal into personal perspectives, beliefs, attitudes, intentions, priorities, and actions on climate change. Thus, practices in journalism – such as the way a news story is told – construct meaning, as well as shape public understanding and engagement on various contemporary climate challenges.
It is clear that newsroom decisions necessarily help to translate and make meaningful oft-complex issues in climate science and policy for consumer-citizens. But dangers lurk just below the surface, where uncritical deference to particular journalistic norms has far reaching effects. Critically exploring these processes help us understand how these newsroom influences combine with other multi-scale pressures and processes to influence ongoing climate science and governance discussions. These can be considered as technical capacity issues, underlying issues of trust, and political economy (such as mass media consolidation).
As another UN-sanctioned climate meeting approaches at the end of the 13th Mayan baktun, 21st century climate challenges have very much become a defining symbol and evident symptom of our collective relationship with the environment. Yet diagnoses (what it is) and prognoses (what we should do) make for high-stakes, and high-profile science and policy deliberations.
Considerations of “who speaks for the climate” via mass media are as important as formal climate governance architectures themselves to the long-term success or failure of efforts to take carbon out of the atmosphere or keep it out. To the extent that policy actors rely on the media to find the pulse of public priorities and pressures, ongoing puzzlement through media representational practices contributes to politicized paralysis rather than policy progress. In order to catalyze progress in the climate negotiations themselves, efforts need to also focus on the messengers. Put simply, it is in our collective self-interest to interrogate, and more wisely support links between science, policy, and media.