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Chance or Catastrophe? Towards a Constructive Media Coverage of Climate Change

Chance or Catastrophe? Towards a Constructive Media Coverage of Climate Change

Instead of using the opportunity to promote a low-carbon society, media reports of global warming generally convey only two messages. First, “watch out, the apocalypse is coming”, and second, “we don’t really know whether it is us who are to blame”. This is clearly the impression you get when zapping through the TV channels and newspaper headlines of the western world. But this is also the conclusion of a recent Oxford study called “Climate Change in the Media – Reporting Risk and Uncertainty”. In this article, we’ll explore how media could paint a more accurate picture of global warming, and we’ll find out which method of consuming media is the healthiest, generally speaking.

As was reported in Yale’s environment 360 blog (that I found via the magnificent No Tech Magazine), the Oxford study’s figures are striking:

Nearly 80 percent of news articles about climate change either warn of current or future disaster scenarios related to global warming, or contain discussions about the uncertainty of climate science, an Oxford study of 350 news articles from 2007 to 2012 has found. Fewer than two percent of the articles from the media in six countries discussed opportunities to be gained from switching to a lower-carbon economy.

In keeping with news values theory, it is no wonder that the disaster scenario is often used to frame climate change reporting. Disasters clearly fulfill the newsworthiness criteria of “negativity”. The second point, uncertainty, is slightly more complicated. The study’s authors criticize that many journalists don’t understand the concepts of risk and probability well enough. Of course, bringing those concepts to print would require a close concern for the accurate use of probability, but with today’s pattern of short-lived media coverage, there is no room for that. Part of the problem, according to the authors, is due to the print media’s economic downturn:

Bridging the gap between specialists and journalists is becoming more difficult at a time when specialist journalism is in decline in many Western countries, in part due to the problems facing the business model of print media. It is a worrying trend that most journalists are now generalists yet they have to cover highly specialised areas of risk in finance, health or the environment. (…) [J]ournalists will need to be able to handle risk, numbers, and probabilities better in order to help a more constructive narrative about climate change than doom and gloom or uncertainty.

Unlike most of the press that was analyzed by the researchers, this blog has always defined itself as a solution-oriented medium. Remaining true to taking a constructive attitude, let’s open the study’s executive summary and flip right to the authors’ recommendations (PDF page 8). Among them are, as a consequence of the above mentioned issues, better journalist training in the comprehension of numbers and probabilities. Additionally, more info-graphics are recommended in order to better “illustrate the concepts of risk”. Another idea is the greater use of probabilistic forecasting in daily weather reports. That means, percentages are assigned to different possibilities instead of forecasting only one option and assuming this will definitely happen. However, when it comes to delivering a more accurate image of climate change, not only the media, but also science should refine its methods. Two recommendations regarding the public relations of scientists and their institutions can be found in the study. First, the IPCC should get more funding for better and quicker PR, and second:

Scientists should stress early on during media interviews where there is broad consensus about climate science, and then later on where there are degrees of uncertainty. They should also try to explain that uncertainty does not usually mean ignorance.

Understanding why action on climate change makes sense, despite the lack of absolute certainty of human causation, is not apparent to everyone. However, even the most fundamentalist climate change denier has to admit a sense of preventive action for his or her personal life. Honestly, would you stop caring about your pension just because you can never be 100% sure that you will reach the pension age? This beautifully crisp analogy was stated by Cambridge University’s David Spiegelhalter as part of the study’s preface:

[I]n spite of inevitable uncertainty about the future, we can still take appropriate action to hedge against bad outcomes. It is heartening to see the dual role of number and metaphor in communication – my favourite analogy is with setting up a good pension as a sensible precaution for the highly likely, but of course not certain, prospect of an extended old age.’

In my humble opinion, there is not much hope for mainstream media decision makers to paint a better picture of climate change and other sustainability issues in the near future. Sadly, the topics that sell, be it in the yellow press, at Fox or on youtube, are way off the sober-minded, constructive path that the spread of sustainable development requires. But personally, you can always clear your life from all that news noise. The criticism of conventional media is in line with Rolf Dobelli’s great pledge to avoid superficial news altogether. His essay “Towards a Healthy News Diet” is a provocative response to the 21st-century culture of ephemeral thinking and omnipresent interruption. He extends the concept of sufficiency to news consumption. According to Dobelli, we should stop terrorizing ourselves with hundreds of seemingly important information snippets that, if you think about it profoundly, really have no relevance to our lives. Instead, he wrote, reading one book, one thoughtful essay, or one extended, well-researched article at a time greatly improves your quality of life. And your health. And your analytical skills. And your creativity! If this has caught your attention, let’s put the rule to the test: here’s a link to Dobelli’s original, 11-page-long essay, and here’s the short-version, a summary published by the Guardian.

Here’s what I think: it has never been easier than today to access the well-written information Dobelli strives for. We don’t necessarily need conventional media anymore, when an abundance of free blogs deliver excellent journalism in all kinds of specialized fields. Even the most frequently mentioned claim of both news makers and news consumers to justify their addiction is wrong. Being “up to date” fails to keep its promise. Today’s newspaper was edited yesterday. The evening TV news shows footage that was filmed in the morning, in the afternoon, sometimes days earlier, or from an archive. Anyway, try remembering the news headlines an hour after seeing them. I bet you’ll have forgotten a large part of the contents – it is just too superficial.

Online, however, you’re the more mature consumer. For every opinion stated, you will find a counterpart in the comment section. And every fact is easy to verify. Every story can be deepened, extended, continued, as profoundly as desired, individually tailored, click by click. There is no page limit, no text’s length castrated by print layouts. Thanks to the invention of the search engine and an armada of countless motivated people who share their knowledge blogging and editing the world’s largest encyclopedia.

When we combine the enthusiasm for the multilogue of web 2.0 with Dobelli’s insights, today’s challenge is not in finding a good newspaper. Much rather, we should devote ourselves to carefully choosing and organizing our bookmarks, newsfeeds and podcasts, along with selecting the right subscriptions to the few print and online magazines that fulfill their promise. Because instead of just distracting, quality journalism actually informs the public.

Article image edited by Moritz Bühner, based on Jon S’s newspaper picture which is CC BY 2.0.

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