In climate spaces we talk a lot about the changes we can make as individuals in the fight against climate breakdown. Increasingly, we are talking about changing systems at the government level and in the private sector where it really counts. But outside of these spaces, our eco-bubbles, what messages are getting cut through and what is the role of the media in the climate crisis?
“Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy” – Walter Cronkite, Journalist
The media heavily shapes public opinion. Outlets decide what is newsworthy and what stories are important to cover. A free press is considered one of the foundational pillars of democracy – an informed population is an empowered one. In the midst of one of humanity’s greatest challenges, it has never been more important to scrutinise the role of the media in the climate crisis.
We know that attitudes to the climate crisis vary from country to country. Public sentiment is influenced by the press and so the way that climate change is being reported will have an effect on how people understand and view it. In an interview with Trevor Noah for the Daily Show, Greta Thunberg said of the differences between her homeland, Sweden, and the US, “Here [in the US] it feels like it is being discussed as something you believe or not believe and where I come from it’s more like..it’s a fact.” Thunberg has also stated her opinion that “if the media started treating the climate crisis like a crisis, that could change everything overnight”.
Greta is not the only prominent activist who despairs that the media are not accurately communicating the severity of the climate crisis. Extinction Rebellion has also shared its concerns and launched a keystone campaign to “Free the Press”.
If you, like me, are often in climate spaces where the IPCC and Paris Agreement, fossil fuels and plastic pollution are everyday topics, you might wonder whether this really is a problem. In fact, you might even be experiencing eco-anxiety due to the constant reminders that we are in an emergency and that we are failing to meet any of the agreed targets to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. But, what about everyone else? A poll carried out by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications revealed that only 26% of the public in the US are alarmed by climate change. The reason cited was the fact that “Less than a quarter of the public hear about climate change in the media at least once a month.”
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.
Back in 2019, when Extinction Rebellion first took to the streets with the three demands; Tell The Truth, Act Now, Beyond Politics, one of their big wins was convincing the UK government to declare a climate emergency. At the same time, The Guardian newspaper pledged to cover the climate crisis and created the media coalition Covering Climate Now (you can find the full list of signatories here). Their mission as stated on their website reads “organised for journalists, by journalists….committed to science, truth and the public good…..making climate and its solutions part of every beat in the newsroom….informing citizens and holding power accountable.”
The consortium now reaches a combined audience of around 2 billion people. However, at The Guardian, they still believe that only “a handful of major newspapers are paying attention” and that “coverage is still not going nearly far enough”. In 2021, they called on the world press to join them and commit to covering the climate crisis with the urgency that we know it needs.
Despite mounting evidence of the emergency, in the form of increased extreme weather events, The Guardian found that the majority of publications they reached out to were still reluctant to report in a way that conveys the seriousness of the situation.
Those that are climate concerned are noticing that international news outlets are not joining the dots. Just weeks after we saw some of the hottest temperatures on record, a wave of intense flooding has caused anxiety and disruption in New York, London, Germany, India and Japan. Journalist, Matthew Todd has been urging the world’s reporters to ensure all these connected events are making the front pages.
Current Climate Coverage
Many publications still position the climate crisis as a debate, presenting two sides of the ‘argument’. The role of journalists is to remain objective and to inform the public and so they are often hesitant to use language that may be perceived as sensationalist.
The bushfires in Australia in 2019/20, sometimes referred to as the Black Summer, ripped through over 12.6 million hectares of land killing around a billion animals and resulting in the deaths of at least 25 people. It is hard to forget the apocalyptic red images as the fires raged. Summer bushfires are not uncommon in Australia but the scale of the fires was deemed “unprecedented” and scientists were quick to link the disaster to a rising global temperature. However, not all newspapers were reporting the fires are as a climate-related event. News Corp-owned papers, which include The Australian, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun, were reprimanded by scientists and activists for diverting attention away from climate change and even attributing the bushfires to arsonists. Former Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, called out The Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly, when he said, “saying you believe or disbelieve in global warming is like saying you believe or disbelieve in gravity.” He goes on to declare that misinformation printed in NewsCorp papers meant that we are now “paying the price in delayed climate action”.
Just last month, a heatwave swept North America with record-breaking temperatures. In Canada, a local monitoring station in Lytton, British Columbia, registered a high of 49.6C (121F). This was followed by forest fires and an evacuation order of the town as residents fled the inferno to safety. It’s estimated that up to 500 Canadians have died as a result of the extreme heat. During the heatwave, many local papers did not link the record temperatures to the climate crisis. This article in the Vancouver Sun ‘warns’ of an impending heatwave but rather than providing any context or reference to climate change, it simply shares ‘top tips’ on staying cool and features images of people casually enjoying the sun. Another piece in the paper features an update on expected temperatures and an image of more people enjoying the sun kayaking on a lake. Further coverage did provide advice for avoiding heat-related illness and features on caring for vulnerable people including the elderly and those experiencing homeless but references to climate change were few and far between. While these local and national outlets avoided the topic, climate scientists were very clear that this was not an isolated incident and that “Climate change made North American heatwave 150 times more likely“.
The BBC came under fire in June when activists uncovered a section on BBCBitesize, a resource for school kids, that listed the “positive” effects of climate change. The list included questionable claims like “some plants and animals could benefit and flourish in a changing climate” and “new shipping routes would become available”. It was taken down after a Twitter storm of criticism.
— Stuart Lock (@StuartLock) June 30, 2021
Not long after, the publication was flagged again in activist circles online for a headline that read “Science failed to predict flood and heat intensity” which scientists say is gaslighting.
Who is calling the shots?
Media Reform Coalition lists media ownership and control as one of the most important factors affecting the press today. So, who owns and controls the publications read by billions every day? Today, three billionaire-owned companies dominate 83% of the national newspaper market in the UK. These newspapers have the power to shape the country’s news agenda. In our digital age, many of these publications are read worldwide and those same billionaires have bought news outlets in the US and Australia giving them the ability to affect the global news cycle.
Rupert Murdock, who has an estimated net worth of US$21.9 billion, is the owner of The Sun, The Times and Fox News. He also happens to sit on the board of oil and gas exploration company Genie Energy. Murdock has long been the target of activists who have called out his publications for fueling racism and anti-migration sentiment and spreading misinformation about the climate crisis. In September last year, Extinction Rebellion targeted Murdoch’s News Corp printing press in an action that blockaded the printing press and prevent several newspapers from making it onto the shelves.
On June 27th 2021, they struck again popping up at 7 am outside the Daily Mail offices and dumping 7 tonnes of manure in front of the entrance calling for the paper to #CutTheCrap. Media Reform Coalition emphasises the importance of governments taking action to break up media monopolies, like the Murdock ’empire’. A free press is considered one of the pillars of democracy and measures must be put in place to prevent the billionaire classes from having undue influence on the world’s media.
Guardian journalist and environmentalist, George Monbiot has been also been critical of the “billionaire press” and pointed out their role in the acceleration of the climate crisis by not reporting truthfully.
For 20 years, the billionaire press told us “we can easily adapt to a warmer world”.
Try telling that to people in Germany, Belgium and the western seaboard of North America.
And this is just one degree of heating.
The media did this, as surely as the fossil fuel companies.
— George Monbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot) July 17, 2021
The Disappearance of Local News
Local newspapers are in danger of disappearing completely due to private equity firms. Hassan Minhaj explores this in his Netflix show, The Patriot Act. In the episode, ‘Why The News Industry Is Dying’, Minhaj notes that newspaper revenues in the states have dropped more than 57% since 2004. Local newspapers are particularly struggling. While most papers used to generate revenue from ads, that money is now being funnelled into social media and newspapers are grappling for survival.
Local papers were once a thriving part of the community providing essential services by covering local news, signposting citizens to local services like health care and mutual aid and keeping a close eye on what was going on in local politics. On that last point, it cannot be overestimated how important local papers have been in uncovering corruption and wrongdoing. Several high profile sex offenders were investigated and ultimately exposed by local papers, most notable The Miami Herald which took down non-other than Jeffrey Epstein.
Seeing this as an opportunity, private equity firms known as ‘vulture funds‘ are swooping in. These funds use money from pension funds to buy up assets and pay themselves and investors in what is known as a ‘leveraged buy out’. One of the most well-known vulture funds is Alden which has been dubbed “the grim reaper of American newspapers”. Alden buys the up newspapers that are in trouble and quickly sells off its assets, like office buildings, and makes huge layoffs to cut costs. Their founder, Randall Smith, owns 15 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida and made large donations to the ‘Trump Victory Fund‘, set up to support Trump’s campaign for re-election.
The buying up of independent news outlets gives control to a small minority of wealthy individuals, like Smith and Murdock, who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Accurate coverage of the climate crisis (among other things) would expose industries and policies that they are directly linked to. Minhaj reports that huge areas of the US are now considered ‘News Desserts’ and people are turning to social media for information. This has accelerated the phenomenon of conspiracy theories and the rapid spread of misinformation.
In addition to downplaying the gravity of the climate crisis, the press is often guilty of platforming the same activists and speakers over and over. A quick Google search of ‘environmentalist’ will bring you pages of images of Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough. While there is no doubt that Thunberg and Attenborough have galvanised and inspired millions of people to take action, they represent only a small part of the wider climate movement.
Before the Global North really sat up and took notice of our changing climate, Indigenous activists around the world were protecting rainforests and protesting pipelines. For communities on the front line, rising temperatures are an immediate threat to their lives and livelihoods. Activists in the Global South have lost their lives because they dared to stick their heads above the parapet and fight against fossil fuel companies intent on wrecking the environment in the name of profit.
In the US and UK, the environmental movement is often reprimanded for being too white and middle class, and the press has certainly perpetuated that stereotype. In 2020, Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate was cropped out of a photo with four other young leading figures, including Greta. Although the news agency apologised later, Nakate was understandably upset at being erased from a movement she has been a crucial part of.
Climate ‘trauma porn’
When the Global South does get coverage on the climate emergency, the people are often depicted as helpless victims. ‘Trauma porn’ was aptly described by The Mighty as “media that showcases a group’s pain and trauma in excessive amounts for the sake of entertainment. Trauma porn is created not for the sake of the marginalized group, but instead to console or entertain the non-marginalized group.” An example of trauma porn in action is the widespread sharing of images of the murder of Black people at the hands of the police. Those who re-post may feel they are raising awareness but sharing footage only serves to further traumatise and trigger black people who don’t need constant visual reminders that their lives matter less to some people. In the climate space, trauma porn shows up as images of people of colour suffering in extreme heat or losing their homes in flash floods. These images disempower people on the front lines.
There is also a tendency for journalists to focus on solutions from the Global North. The press is attracted to tech-based solutions being developed by scientists and wealthy philanthropists but neglect to showcase leadership and grassroots solutions coming from the Global South and MAPA (Most Affected People and Areas) communities. This kind of white savourism that is prevalent in the not-for-profit world is rooted in colonialism – where wealthier nations believe it is their role to ‘save’ people in the ‘third world’. The truth is that many of the most effective climate solutions come from Indigenous wisdom and traditions.
Another trend that plagues climate news from the Global South is the idea that people are uneducated and need intervention from wealthier nations to reduce their carbon footprint. A piece by Duke Global Health Institute and published last month stated that the cooking methods of people in sub-Saharan Africa was “major driver of deforestation and climate change” and that “replacing the traditional, wood-burning stoves in sub-Saharan Africa alone with more efficient technology would be enough to offset the carbon emissions of Belgium or Florida.”. This framing is problematic and appears to insinuate that people in Belgium or Florida would need to make less adjustments to their own emissions if people in Africa would just change their ways! The author goes on to share quotes suggesting that culture was a barrier to change – ”cooking is probably one of the most deeply embedded cultural practices globally. It can be very slow to change these kinds of traditions.”
Instagram account, No White Saviours, directly addressed Duke in this post with a reminder that the continent of Africa is responsible for just 3.8% of global emissions and that the US military is a “bigger polluter than as many as 140 countries”.
Where do we go from here?
Tackling deep-rooted issues with the global press is not too dissimilar to the challenge of holding governments to account. The two are also intrinsically linked – if the media makes a concerted effort to report on the climate crisis based on the scientific evidence and to look a the bigger picture of how global events are linked, it will aid a shift in public opinion which will, in turn, lead to more people looking to hold the government to account.
Here are some #littlegreensteps you can take to drive change.
> Pay for a ‘free’ press. If you have the means to pay for subscriptions or donate to papers, do. The income will prevent them from falling prey to vulture funds or going bankrupt.
> Engage with the media you read. If you see good journalism, share it widely. If you see inaccurate or biased media, leave a comment, write to the editor or call them out on social media.
> Stay informed. Until the global news catches up, we need to ensure we are keeping up to date with the latest developments through the reputable sources that do exist; follow scientists and journalists on social media, sign up for newsletters from climate websites and read the papers that prioritise climate change coverage.
> Notice your own bias. When you read stories about extreme heat or flood or fires, take note of the way different people are being represented and ask yourself whether there might be some colonial influence lurking.
> Talk to your friends and family. We all have that one family member who posts wild theories on Facebook. Instead of rolling your eyes, try to remember that people are getting misinformation from all directions and steer them in the right direction.
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