Why Media Struggles to Tell Compelling Climate Change Stories

Surprise Glacier is photographed during a trip to Alaska to catalog glacial melt and other climate-related research. Image: Don Becker. August 22, 2008. USGS
Surprise Glacier is photographed during a trip to Alaska to catalog glacial melt and other climate-related research. Image: Don Becker. August 22, 2008. USGS

Writing today in for The Guardian, George Monbiot was at it again with a column sporting a memorable title: “On climate change this government is indifferent to life, in love with death.” He was referencing David Cameron’s government, drawing a clawing comparison between the British handling of ISIS [“We have to hit these terrorists in their heartlands right now,” Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament] with the government’s unsatisfying treatment of climate change [increasing subsidies for fossil fuels, tax breaks for extraction of oil/gas from the North Sea, and the curtailing of its carbon capture and storage competitions —something Monbiot highlights as even more necessary given the UK’s focus on the oil and gas as economic stimulus.] The crux of the argument: unclear understanding of how ISIS might come to harm Britain has not stopped clear action. Reams of scientific evidence regarding the consequences of climate change has spurred little action.

Sufficed to say, Monbiot is frustrated.

This latest article —one of many contributions Monbiot offers through his blog, column and website— slides into the growing volumes of meaningful (and well-intentioned) reporting on climate change. For those who accept the brash facts of our steadily warming (intensifying, increasingly variable) globe, this week’s talks in Paris have highlighted (and expanded) the journalistic contributions to understanding climate change and what it means for —or to— the average person.

Striking, however, is the tactic Monbiot employs to cajole readers —offering the grim and gory analogy of war as political statement in the article’s opening paragraphs, before resorting to a worn trope of “Whataboutism” —i.e. if you think ISIS is bad, well, what about…”

I don’t blame Monbiot for this. Should we blame journalism?

In 2007, a UNDP working paper on the media’s treatment of climate change was penned here —where I am currently— at the University of Oxford. Writing out of the Center for the Environment, the two researchers found  “the press has been quite reformist in its portrayal of the needed action on climate change, when the scientific projections suggest the issue may call for truly revolutionary changes.” This was seven years ago.

Last year, a survey by Media Matters revealed broadcast news had increased their coverage of climate change from 129 minutes of coverage in 2013, to 159 minutes of coverage in 2014. The study also found a clear increase in climate change discussion on Sunday morning programs compared to nightly news. This change, the authors explained, was due to demand from U.S. Senators committing more of their own time to discuss issues related to the climate.

Source: Media Matters
Source: Media Matters

Interesting here: the number of minutes devoted by broadcast networks to climate change remains below 2009 levels, despite —one presumes— what is increasing clarity over the nature of the climate change risk.*

The media’s appetite for —and production of— climate change stories will continue to fluctuate over time, but the struggle for many journalists is to write compelling enough stories to attract attention, without inflating (and in some cases unseating) the central thesis responsible climate journalism ought assert: climate change stands as the most influential trends defining our relationship with the planet.

For some, like Andrew C. Revkin —who writes volumes for Dot Earth, his op-ed page at The New York Times— the internet provides space and opportunity to report out (and through) climate issues and their effect on natural resources and the environment. When this valuable endeavor was shifted from the news division to the op-ed pages in 2010 —to afford flexibility, certainly— it also carried a dangerous (and perhaps inaccurate) signal: climate change and our reporting of it is not strictly “news.”

Thus, the media has to assume even more responsibility both, in navigating fact vs. fiction landscapes (more prevalent in US coverage, and, as a September report highlights, in providing concrete examples of how we might find solutions to our global crisis.

The report, published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, found that news coverage of political action (or the lack thereof) on climate change breeds significant levels of apathy in readers. The data shows a steady demand for consumers of climate change news —the “well-informed”— for “information about how to take action.” Positively, respondents also found new stories about “everyday heroes” taking initiatives and leadership around environmental issues particularly inspiring and exciting.

Returning to Monbiot (and in his defense) his wide array of stories cover the dramatic and the dry, and his subjects range from the level of individuals to the complex collective action problems around climate negotiation and governance. The intention —and it is a honorable one— is to fire warning shots over as many bows as possible.

To close on a positive (and cautionary) note, this week’s climate negotiations have clearly drawn the interest of international press, and media have been quick to respond with “highly localized” stories about the causes and consequences of climate change (highlighted for their positive impact on consumers in the CCPA report). The challenge, as always, is finding the editorial freedom to report these stories before and after we lose the specific gravity of this week’s events.

 

 


*Print newspapers have faired better than broadcast news, with increasing number of stories each year. The United Kingdom significantly outpaces the United States in volume of coverage.

 

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Why you need to read The Outlaw Ocean

This post was updated on July 30, 2015.
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This morning, The New York Times published the fourth installment of The Outlaw Ocean —a wide-ranging investigation into murder, exploitation, criminal pollution of waterways, and illegal fishing across our tragedy-ridden commons: the high seas.

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Ian Urbina, a member of the Times’ investigations unit, has crafted some exhaustively documented stories covering everything from stowaways to the difficulties associated with monitoring international waters.

Roughly 2,000 stowaways are caught each year hiding on ships. Hundreds of thousands more are sea migrants, whose journey involves some level of complicity from the ship’s crew.

If able to stay concealed, these individuals —forced or incentivized to take such risks— fall prey to chance and circumstance.

Refrigerated fishing holds become cold, exhaust pipes heat up, shipping containers are sealed and fumigated. Maritime newsletters and shipping insurance reports offer a macabre accounting of the victims: “Crushed in the chain locker,” “asphyxiated by bunker fumes,” “found under a retracted anchor.” Most often, though, death comes slower. Vomiting from seasickness leads to dehydration. People pass out from exhaustion. They starve.

But stowaways found aboard, far beyond the territorial markers of individual countries, become mere data points and, like other crew members, are subject to the rise and fall of the market: of buyers and sellers in marginal industries, of captains trying to squeeze out the barest of profits.

According to the Times’s investigation, these men often become obstacles to be disposed of by whatever means most convenient.

Murders regularly occur offshore — thousands of seafarers, fishermen or sea migrants die under suspicious circumstances annually, maritime officials say — but culprits are rarely held accountable.

These murders can be documented —even videotaped— but accountability drowns in the same ice-cold waters.

“Summary execution, vigilantism, overzealous defense, call it what you will,” said Klaus Luhta, a lawyer with the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, a seafarers’ union. “This boils down just the same to a case of murder at sea and a question of why it’s allowed to happen.”

But the answer is as unsatisfying as the explanation is frustrating. Urbina writes:

Though the global economy is ever more dependent on a fleet of more than four million fishing and small cargo vessels and 100,000 large merchant ships that haul about 90 percent of the world’s goods, today’s maritime laws have hardly more teeth than they did centuries ago when history’s great empires first explored the oceans’ farthest reaches.

But these sea-based industries require bodies and their labor. Urbina tracks this rise to ‘sea slaves’ in the heart of southeast Asia:

While forced labor exists throughout the world, nowhere is the problem more pronounced than here in the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fishing fleet, which faces an annual shortage of about 50,000 mariners, based on United Nations estimates. The shortfall is primarily filled by using migrants, mostly from Cambodia and Myanmar.

And:

While United Nations pacts and various human rights protections prohibit forced labor, the Thai military and law enforcement authorities do little to counter misconduct on the high seas.

Into this void, however, creep private (and independently funded) organizations trying to carve off and address these persistent issues —seemingly beyond the current reach (or interests) of individual governments.  Thus, in their final segment, the Times retells the story of the Sea Shepard vigilante crews, who stalked one of the ocean’s worst offenders across 10,000 miles of ocean for 110 days.

In an epic game of cat-and-mouse, the ships maneuvered through an obstacle course of giant ice floes, endured a cyclone-like storm, faced clashes between opposing crews and nearly collided in what became the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history.

While the pursuit culminated in the sinking of the fugitive ship, the article’s conclusion —in which the author hints the ship could have been intentionally scuttled, carrying evidence of its crimes to the ocean’s floor— leaves readers with the image of a defiant captain, his fist raised, as his infamous vessel dips below the waves.

This short summary is not —and should not— supplement for reading these stories. Urbina’s lengthy investigation isn’t is not intended as an ending, but as a beginning:

There is much at stake: A melting Arctic has expanded trade routes. Evolving technology has opened the deep seabed to new mining and drilling. Maritime rivalry and piracy have led to more violent clashes. And, with an ever more borderless economy, sea commerce is vital to many countries. “Without ships, half of the world would freeze and the other half would starve,” Rose George, a British nautical writer, said.

A hallmark of journalism committed properly is its ability to hook a reader, reeling them into a world that is both distant and inextricably connected to their everyday life. This series accomplishes just that.


Update: Ian Urbina joined the team at Longform to discuss his project, The Outlaw Ocean. You can by clicking the Longform icon below. (One of many gems to be discovered on the Longform site

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On the Road: Detangling ISIS (Updated)

An important review, by an unidentified author, in this week’s New York Review of Books, argues that ISIS’s resurgence cannot be explained by much more than the availability, suddenly, of “a territory available to attract and house” it’s motivated members. That ISIS exists because it can exist is a tautology the author admits, but their otherwise competent description and analysis leaves few other explanations of ISIS’s rise.

Lacking adequate information/rationales about/for ISIS’s causes/rise -as a group or phenomenon- the author believes “Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS” and that this won’t necessarily be rectified by “the accumulation of more facts.” 

Unsatisfying as his/her conclusion is — that “we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled”— it is crucial to accept what isn’t known, instead of hiding behind “theories and concepts that do not bear deep investigation.”

This shouldn’t preclude the important work of investigation and analysis, but inspire a commitment to the lengthy and laborious task of understanding modern extremism (in all the corners of the world it now mars.)

UPDATE: Pankaj Mishra has written his own riveting and riotous review (in The Guardian) of our current historical moment —one dealing with marginalization and disappointment colored with violence and vitriol. He tackles both ISIS and the shootings in Charleston —not as counterpoints, per se, but as diodes across a network of international actors as they deal with the erosion belief systems, particularly as it relates to future prosperity (or their expectations of such prosperity). As always, Mishra builds his commentary with uncommon depth. Agree or disagree? You should read it. 

It’s a paradox: Dominic Tierney’s political platitudes

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 6.06.20 PMI can only hope Dominic Tierney’s book, The Right Way to Lose a War, is more persuasive and useful than his latest missive for The Atlantic. Published last week, Tierney’s 2,400 words, cribbing quotes from the usual political suspects, advanced a largely unenlightened and pulseless addition to current debates on America’s military machine.

His thesis, that America continues to lose wars because it is a “superpower in a more peaceful world,” offers little in the way of remarkable thinking. Not only because his assertions are staid, but also because they are not particularly original. Even the low-appetite consumer of political news will recognize the arguments below:

1) Modern warfare has shifted from interstate to intra-state conflicts.

2) Intra-state conflicts (i.e. civil wars, etc…) are messier, and waged in territories where Americans seed the “home-field advantage.”* 

3) Overlapping American security commitments ensure each individual contest is a “limited war” for America, while it is a “total war” for those fighting America.

4) Americans don’t have doggedness to see out campaigns where the “prize on offer is less valuable” and where the consequences are less threatening than previous “trials of national survival like the (U.S) Civil War and World War II.”

In addition, Tierney’s “essay” is gummed up with over-used political euphemism. Terms like “collateral damage” and “hearts and minds,” ought now be banished from any political writing which aspires to be intrepid. To use these line-items, so bled of meaning, betrays reality and makes cogent analysis impossible. Tierney deploys them both in the same sentence.

But this clumsy writing allows Tierney to glue together his battalion of straw men, as they wait to be mowed down by a series of banal circularities (“Once the United States was drawn into the quagmire, it couldn’t get out”) or overwrought assertions that gesture towards substance without isolating it (“Armed conflict is an expression of American identity and a trial of national vitality.”) These constructions might appear profound, but offer little to dwell upon. What I want to know is just why such quagmires present, whether there is sound justification for engaging in complex conflicts in the first place, and why —given the abysmal modern history Tierney sketches— armed conflict remains some measure of American “national vitality”? Maybe they are in his book. Maybe not.

One can almost picture him offering platitudes to undergraduates at Swarthmore as he scribbles dates and quotes on the whiteboard, asking “Can America return to victory?” But one yearns for the best-read, historically-sensitive and most-curious in his class to raise their hand. “By whose measure, and for what cause, should the United States return to victory?” they might ask.

America’s poor record in conflicts since WWII shouldn’t only prompt queries of American war-fighting mechanics (or strategy, for that matter), it should inspire meaningful debates about the principles —those bowling alley bumpers— that might guide reasons for war itself.

Where and when the United States decides to enter a conflict, there ought to be a considered and compelling justification. But that justification cannot and should not be pegged to whether America is likely to prevail. The question should be whether America (and the many other states of this world) can afford not to try.

As Tierney rightly points out, “[g]lobal warfare is mainly relegated to a few dozen failed or failing states that are breeding grounds for warlords, insurgents, and criminals.” But his globe appears to have only one superpower and a blank slate. Lost in the space between these sentences are these “few dozen” countries, home to a remarkable number of potential political “collateral damage.”  And if America is ill-equipped to wage these wars, should the political leadership abandon the project entirely? I’m not sure what Tierney thinks, but I do know what he wrote: “It’s time to reckon with the hard truths of conflict.”

I just wish he had tried.

*Given that the US has never been “home” to a major international war (save the attack on Pearl Harbor, which —at best— was an instigation and not permanent location of hostilities), there is no use speaking of “home-field advantage.” If Tierney is trying to suggest that this home-field advantage is gained by improving American service people’s knowledge of the “theatre of battle” then I would agree. But that isn’t an original contribution either.

We Get What We Want: Nepal Coverage in Context

I suppose all things must end. #offassignment #exit

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Yesterday, Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times, tore into foreign news coverage of April’s earthquake in Nepal.

The international media arrives in herds and hunts in packs. Everything has to conform to a preordained script: you parachute in and immediately find good visuals of ‘utter devastation’; recruit an English-speaking local who doesn’t need subtitling; trail the rescue teams with sniffer dogs you flew in with as they pull someone out alive, after 12 hours (the rescuers need their logos on TV as much as you need them in the picture).

His words are sharp, burnished —it seems— by his frustration at the sight of equipment-laden voyeurs who shadow disasters. However, Dixit loses his ferocity within paragraphs, his vigor replaced by a wariness that the story of Nepal —what the 7.8 earthquake wrought, other than a surplus of media— will be forgotten as the media cycle ticks stubbornly on.

Dixit is right, of course. We privilege those moments of crisis. These are the shortened seconds and sustained shock where journalistic imperative is often felt strongest. And yes, we left as quickly as we arrived.

But no one I met there, tasked with writing, filming, or photographing a disaster Dixit knows is “too big to comprehend” thought that Nepal (as a story) could be exhausted in a week. Most of us packed our bags because the economics of empathy —at least as expressed in the world of journalism— made it impossible to remain any longer.

There is nothing cheap about covering crisis: hotel rates spike, the demand curve for translators and fixers stretches skyward, access to electricity and Internet are expensive at best. These effects aren’t surprising. But they exist.

This means that every minute on the ground, those necessary moments exploring what Dixit calls “stereotypical coverage,” limits our ability to “catch a deeper understanding of what’s really happening.” You cover your bases first, then you start brushing the dust away. If you still have the finances to do it. But Dixit knows this. “There is a formula for news and it’s hard to file a story that doesn’t fit it” he writes.

And so his charges —well-intentioned and worth considering, seriously — struggle with same question that haunts the reporter: What are we (journalists) to do when the audience signals it’s ready to move on?

To care everywhere and always and to cover that everything in real time, is —in part— to report on nothing. Priorities must be set. Today, those priorities are increasingly shaped by scarcity and our growing knowledge of audience interests. As a result, we live at a time where “comprehensive coverage” can appear more aspirational than practical.

But even sustained attention, if you can arrange it, comes at a cost. If Nepal played home to a bumper crop of reporters for months on end, one might imagine Dixit writing stories of local fatigue: calls to leave the Nepalis alone as they rebuild.

Dixit is stuck with media coverage as necessary evil: the tedious, too-predictable peering eyes and pointed pens, effect (and affect) relief efforts. They write the “headlines [that] keep the crisis alive.”

None of this excuses any damage inflicted by journalism done wrong: the irresponsible reporting of fear-inducing rumors (i.e. “predicted” aftershocks, etc…) did much to erase any sense of security and stability just days after disaster. But Dixit struggles to differentiate the system of journalism from the journalists themselves.

I can’t speak for all the reporters who covered those first days in April, as the dusty afternoons stretched into unsettled evenings, as media teams sat bleary-eyed in the small hours of the morning trying to arrange logistics to cover the stories outside the bubble of Kathmandu, but I would bet many would have stayed longer and traded horror stories for those of revival and triumph.

The latter are more satisfying than stunning, more humble than haunting, and they are probably the ones Dixit wants to read. Most of us just didn’t get the time to write them.

To Make It Matter

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We linger on the flesh.

The “we” in that sentence is the journalist, of course. But it’s also you — or the version of “you” that “we” might be writing for.

On my last day in Kathmandu, six days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook 7,500* people to death in this small, landlocked country, I decided to return to the waters of the Bhagwati. This river slows to a trickle as it passes one of the country’s treasures, the Pashupatinath Temple.

I had been here before — my first day in Nepal — and had stood watching grieving family members cremate loved ones. Flecks of ash, particles of the once-living, floated across the warm winds, catching in the fine hairs of my arm. Acrid smoke stung the back of my dry throat.

Looking back, my notebook seems chaotic. The words are mere triggers for observations, fragments of sights each straining to fit a story I might tell.

Goats walk the riverside
Spare bricks crowd the footbridge
Bodies wait in garbage bags
They [the men tasked with cremating] drop the fire into the mouth first.

Arriving in the hangover of a natural disaster encourages this kind of struggling. There is a searching for sense amid signals too broad and significant. The stories one longs to find, to record and mark as their own, seem instead to linger, trapped somewhere just beyond touch.

So I was there, my final afternoon, at the river. My sleepless body wired to failure on caffeine, the sun’s scratching heat on my bare neck. I just wanted to sit. I wanted to feel still in a place made nervous by sudden movement. I wanted to understand, through mere presence, what grievous loss might feel like.

I wanted to be more heart rate monitor, less tape recorder.

Some say death is supposed to tell us something about this life. That, perhaps, these stories of the living are only complete when coupled with stories of the lost. To avoid this would be like trying to trace a circle with only half the ink you need.

But I worry. I worry that true artifice lives in a misheld belief: that we might understand tragedy through broad and ill-timed questions asked of the agrieved.

We forget that questions are always easier. They are the hard-shelled armor we shelter behind. Questions are what make our world stop shaking. Not theirs.

I tried to remember this.

I did.

But my eyes drifted downstream to the scurried activity, the cooing of an amassing crowd, and the shimmer of light as it reflected off strange, new, naked bodies.

So I went.

I lingered.

I bled news from this flesh.


*The Times of India has reported casualties in excess of 8,000 (as of Friday, May 8, 2015)

Half Century

For the last two weeks, I’ve been in Vietnam reporting on the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam War. The product of this trip will be apparent in the days and weeks to come, but I wanted to mark an important anniversary today. On March 8, 1965, the US 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade landed on Red Beach, a crescent-shaped stretch of land in Danang, Vietnam. The date is somewhat arbitrary, of course, as US “Advisors” had been humping through Vietnam since at least 1959, but the marine landing signaled a clear escalation in the use of American power —an escalation that would lead America and Vietnam into a decade-long cycle of violence.

For this generation (and my generation) Vietnam has become little more than an anecdote —a reference, often trite, used to highlight a government’s penchant for military and political mistakes (i.e. Iraq or Afghanistan). Over the past weeks, and with the help of countless sources, guides, historians, and witnesses of this history, I have tried to color in that crude outline of the war in Vietnam. Not just because anniversaries demand reflection, but because wars linger long after the final shots are fired. For the two men pictured below (and for millions more) the war continues to shape their lives.

In the coming weeks, I’ll try and explain why.

Tan Hau, 17, was born both physically and mentally disabled, complications attributed to his father’s exposure to Agent Orange —the chemical defoliant sprayed by the US military across Vietnam.© Adam McCauley
Tan Hau, 17, was born both physically and mentally disabled, complications attributed to his father’s exposure to Agent Orange —the chemical defoliant sprayed by the US military across Vietnam. © Adam McCauley
Tuan, 29, lost his right arm and damaged his left hand at age 16 when a cluster bomb, dropped by the US military between 1965 and 1975, exploded.© Adam McCauley
Tuan, 29, lost his right arm and damaged his left hand at age 16 when a cluster bomb, dropped by the US military between 1965 and 1975, exploded. © Adam McCauley

The irreplaceable David Carr, dead at 58

Amid a terrible week for journalism, The New York Times has confirmed David Carr, the newspaper’s media critic, has died. Carr was a critical voice in the journalism landscape, one that cut across medium and media offering candid, and sometimes harsh, takes on the latest, greatest and worst that our discipline generates. While the details of his death have not been confirmed, one fact is known: David Carr collapsed in The New York Times newsroom before being rushed to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital. For the many readers who awaited his byline each week, it is small consolation to know he left us doing what he (and we) loved most.

On the Road: Updates on West Africa

While I’m traveling at the moment, I wanted to send a quick update on one of 2015’s steadily developing stories.

As Boko Haram gobbles up more airtime and political talking points, interested readers should keep their eyes in the upcoming AU Summit in Addis Ababa. Defense One has a helpful overview here.

For context on point three (AU efforts to address Boko Haram) Defense One also has a recent discussion with AFRICOM’s commander on the potential role for US forces in the battle to contain the regional terrorist group, with leadership calling for a full counterinsurgency plan.

This, however, comes just two weeks since my last piece tackling the changing role of US engagement in West Africa. Read the full treatment here.
With the Nigerian elections just over two weeks away, there is much more to come.