Why Media Struggles to Tell Compelling Climate Change Stories

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

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.