“It feels like we’ve gone from denialism to nihilism” says Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw reflecting on the media’s shift in reporting on climate change.
Berentson-Shaw is co-director of The Workshop, an organisation that uses research and evidence-based strategies and toolkits to help people communicate about complex issues, including climate change.
“A lot of people are feeling those impacts, so much more now in their local communities than even two or three years ago,” she says. “In Australia, it’s wildfires. And for us in New Zealand, it’s storms and flooding.”
While the media increasingly recognises climate change as a factor in these extreme weather events, Berentson-Shaw says there’s still room to improve when it comes to covering climate change.
A lot of reporting has rapidly moved into a “now we’re all screwed” kind of space, she says. “That doesn’t lead people to a particularly generative space in which they can understand solutions”.
In their reporting, journalists and the media seek to uphold certain professional principles including concepts like accuracy, independence, impartiality and balance.
Yet when covering climate change, how can journalists square these principles with the scientific prerogative to urgently cut greenhouse gas emissions? And, is advocating for solutions a step too far?
As an evidence-driven newsroom, Cosmos asked leading climate and media researchers for their insights.
When balance becomes bias
Dr Gabi Mocatta is a former journalist who researches the intersection of the media, environment and climate change at Deakin University.
The media is a core source of narratives … A bit like a mosaic – stories are the little tile pieces that add up to a picture which can make a narrativeDr Jess Berentson-Shaw
Mocatta says the interaction between journalistic norms like ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’ and climate change is well-documented.
In the early 2000s, analysis revealed journalists aiming for balance in their reporting routinely gave equal weight to the views of climate skeptics and climate scientists, leaving audiences with a skewed understanding of the issue.
Things have improved somewhat. Subsequent research shows the scientific accuracy of climate reporting has improved between 2005 to 2019, with greater media acceptance of the science of climate change.
But Mocatta says “discourses of delay” still regularly appear, stories which accept the science but justify inaction or an inadequate response.
Examples are described in Global Sustainability and include: ‘doomism’ or arguing change is impossible; redirecting responsibility; pushing for minimal, or ineffective solutions; and emphasising the downsides of climate action.
Connect the dots on climate
Amanda McKenzie is CEO and co-founder of the Climate Council, a not-for-profit organisation established in 2013 to communicate with the public about climate science and solutions.
She says the Australian media’s acceptance of the science and the role of climate change in fuelling extreme weather events “has been a long time coming”.
“Now, media accepts that climate change is happening. And when describing extreme weather, the influence of climate change is a given rather than a debate.”
A concrete example? Climate change was mentioned in 40% of the coverage of the Black Summer east coast bushfires in 2019-20, McKenzie notes. That’s a huge shift from a decade prior, when only 5% of the Black Saturday Victorian fires coverage mentioned climate.
But responsible reporting goes beyond canvassing the issues and making people aware of them, she says. “You’ve got to be on humanity’s team.”
“An underlying assumption should be we must act, and we must act in a way that is commensurate with the scale of the problem.”
Climate solutions about accuracy, not activism
Andrew McCormick is the Deputy Director of Covering Climate Now, which collaborates with journalists and newsrooms to help them report on climate change, and provides resources on best practice reporting.
An underlying assumption should be we must act, and we must act in a way that is commensurate with the scale of the problem.Amanda McKenzie
He explains, “the grim reality of climate science makes clear the urgent need for climate solutions – which we must also be clear about with our audiences.”
“This is not, as some journalists might fear, a matter of activism – it is a matter of accuracy, which of course is a foremost concern of our profession.”
Berentson-Shaw says an additional problem is that when journalists frame an issue as a conflict between two sides, this tends to “squash” or “flatten” complex ideas, whether that’s a solution to climate change, or a public health issue like vaccination.
She cites a recent example of a media report about new cycling infrastructure, which was presented by the reporter as a win for cyclists and a loss for car drivers.
“This massive, long term public good, public health issue, which is about improving public health, reducing carbon pollution, reducing injuries to children, and creating independence has been flattened and squashed down into this false balance,” she says.
A better alternative?
The Workshop’s research shows a better alternative – particularly when it comes to climate solutions – is to help deepen public understanding of achievable action at the collective and community level, that can be rapidly scaled to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and cut climate pollution.
“There are significant risks that we face, but there are also amazing opportunities if we respond well,” she says.
Journalists can purposefully shape those stories, by providing rich and vibrant descriptions of solutions, and showing how they might change people’s lives by contributing to “the type of lives many of us aspire to: to feel more connected to our communities, to have more green space, to have streets that are quieter.”
McCormick says while there should be no debate about the need for climate solutions, there is a role for journalists to rigorously interrogate the options on the table and find ways to make the climate story a priority.
“What solutions will actually work, and can they scale to work quickly enough, […] who benefits and who loses from different solutions?”
“The climate story might not always fit the mould of traditional news values […] but it’s our job to translate this enormous issue for the public and find new and creative approaches for connecting with audiences.”
The climate story is full of drama and surprising intricacies and competing interests. It’s what journalism is made for, McCormick says.
Journalists should think not just of using pictures that are spectacular. But pictures that represent the story accuratelyDr Gabi Mocatta
Some research published in Science Communication suggests framing stories around hope may be more effective than fear at influencing pro-environmental attitudes and action.
Carefully selected pictures which match the story are important too, Mocatta says. Some of her current research shows reporting on environmental harms is often not accompanied by images depicting those harms.
She gives the example of the case of Australia’s feral horses, or brumbies, which the media often depicts in an appealing way with beautiful images of the animals, their manes flowing in dappled light – alongside reporting on the damage they inflict on fragile environments.
“Journalists should think not just of using pictures that are spectacular. But pictures that represent the story accurately.”
When fact checking: Inoculate first, then use a ‘truth sandwich’
In seeking to counter climate myths, well-meaning media outlets and journalists are often drawn to concepts like fact checking. Is this useful?
Evidence shows that in an ideal world, inoculation – giving people the tools to spot misinformation and identify logical fallacies themselves – works much better, Berentson-Shaw says.
She says media outlets need to be aware that the act of repeating false information, even for the purposes of debunking, tends to reinforce it.
A more helpful and less harmful approach for dealing with misinformation is a “truth sandwich”, an idea coined by cognitive linguist George Lakoff to address the risks with repeating false information, by surrounding it in layers of facts, she says.
Berentson-Shaw explains the approach: Start with the truth; alert people that a piece of false information is coming up; name the myth, repeat that it’s false, and explain why; finish by reminding people of the truth.
Understand the audience, make it a human story
Climate communication and media researchers all say understanding the audience is key to telling strong climate stories. Few journalists would disagree.
Mocatta says listening to and understanding people’s values is the first step. Then connecting stories about climate change to their priorities, whether that’s their family’s health, cost of living, or to local places that they love.
“Research shows people are motivated by local stories, relevant to their lived experience. Of course, climate change is a vast global issue, and yet it affects local places differently,” she says.
She adds that while polar bears and melting ice caps are important, for most people they’re “unimaginably remote”.
McCormick says, more and more outlets are finding ways to connect climate change to people’s daily lives. Examples include stories like, “how climate change is affecting people’s insurance payments, for example, or their health, the food they eat, and the cost of travel and consumer goods.”
McKenzie says, “you’ve got to make it relevant to the audience, make it relevant to their geographical experience, and the things they are most interested and concerned about.”
She adds, understanding the audience goes further than the story angle. It also means interviewing people and choosing case studies people can connect with.
The climate story is a story for every news beatAndrew McCormick
One way to do that, McKenzie suggests, is to take climate reporting out of the environment box, and make it a human story.
McCormick agrees. The climate story is a story for every news beat, he says.
Berentson-Shaw says media can have a profound effect on the public’s understanding of climate change, and can choose to shape its stories in line with the science.
“The media is a core source of narratives in our culture”, those are the big ideas carried across stories. “A bit like a mosaic – stories are the little tile pieces that add up to a picture which can make a narrative”.
It’s a huge responsibility, Mocatta says. “There’s an appetite for change. And one factor that would help enable that change would be better climate coverage in the media, that more reflects the urgency of the problem, and the kinds of solutions that need to be implemented, soon.”
Five ideas to elevate climate coverage
- Connect the dots: acknowledge climate change as a factor in more intense and frequent extreme weather events
- Shape the narrative with stories of solutions
- Understand the audience and tell relevant, human stories
- Give people the tools to spot misinformation, then refute myths by sandwiching them between facts
- Choose images that match the story.