Friday, November 8, 2013

Popular Media is to Blame for Inaction on Climate Change

The popular media needs to adopt a science based approach to presenting the news about climate issues. The role media plays is critical as most people do not read scientific papers.

Sadly the popular press has not lived up to their journalistic responsibilities. At best media coverage of climate change reflects their readers biases without regard for accuracy, at worse they promote anti-environment agendas.

The profoundly destructive tendency to present the facts alongside climate denying misrepresentations is an egregious lapse of journalistic integrity and responsibility. Although this is ostensibly done in the name of balanced coverage, the truth is that mainstream media panders to popular confusion by presenting subterfuge alongside peer reviewed science.

Reports from authoritative sources like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are commonly reported alongside skeptics. What does it say about journalism when massive bodies of scientific evidence are given equal time alongside representatives from climate denying front groups. The point is that there are powerful interests from the old energy economy that want to stave off the transition to a greener economy as long as possible. They can be expected to resist, the real issue is why are they being helped by popular media?

Consider an analogy pertaining to journalistic coverage of racial equality, do we provide equal time for racist misanthropes?

According to Media Matters, US network news shows have stopped talking about climate change. When it is mentioned it is commonly about the politics and not science. A Media Matters analysis finds that news coverage of climate change on ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX has dropped significantly since 2009. Nightly news coverage decreased 72 percent between 2009 and 2011.

Sunday show coverage of climate change fell 90 percent between 2009 and 2011. Sunday shows feature twice as many [climate denying] Republicans as Democrats on climate change. Scientists were excluded from discussions of climate change on Sunday shows.

This is very significant because of the important place Sunday shows have in American life. According to Media Matters, Sunday shows are particularly important in the US as they help set the agenda of official debate in Washington. They have a weekly audience of 9 million viewers and these shows are also followed closely by the journo-political establishment.

As evinced in a report by Professor Steve Jones, major global news outlets like the BBC continue to report on subjects that reify the misinformation of climate deniers. 

According to a 2011 report by Professor Wendy Bacon from the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, the media response to climate change contains a lot of anti-science skepticism. 

In fairness there are some media outlets which offer stellar examples of good climate change journalism in 2013. The Guardian is a leading site that offers a steady stream of fact based reporting on the subject of climate change. Rolling Stone also publishes science based articles on climate including a game-changing piece by Bill McKibben on the math of climate change..

There are also a host of responsible blogs like InsideClimateNews, Climate Progress, ClimateWire, and Real Climate. Other business oriented sites like The Green Market Oracle also present science based coverage of climate and environmental issues.

Despite these responsible outlets, most people get their news from mainstream media sources. Green journalism often preaches to the converted. The message needs to be widely disseminated through popular media.

 Inaccurate reporting from the popular media is a salient part of the reason that we have so many people in North America and around the world who are woefully misinformed about the facts about climate change.

In 2013 we are beginning to see some responsible conduct from the mainstream press. Al Jazeera is increasing its environmental coverage in the US. The Los Angeles Times recently banned letters from climate skeptics because the information they present is inaccurate and The Sydney Morning Herald is considering doing the same. As explained by LA Times letters editor Paul Thornton, it’s a matter of being absolutely accurate in the coverage.

When climate change is covered it is far too often presented as an inevitable calamity that we can do nothing about. This was the finding in a report by James Painter, the head of the Journalism Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. The media must make it clear that solving the climate crisis is possible.

Journalists need to focus on the fact that climate change is an issue that impacts human health, it also has far reaching social impacts. Perhaps most importantly people and businesses need to understand that climate change is an economic issue. The business community must come to terms with the fact that they have a leadership role to play in solving the climate crisis and the full weight of technological innovation must be brought to bear.

Business oriented publications that continue on the denier train are doing a profound disservice to their readership. With comments like “Global Warming is a Fraud," publications like Investors Business Daily are not only delaying action from the business community they are providing pretexts for businesses to position themselves on the wrong side of an issue that will have calamitous consequences both for the individual enterprise and for the global economy.

Of course the government must play an important role both in terms of supporting innovation, and through regulation and legislation that mandates environmentally responsible practices. However, in a democracy governments far too often respond to the demands of a critical mass rather than engage in responsible leadership. Popular support will cause governments to change and but this requires that people have a better understanding of the facts.

Objective reporting on the climate crisis and its systemic causes would go a long way to help people come to terms with the facts. We also need more reporting about the way which we can solve the climate crisis. 

Responsible reporting entails journalistic policies that are designed to circulate our best understanding of the facts not present economically motivated subterfuge.

The media has a crucial role to play in building global consensus. Until we have widespread understanding about the science of climate change politicians will not engage the issue on the scale required to make a difference.

© 2013, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.

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