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Why is climate change still not at the top of the news agenda?

The effects of climate disruption, such as the increased occurrence of extreme weather events or the extinction of individual species have news value, the broader issue does not

Cardiff, UK, July 2019: A sign reading 'Climate Emergency' displayed during an anti-climate change demonstration organized by the Extinction Rebellion movement. Photo:
Cardiff, UK, July 2019: A sign reading "Climate Emergency" displayed during an anti-climate change demonstration organized by the Extinction Rebellion movement. Photo:

By Stephen Harkins, Lecturer in Communication, Media and Culture, University of Stirling. Translation: Avi Blizovsky

Climate change threatens the lives of all of us. Scientific studies show that we are in the process of a mass extinction event that may lead to biological destruction on a large scale. The records show that the decline of populations and the rapid extinction of a large number of vertebrates in recent years amount to "massive anthropogenic erosion of biological diversity and ecosystem services essential to culture".

Studies show that 97% of published climate scientists agree that climate change is driven by human activity. If the scientific predictions are correct, a large part of human society is in grave danger despite our actions. So why isn't climate change the biggest news story in the world?

The parable of the boiling frog tells us that if the frog is placed in boiling water it will immediately jump to safety. However, if the frog is placed in lukewarm water that is slowly heated, it will not sense the danger until it is too late.

In everything related to the collapse of the climate, the journalists play the role of the frog. If we literally understand the word 'news' as the plural of new - that is, things that are new - then the disintegration of the gradual nature (in the terms of the newsroom) of the climate does not meet the criteria. The effects of climate disruption, such as the increased occurrence of extreme weather events or the extinction of individual species have news value, the broader issue does not.

However, this issue cannot be explained in these terms alone. The most recent research in the field of communication indicates that "bad news" and "the scope of the event" are the two key elements in stories that become news. The extinction of a large part of life on earth certainly meets both of these criteria. However, when it comes to climate change, these important news values ​​can collide with the values ​​of what the same study describes as the "newspaper agenda" and the "power elite". This means that power structures in the mass media prevent coverage of climate change - an issue of great importance.

Power structures in the mass media

One of the most common claims about the role of journalists is that they "speak the truth to the government" or "give a voice to the voiceless". However, most of the academic studies on the role of the mass media in the wider society are opposed to these romantic views regarding the role of the press as a "fourth estate".
Indeed, the commercial nature of most mass media organizations means that they rely on advertising revenue to survive. An article about how human consumption is driving increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere seems editorially problematic next to an ad for a XNUMXD pancake printer. Similarly, an article explaining the connection between global meat consumption and climate change sits awkwardly next to advertisements for discounted beef burgers for the summer barbecue.

Media studies have proven that a significant amount of the items in the news can be attributed to the public relations activities of powerful companies and the state. This can be partially explained by cuts in newsroom staff alongside the growth of the PR industry. In their new roles as public relations consultants, experienced former journalists have a detailed understanding of newsroom culture and news editors and are able to provide journalists with useful quotes, sound bytes and even partially written stories. In some cases, the news media's overreliance on powerful sources has given too much prominence to organizations with a vested interest in influencing the news about climate change.

In an important study dealing with objective news, media sociologist Gay Tuchman examined how journalists defend their craft by appealing to notions of "objectivity". Tuchman described how one of the problems with journalistic objectivity is that in order to avoid accusations of bias, journalists present a variety of conflicting possibilities. This often means that the journalists give space to both sides of a certain discussion without passing judgment on their relative weight. If they did they would be subject to claims of bias.

In their book Merchants of Doubt, Eric Conway and Naomi Orkess, both historians of science, explored why man-made climate change was presented in the news media as an open debate when the scientific literature supporting it was overwhelming.

They found that a group of scientific experts challenged the consensus on climate change on behalf of corporations and conservative think tanks. Some of the people involved have previously challenged the scientific consensus on a variety of issues, including the negative health consequences of tobacco smoke. Corporations are engaged in creating this doubt through public relations activities because climate change requires international cooperation on environmental legislation.

Using what Tuchman calls a "strategic ritual" of objectivity, journalists are subverting the scientific consensus on climate change by reporting it as a debate. This framing makes dismantling the climate seem less urgent and therefore less newsworthy.

How can we improve? The idea must be restored to objectivity through good journalism that invests resources in providing analysis and verification. News organizations are in an important position to explain complex scientific concepts in language most people understand, but they need to improve their scientific literacy in order to verify the relative merits of competing claims.

Journalists with a better understanding of the science (as well as the social sciences) of climate change will rely less on press releases, reducing the influence of corporate lobbyists and the need to include their PR activities as part of the news. However, these suggestions are optimistic given the wider power structures that constrain how journalists operate.

to the article on The Conversation website


2 תגובות

  1. According to the writer Isaac Asimov, the human species has not yet passed the global crisis to perhaps understand that man is a violent species as astrophysicists believe in their search for intelligent life that destroyed themselves as man will probably do this to himself before he passes the stage of violence and moves to self-peace, which is almost certainly not the case.

  2. The real answer to ignoring the regimes (and following them the media) is from the "game theory". Every regime knows that if it takes steps to prevent climate change, its economy will suffer in the short term. On the other hand, the same regime estimates that the other regimes will not take these steps and therefore their economy will grow "at its expense". Thus, the "correct" decision for any regime is to ignore climate change. The result for humanity as a whole could be devastating.

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