No story is more challenging to cover than climate change. No story reflects the complexity of human nature, of societal and international power structures more viscerally than climate change. It demands action like no other story yet is beset by biases that conspire against action. It cries out for hope but generates denial, anxiety and despondence. No previous generation has believed in a future worse than the past. The first major study of climate anxiety among young people, released this month, indicates the profound tensions between young people’s zest for life and their feelings of fear, despair, hopelessness and betrayal. In the words of one young participant: “I don’t want to die. But I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t care about children and animals.”
The climate crisis generates dangerous, incongruent gaps between what we think, and how we feel and act. This is evident across governments, media, businesses and individuals, all of whom acknowledge the existential dangers of climate change yet fail to act effectively, if at all. Global news coverage is often more part of the problem than the solution, publishing stories that inadvertently promote inaction. This coverage can and must change.
Public understanding is unquestionably growing: recent research from Pew revealed that 72% of people in 17 countries spanning three continents are very or somewhat concerned that climate change will harm them personally at some point in the future.
Yet this growing recognition of the seriousness of climate change is still not translating into effective engagement. 90% of respondents in a recent survey by AKAS in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US stated that they did not follow the climate change story very closely while global Google searches for “climate change” peaked 14 years ago. In the last five years, people have been three times more likely to search for “Marvel comics” than “climate change”.
This gap between knowledge and action can be partly explained by feelings of disempowerment and anxiety. Research argues that to change behaviour, people need to feel emotionally activated. However, most news coverage evokes deactivating emotions, leading to paralysis. On 9th August, analysis revealed that 79% of the news headlines about the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on 25 of the most linked-to online news sites globally evoked worry, fear, hopelessness and/or a feeling of being overwhelmed, 10% had a neutral undertone, 6% evoked some hope and only 5% alluded to a solution.
Climate change can also activate various behavioural biases which compound the tendency towards inaction. Present bias inflates the value of small rewards in the present while discounting big rewards or threats in the future. When asked to rank topics of concern in their country, publics globally prioritised eight issues ahead of climate change, including Covid-19, unemployment and social inequality. Analysis of GDELT’s global online news database reveals that since 2017, the terms “health”, “economy” and “education” have featured 16, 7 and 6 times more frequently than “climate change”, which appeared in just 0.9% of its 750 million news stories.
Risk aversion similarly inhibits action on climate change – people choose to avoid small but certain losses in living standards now, risking potentially huge but uncertain losses in the future. Meanwhile, the so-called ostrich effect prevents people from absorbing information effectively: they bury their heads in the sand in response to the deeply frightening climate change messages that news media routinely amplifies.
Our collective preservation has never depended so profoundly on the synchronous action of intergovernmental organisations, governments, businesses, the news media and individuals. News media could play its part by ceasing to deactivate audiences, changing the tone of its coverage to balance the pessimism generated by the scale of the problem with the optimism offered by the existing solutions.
These adjustments by journalists would help:
- Make climate change coverage relevant to audiences’ lives and validate their emotions. Linking climate change coverage with higher interest topics (e.g. employment, welfare, social equality, security, immigration and health) will help mitigate present bias. Audiences also feel heard when journalists report on their concerns and emotions.
- Balance the problem with solutions to encourage engagement and empowerment. Overwhelmingly negative coverage of the climate story risks audiences switching off. It’s important to attempt to pair up facts that inevitably evoke strong deactivating emotions with solutions that evoke hope.
- Ensure that some headlines are hopeful and empowering, rather than calamitous. Calamitous headlines strip individuals of agency, leaving them feeling overwhelmed or apathetic. Audiences need headlines that ignite their belief that they can make a difference. Some achieve this already: “A Hotter Future is certain, Climate Panel Warns, but How Hot is Up to US”, “14 ways to fight the climate crisis after ‘Code Red’ IPCC report” or “The IPCC report is a massive alert that the time for climate action is nearly gone, but crucially not gone yet”.
- Shift from being guardians of truth to being change makers; in the words of Keith Hammond, president of the Solutions Journalism Network, from being watch dogs to guide dogs. This requires a re-examination of what it means to be a journalist in the era of climate change.
- Use learnings from the pandemic and the 2009 financial crisis to accelerate action on climate. Draw parallels with the damage caused by discounting the threat of these arguably preventable previous crises until it was too late.
- Train journalists to embrace data because soon the climate story will permeate every aspect of our lives. A deeper understanding of climate science is also crucial if journalists are to generate independent narratives that hold those in power to account. An inability to interrogate the data risks skirting around the edges of the story, gradually losing credibility and trust.
- Remember that journalists are human too: they fall prey to the same biases as everyone else, feeling overwhelmed, disempowered and fearful for their children’s future. Bias-awareness training and ongoing mental health support will mitigate these challenges.
Younger generations are telling us that we are failing them on climate change. The news industry is one of very few sectors that hold a key to positive change at scale. Now more than ever journalists have an opportunity to change the course of history. Will they be forgiven if they don’t grasp it?
This story has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.