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Climate’s Media Crisis

Climate’s Media Crisis

It is alarmingly clear that climate change is an increasingly onerous issue that is exponentially worsening each year. Meanwhile, many politicians turn a blind eye, and the media often echoes this. Climate change is not inevitable. If we as humans can collectively see this problem for what it is – detrimental to human survival – then we can help delay it, and if we put our minds to it, we can resolve it.

While the media has improved in its reporting on climate change in the past few decades, much of the information provided to the public needs to be more straightforward, accessible and repeated (much the same way they repeat the latest political scandal). The media tends to either significantly downplay climate issues (depending on the media outlet); or is not sufficiently realistic, meaning the catastrophic stakes are not fully explained. It is crucial for every media outlet, regardless of its political affiliation, to ensure that the dire climate repercussions are publicly known—meaning, having the issues explained in lay-person terms, in proportion to the threats. If the public is only provided false or downplayed information by the media, than it is certainly questionable whether civilians, politicians, and other countries can come together and agree to halt – or impose mitigation methods that could significantly slow global warming.

The media must improve efforts to provide a realistic understanding of the manifestations of climate change and what our future will look like if we continue it. One huge problem in media coverage is the choices that outlets make in what they cover (or do not cover) based on click-bait value and/or the omission of truthful information that could help the public become more informed. Often news outlets avoid negative climate news because the public does not want to hear it; or some media outlets broadcast flawed opinions of politicians who do not believe climate change is real or an ongoing problem and subsequently impact viewers’ opinions.

The media is responsible for appropriately and effectively informing the public about the impacts of climate change. This begins with news articles, television news coverage, and documentaries portraying the effects and outcomes of climate change in a manner that facilitates a deeper public understanding. For example, the journal article “Is Journalism Failing on Climate?” by Stefan Rahmstorf highlights a US newspaper article that falsely claimed that the sea level has been rising since the end of the last Ice Age. Rahmstorf documented his conversation with the reporter, “I asked the author, a good environment reporter, why she included this false claim by a scientist who is not noted for any research on sea level. She responded that in the US, she cannot publish articles on climate change without citing a “skeptic,” even though she knew well the statement was wrong.” As a result of this bizarre, highly questionable restriction, rumors are distributed via the media, and the general public is denied accurate information that will ultimately help them arrive at a reasonable conclusion: that climate change is real and is dangerous to our future.

There was another instance in which a British documentary about climate change also provided misleading information to the public. The documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle” states that volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide than human activities, and this claim is false and, therefore, harmful to the public. If someone were to see this documentary, they would believe the information provided to them, false or otherwise. This is why the media needs to ensure that all of its coverage is truthful and accurate so the public will not have an unrealistic view of the harmful effects of climate change and be able to spot questionable “facts”. As demonstrated by the examples above, the general public could accept the false premise that human activities do not significantly contribute to climate change compared to natural events.

Politically influenced debates regularly occur in the media over whose views should be awarded greater credence: the scientists or the politicians? Many politicians (primarily conservative or right-wing in orientation) do not believe climate change is real and, sadly, do not believe it is an important issue impacting our quality of life now and in the near future. There are news outlets throughout the country that report climate change for what it is – harmful and dangerous – and at the same time, there are also news outlets that publish the opinions of many politicians and public figures, such as Donald Trump, whose time in office significantly weakened climate action. While it is always beneficial to consider both sides of an argument, climate change is a topic that should not be debated in general.

Climate change is real—and it is definitely happening. There should be no room for ‘balance’ in the conversation about the planet’s future when the science is clear. Providing a voice to those who do not believe in the harms of climate change influences how people all over the country will view the harmful effects of this ongoing issue. For example, the article published by Northwestern Now, called “False Balance in News Coverage of Climate Change Makes it Harder to Address the Crisis,” explains, “The argument that climate change is not man made has been incontrovertibly disproven by science again and again, yet many Americans believe that the global crisis is either not real, not of our making, or both, in part because the news media has given climate change deniers a platform in the name of balanced reporting, according to the researchers.” When the media shares the perspectives of those who disagree that climate change is a risk (even though scientific evidence proves it is a risk), it confuses the public. As a result, some people inevitably believe that climate change is not a problem worth discussing.

‘Balanced’ reporting is harmful when it comes to scientifically proven issues such as climate change. Absent strict, truthful evidence of climate change in media reporting, confusion will always be a factor, and the public will instead be swayed by political arguments that are not based on the facts. Additionally, when news sources take sides in the beliefs espoused by the “right” and left,” conflicts will invariably arise. Examples of this include The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, which lean to the right, and The New York Times and CNN, which lean to the left. Because of its right-wing slant, The Wall Street Journal does not cover climate change as thoroughly as other well-known news outlets. An article titled “Polarizing News? Representations of Threat and Efficacy in Leading US Newspapers’ Coverage of Climate Change” by Lauren Feldman, P. Sol Hart, and Tijana Milosevic states: In the US a coordinated climate denial movement has relied on conservative media to disseminate claims that undermine concerns about and efforts to address climate change. A content analysis of cable news outlets showed that the conservative-leaning Fox News was more likely to challenge claims about the reality and human causes of climate change than either MSNBC or CNN.

A significant component of journalistic ethics is usually: balancing opinions in media pieces to ensure fairness. The Online News Association, ONA Ethics writes: “Balance and fairness are classic buzzwords of journalism ethics: In objective journalism, stories must be balanced in the sense of attempting to present all sides of a story.” It is certainly true that presenting both sides of a story, or “fair balance” when it comes to opposing views, is generally helpful when someone is trying to form an opinion on specific topics. Nonetheless, climate change should not be among the topics that are up for discussion in light of the scientific evidence which is widely available. It is crucial that climate change is reported in the media accurately and factually and that “false balance,” also known as “bothsidesism”, should not be considered by the media when reporting on climate change.

The threats will increase as our climate continues to change, and these changes are widely evident in the myriad of natural disasters worldwide. Climate change will continue to worsen each year, placing more and more people in imminent danger. The media’s general failure to provide people with the necessary facts and knowledge to prove climate change is real and harms our planet. It is time for the media to facilitate both our scientists and concerned citizens in their efforts to protect our environment.

References

Rahmstorf, Stefan. “Is journalism failing on climate?” Environmental Research Letters 7.4 (2012): 041003. Retrieved from: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/041003/meta
Feldman, Lauren, P. Sol Hart, and Tijana Milosevic. “Polarizing news? Representations of threat and efficacy in leading US newspapers’ coverage of climate change.” Public Understanding of Science 26.4 (2017): 481-497. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0963662515595348
Balance and fairness. ONA Ethics. (n.d.). Retrieved December 4, 2022, from https://ethics.journalists.org/topics/balance-and-fairness/
July 22, 2022 | B. M. W. (2022, November 18). False balance in news coverage of climate change makes it harder to address the crisis. Northwestern Now. Retrieved December 4, 2022, from https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2022/07/false-balance-reporting-climate-change-crisis/

 

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