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The Media’s Failure on Climate Change

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The Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation have a long essay on how the media has completely failed to cover climate change:

Yet at a time when civilization is accelerating toward disaster, climate silence continues to reign across the bulk of the US news media. Especially on television, where most Americans still get their news, the brutal demands of ratings and money work against adequate coverage of the biggest story of our time. Many newspapers, too, are failing the climate test. Last October, the scientists of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report, warning that humanity had a mere 12 years to radically slash greenhouse-gas emissions or face a calamitous future in which hundreds of millions of people worldwide would go hungry or homeless or worse. Only 22 of the 50 biggest newspapers in the United States covered that report.

Instead of sleepwalking us toward disaster, the US news media need to remember their Paul Revere responsibilities—to awaken, inform, and rouse the people to action. To that end, The Nation and CJR are launching “Covering Climate Change: A New Playbook for a 1.5-Degree World,” a project aimed at dramatically improving US media coverage of the climate crisis. When the IPCC scientists issued their 12-year warning, they said that limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require radically transforming energy, agriculture, transportation, construction, and other core sectors of the global economy. Our project is grounded in the conviction that the news sector must be transformed just as radically.

The project will launch on April 30 with a conference at the Columbia Journalism School—a working forum where journalists will gather to start charting a new course. We envision this event as the beginning of a conversation that America’s journalists and news organizations must have with one another, as well as with the public we are supposed to be serving, about how to cover this rapidly uncoiling emergency. Judging by the climate coverage to date, most of the US news media still don’t get grasp the seriousness of this issue. There is a runaway train racing toward us, and its name is climate change. That is not alarmism; it is scientific fact. We as a civilization urgently need to slow that train down and help as many people off the tracks as possible. It’s an enormous challenge, and if we don’t get it right, nothing else will matter. The US mainstream news media, unlike major news outlets in Europe and independent media in the US, have played a big part in getting it wrong for many years. It’s past time to make amends.

You can’t solve a problem by ignoring it. Moderators did not ask presidential candidates a single question about climate change during the three prime-time general-election debates in 2016—or in 2012 or 2008 or ever. News stories about Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, this spring’s floods in the Midwest, and other extreme-weather events almost never mention climate change, though scientists have been drawing the connection for decades. Instead, human-interest fluff prevails. In an 18-month period, TV and print outlets gave 40 times more coverage to the Kardashians than to the acidification of oceans caused by rising temperatures, according to a 2012 report by the press watchdog Media Matters.

This journalistic failure has given rise to a calamitous public ignorance, which in turn has enabled politicians and corporations to avoid action. According to polls by  Pew and others, as recently as the 2016 presidential race, only half of the people in this country said they thought that climate change was occurring and was attributable to human activities, and only 27 percent said they knew that almost all climate scientists held this view. The other half of the population said climate change was either not happening or was a result of natural cycles. This 50-50 split has existed since at least 2006, the polls indicate. By December 2018, the number of Americans who said they were “somewhat worried” about climate change had risen to 69 percent, in part because many had now experienced its effects. Still, only 29 percent said they were “very worried,” though “very worried” is exactly how most climate scientists have long felt.

Must it be this way? Is climate change too depressing to fit the happy-talk tone of most TV news? Has the gutting of newsrooms made it too logistically demanding a story to cover? Or are there deeper forces and habits at work?

US media have a history of covering the incremental at the expense of the immense and of coddling rather than confronting corporate power. If there is a media lesson to be drawn from the Trump years, it is that most of the profound problems of the United States—the ingrained racism, the xenophobia, the rank sexism—have been percolating for years, unnoticed by much of the American press; it took a singularly racist, sexist, xenophobic leader to finally force the media to reckon with the stew that had long been simmering.

Without a serious and immediate correction, the press will continue down the same path with climate change, except this time the implications are exponentially greater. Surely, it can do better.

The urgent question is how: What are the climate stories that will resonate with viewers, listeners, and readers? What do those stories look like, concretely, and how can they be different from a status quo that is clearly failing? And even if journalists can figure out a new climate-coverage playbook, can they surmount the widespread public distrust of the press and the budget cutbacks that are ravaging newsrooms across the country?

But hey, Donald Trump just tweeted something and Hillary Clinton had an e-mail server. Let’s cover those things.

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