Climate Change: Through the Media's Lens
Global warming is a real phenomenon and the media needs to approach it in an informed manner.
As the Winter Olympics opened in Sochi, Russia, in February this year, The New York Times published a prominent article headlined “The End of Snow?” examining the damaging effects of climate change on the ski industry. Some weeks later, Chipotle Mexican Grill, a Colorado fast-food chain, caused a minor media firestorm when its annual report mentioned that global warming could cause it to “suspend” guacamole—a key vegetable ingredient—from its menu.
“The sky is not falling,” Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold reassured the Los Angeles Times. “We have guacamole in all of our restaurants. As a public company...we are required to disclose any potential issues that could have an impact on our business…”
American media covers many different aspects of climate change, from recent scientific findings to fears about its effects on recreation and dinner. Coverage increased about 30 percent in 2013 from 2012, partially because of droughts, hurricanes and other severe weather in many parts of the United States, says Douglas Fischer, editor of The Daily Climate, an aggregator of climate news.
Despite widespread coverage, a November 2013 study by the Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication, done with George Mason University, found a seven percentage point increase since Spring 2013 in the number of people in the United States who don’t believe in global warming. Overall, 23 percent of those surveyed don’t think climate change is occurring, while 63 percent do, with 47 percent blaming human activities.
Public opinion has been swayed by a small but strident group of climate change deniers and a systematic campaign to sow doubt about the issue, says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project.
“A huge consensus—about 90 percent—of scientists say global warming is happening, and that it is human-caused and a serious problem,” Leiserowitz says in an interview. “But only about 20 percent of Americans know that....”
Journalists are partly to blame for public confusion, says Bill McKibben, an environmental journalist and author whose 1989 book, “The End of Nature,” is regarded as the first book for a general audience on global warming.
“As a journalist by training, I have to say this is an issue where our profession has done a terrible job,” McKibben says in an email. “Scientists long ago reached a strong consensus on the dangers of global warming, but for years afterward journalists kept treating it as an open issue, interviewing over and over again the few skeptics, none of whom were publishing scientific papers.”
Porter Fox, who wrote The New York Times article, agrees that journalists should stop treating climate change as if it were a debatable issue.
“It’s Journalism 101 to tell both sides of the story, but there is no other side of this story,” he says in an interview. “It’s absolutely irresponsible to put someone who doubts the basic science alongside someone who is using facts and math to explain the reality that the Earth is warming.”
Beth Parke, executive director of the 1,200-member Society of Environmental Journalists, believes climate change coverage is steadily improving.
“You can’t just say journalists have done a lousy job,” she says in an interview. “Which journalists? Are we talking about talk show hosts, or people writing for Science News? There are a lot of journalists working very hard to accurately report on a complex story. It’s also true that journalists traditionally have not told American society ‘You have to take your medicine.’ And it’s difficult when you get into a topic that’s so depressing. Lots of people would rather read about Justin Bieber.”
Richie Ahuja, regional director for Asia at the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, says news stories may not affect public attitudes on climate change significantly.
“Coverage comes in cycles—it flares up when there’s a seminal event like a hurricane, but then it goes away,” Ahuja says in an interview. “That’s just the nature of the news media. But if you talk about media more broadly, it has been able to drive societal change. For example, it would be nice to see climate change issues embedded in the story lines of Bollywood films. That would be a good way to start conversations.”
Noting that most people have “limited shelf space in their brains for this issue,” Leiserowitz says that understanding climate change can be distilled into what he calls five “meta-ideas that can be expanded upon to help people make informed decisions.” They are:
1. It’s real.
2. It’s us.
3. It’s bad.
4. Scientists agree.
5. There’s hope.
Leiserowitz believes journalists should allow for confusion and lack of knowledge on climate change.
“It would be great if everyone in the U.S. took a course on climate change,” he said. “But Americans don’t speak with one voice on this issue and journalists have to meet them where they are.”
Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.