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Can Journalism Improve its Coverage of Climate Change

Can Journalism Improve its Coverage of Climate Change?

In the face of a rapidly changing climate and its dire consequences, the role of journalism in informing the public has never been more crucial. Yet, as we navigate through the ever-increasing challenges posed by climate change, the question arises: can journalism do a better job covering this existential crisis? Dr. Jess Berentson-Shaw, co-director of The Workshop, an organization focused on effective communication about complex issues, believes there’s still room for improvement in the way the media covers climate change.

“It feels like we’ve gone from denialism to nihilism,” Dr. Berentson-Shaw reflects on the media’s evolving approach to reporting on climate change. While the media increasingly recognizes climate change as a driving force behind extreme weather events, she argues that there’s a need to move beyond a narrative of impending doom and towards one that inspires understanding and solutions.

Journalism is guided by professional principles such as accuracy, independence, impartiality, and balance. However, striking a balance between these principles and the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions can be challenging. How can journalists navigate this complex terrain, and should they advocate for solutions?

To shed light on these questions, we turn to leading climate and media researchers for insights.

Balancing Act: Journalism and Climate Change

Dr. Gabi Mocatta, a former journalist and climate change researcher at Deakin University, emphasizes the tension between journalistic norms like ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’ and climate change reporting. In the early 2000s, the quest for balance led to equal weight given to the views of climate skeptics and climate scientists, skewing public understanding of the issue.

While there has been improvement in climate reporting accuracy from 2005 to 2019, Mocatta argues that “discourses of delay” persist. These include narratives of doomism, redirecting responsibility, advocating for minimal solutions, and emphasizing the downsides of climate action.

The Changing Landscape: Australian Media and Climate Change

Amanda McKenzie, CEO and co-founder of the Climate Council, notes that the Australian media’s acceptance of climate science and its role in extreme weather events has grown over time. The media now acknowledges climate change’s influence on these events as a given, rather than a subject of debate.

For instance, during the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, climate change was mentioned in 40% of the coverage, a significant shift from a decade earlier when it appeared in only 5% of Black Saturday Victorian fires coverage.

However, McKenzie stresses that responsible reporting goes beyond raising awareness; it must advocate for action. She believes that an underlying assumption should be that we must act and that our actions should match the scale of the problem.

Climate Solutions and Journalistic Accuracy

Andrew McCormick, Deputy Director of Covering Climate Now, an organization working with journalists and newsrooms on climate change reporting, emphasizes the need for journalists to communicate the urgent need for climate solutions accurately. He highlights that this is a matter of journalistic accuracy, not activism.

Journalists must also be cautious about framing issues as conflicts, as this can oversimplify complex ideas, such as climate solutions. For example, portraying cycling infrastructure as a win for cyclists and a loss for car drivers oversimplifies the benefits to society, public health, and the environment.

A Better Approach to Climate Reporting

Dr. Berentson-Shaw suggests a more constructive approach to climate reporting. It involves deepening public understanding of collective and community-level actions that can rapidly reduce reliance on fossil fuels and cut climate pollution. She emphasizes the need for rich and vibrant descriptions of solutions, illustrating how they can improve lives and connect communities.

While the climate story may not always align with traditional news values, McCormick argues that journalism is uniquely equipped to tackle its drama, intricacies, and competing interests. Some studies even suggest that framing stories around hope may be more effective than fear in influencing pro-environmental attitudes and actions.

Moreover, visuals play a vital role in climate reporting. Dr. Mocatta’s research highlights the importance of carefully selecting images that accurately represent environmental issues, avoiding the romanticization of harmful elements, as seen with Australia’s feral horses.

In conclusion, journalism has a pivotal role in shaping public perception and action on climate change. To do better in covering this critical issue, it should strike a balance between journalistic norms and the urgency of the climate crisis, advocate for solutions, and provide accurate, engaging narratives that inspire positive change. As we navigate the complex landscape of climate change, journalism must evolve to meet the challenges of our time and lead the way towards a sustainable future.

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