Call for new media strategies for climate change journalism

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Last month’s AJ+ video about ExxonMobile’s tactics in casting doubt on climate change science.

Do changes to climate change reporting need to happen? Does the media itself need structural change to face the new challenge? Kendall Hutt seeks some answers to the debate for Asia Pacific Report.

A worldwide call has gone out by academics and journalists for news media to change its approach on reporting climate change.

Current coverage of climate change leaves the public ill-informed on the issue and largely cynical, say some academics.

APJlogo72_icon-300wideAlso of concern is a tendency for media to frame climate change as an international rather than local issue, which leads it to be defined as a problem for others and not one of national sovereignty.

The need for improvement was highlighted at a public talk delivered at Auckland University of Technology last month, in which Professor Robert Hackett of Simon Fraser University discussed whether certain “touchstones” of journalism, such as objectivity and the public sphere, apply in covering what he dubbed a “climate crisis”.

Professor Bob Hackett ...
Professor Bob Hackett … proposes alternative reporting models. Image: Kendall Hutt/PMC

The topic of a forthcoming book with several colleagues titled Journalisms for Climate Crisis, Hackett proposes several alternative reporting models that could potentially allow greater, more in-depth coverage of the climate change issue.

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However, Dr Hackett concluded his talk by stating structured media reform was needed for climate crisis journalism to flourish. He stressed that the industry needs space to discuss such reform in order to foster change in defiance of a lack of political will.

Speaking with Asia Pacific Report, Dr Hackett has expanded on this conclusion, saying such structural media reform would “encourage and expand better journalism practices and coverage to the scale that is needed in a situation of global crisis”.

He added media reform would also reduce commercial pressures on journalists to generate clickbait and reduce concentrated corporate ownership.

But this is not a view shared by others.

Oxfam New Zealand’s senior campaigns and communications specialist Jason Garman rejects the idea of media reform.

“I think passing the buck that media should be solving this problem by doing better is not the way to go,” he says.

I think everyone needs to come to the reality that climate change is affecting all of us and we all should be playing a constructive part in making sure we have a world that’s liveable for everyone.”

Garman believes improvements to the way climate change is reported needs to come from – and return to – journalism’s fundamental role in educating and informing the public.

This is a view shared by science communication specialist and former journalist, Dr Jan Sinclair.

Dr Sinclair says it is mainly the media’s responsibility to inform the public of the extent and reality of the risks of climate change.

“It’s the journalist’s responsibility to tell people whether their lives or property are at risk.”

Like Garman, Dr Sinclair rejects Dr Hackett’s idea of media reform being the way for media to improve its climate change coverage moving forward.

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Dr Jan Sinclair … wary of media reform due to the vested interests of fossil fuel industries and “sceptical lobby” which have plagued coverage of climate change. Image: Del Abcede/PMC

Dr Sinclair is wary of reform due to the vested interests of fossil fuel industries and “sceptical lobby” which have plagued, and continue to plague, coverage of climate change.

She says such well-funded and powerful lobbying has promoted a culture of climate change being framed as “uncertain”, both within the media and social world.

Evidence of such lobbying can be seen by looking at ExxonMobil, one of the leading opponents of climate change science, which also once happened to be one of its leading proponents.

A video by AJ+ recently revealed that ExxonMobil spent US$61 million between 1998 and 2005 challenging scientific consensus surrounding climate change.

ExxonMobil has also been largely responsible for creating the uncertainty Dr Sinclair describes, with the oil company spending US$30 million on a network of think tanks and researchers who have challenged climate change science.

Dr Sinclair says any improvements to current reportage are a question of ethics and should be seen as a matter of integrity for journalists.

Question of ethics
“If journalists could perhaps have a discussion on which ethics are important, and then link speaking truth to power to the problem of interpreting scientific results… I think that might be beneficial.”

The journalistic adage of “speak truth to power” does not do climate change reporting any favours, she adds, as this “political” focus is detrimental.

This is something Dr Sinclair has also noted in her research into comparisons of what information the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported and what The New York Times reported across a 17-year period from 1990 to 2007.

Dr Sinclair noted: “Journalists are encouraged to privilege political discourses over scientific advice”, in direct correlation with the adage.

In contrast, Taberannang Korauaba, a doctoral candidate with the Pacific Media Centre and editor of the Kiribati Independent, believes stories on climate change need to focus more on the positive and calls attention to the Pacific.

Positivity needed
“The same message is repeated, sea is rising, people will be displaced, sea encroaching land, temperature is getting hotter these days on the islands.”

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Doctoral climate change researcher Taberannang Korauaba … stories should focus on adaptation and media attention shift to investigate the distribution of adaptation funding. Image: AUT Pacific

Yes, Pacific people are victims of climate change, he says, but stories should focus on adaptation and media attention shift to investigate the distribution of adaptation funding.

“What is happening now on the ground, I think the focus should be there. How much money given to these islands to help build their resilience, how it is spent, who is getting what?”

Korauaba says the media needs to adopt strategies to better report climate change and one of those is deliberative journalism, journalism that is acknowledged as empowering local people and leading to greater, popular decision-making.

In his research, he regards deliberative journalism – what he terms in the i-Kiribati-language as Te Karoronga – as allowing the community to be part of climate change adaptation and raising understanding and awareness of actions, so the people themselves can take action to help save their islands.

Despite such varied calls for the media to reframe its coverage of climate change, such as by Pacific Journalism Review in a special edition in 2014 on “failed states” and the environment, not all coverage is, or has been, inherently bad, Garman and Hackett stress.

Not inherently bad
Professor Hackett says some media organisations have been doing “remarkably good work” and “exercising a sense of agency”.

One such organisation is the Desert Sun, he adds, Palm Spring’s daily in southern California due to the host of feature articles it has produced.

Garman, however, highlights the media’s growth and acknowledgement in framing climate change as a human rights issue.

“If you’d asked me that question [growth] ten years ago I would have said, ‘No, absolutely, people see climate change as an environmental issue only, something that’s happening to polar bears and may affect humans at a long-off point in the future’.

“Whereas now I do think people understand that climate change is happening now, it’s affecting people now, it’s a human rights issue.”

Although no consensus exists as to what form reframing should take, Korauaba has noted it will take time for any changes to come into effect.

“The world can’t change overnight, at least we do something, and keep doing it regularly in our coverage.”

Kendall Hutt is a graduate journalist from AUT University, currently completing her Honours year in Communication Studies. She is on the Pacific Media Centre’s Asia Pacific Journalism course.

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  1. With thanks to Kendall Hutt for writing on this important topic, the responses from other interviewees indicate the need for a few clarifications:
    1. Neither I nor my colleagues are arguing that journalism can solve the climate crisis, or that action should wait for media reform. It is not about passing the buck to the media. Rather, the question we are asking in Journalisms for Climate Crisis, is what kinds of journalism can help multifaceted attempts to address this problem, at political and other levels.
    2. The key blockage to wider public engagement and mobilization around this issue is *not* a lack of information about the science of environmental risks; nor is it the unwarranted attention that used to be given in news media (especially in the US) to climate science deniers. Rather, it is a ‘hope gap’, a lack of news that normalizes, informs and encourages active citizenship on climate change, and news that connects the global scale of the challenge with local impacts, contributions and actions – much as Mr Korauaba advocates with respect to Kiribati.
    3. The choice is *not* between coverage of science, and ‘detrimental’ focus on politics. Rather, the question is what type of politics is covered – the machinations of political elites and failures of conventional politics as usual in addressing climate change; or the grassroots, typically local active citizenship of ordinary people – the kind of journalism that is far more likely to be found in alternative than corporate media.
    4. The ‘vested interests of fossil fuel industries’ is *not* a reason to oppose democratic media reform. Quite the opposite is the case. One rationale for media reform is to ‘scale up’ the practices of alternative and independent journalism, capable of critically examining the destructive impact of such vested interests.
    5. Readers who want to follow this up seriously might consult the report News Media and Climate Politics, by Kathleen Cross et al, at policyalternatives.ca; and articles by Shane Gunster in Canadian Journal of Communication (2011), and “Radical optimism: expanding visions of climate politics in alternative media’ in A. Carvalho and TR Peterson, eds., Climate Change Politics (2012).

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