What does a major election loss in Australia, Brexit, and the rise Trump have in common? Besides setbacks for mitigating the climate crisis, in each country there is the pernicious presence of king maker Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. His network of sensationalistic newspapers, TV networks, and satellite systems are leaving a trail of scorched earth politics in which climate denial and white supremacy strengthen right-wing political movements. But this is just part of the problem. In the USA, there was a drop in coverage of 45 percent by the three major TV networks (Fox decreased from just 260 minutes in 2017 to 142 minutes in 2018). This is why if you want to do something about the climate, media reform has to be in the mix. Like laws governing environmental protections, media reform means intervention into how the media system is regulated and financed. It also means that media organizations themselves need to change their internal practices, as The Guardian recently did with how it uses language to report on the climate crisis.
Currently The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review are initiating the Covering Climate Now Project to transform the media’s coverage of the climate crisis. They are responding to shoddy reporting and a dearth of environmental coverage over the past 30 years. The liberal media watchdog group, Media Matters for America, has been generating annual reports that show how little coverage there has been (they recently reported that “ABC’s World News Tonight spent more than seven minutes reporting on the birth of royal baby Archie in the week after he was born — more time than the program spent covering climate change during the entire year of 2018“). Reporting for The Nation, Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope point out that in 1988 climate change was big news. Earth was Time Magazine‘s “Planet of the Year” and climate science was reported on the front page of the New York Times. But since 1990 we have had a 41% increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
While it could be argued that in 1990 it would have been easier (and cheaper) to decarbonize our economy and develop an alternative path, we may have waited too long to take action. And the media is partly to blame. In their role as watchdog and agenda setters, the mainstream and corporate media (MSM) was played by carbon capitalists, whose strategy (honed by the tobacco and chemical industries) was to create doubt about climate science, and hence delay action. And it worked. As Bill McKibben notes, the fossil fuel industry was “aided and abetted by news industry,” which is “the most consequential cover-up in human history.” Sadly, this was particularly an “American failure.” Part of this relates to conventional journalistic practice of being “fair and balanced” by allowing different sides of the climate discussion equal time (even calling it a “debate” concedes too much to the dirty energy industry). This leads to false equivalency. From 1988 to 2002, 53% major newspapers gave equal attention to both “sides” of climate debate (imagine giving flat earthers this much airtime). John Oliver brilliantly commented on this absurdity when he demonstrated what a real climate debate would look like. Rather than have two people facing each other (which visually gives them equal weight), he brought on stage 97 climate scientists to debate three scientists to represent the skeptic/denial side. You can imagine that if this were normal practice, how public opinion might change. It’s a sad commentary that one can only find authentic climate reporting on comedy programs.
Most absurdly, there was not one single question about the climate during any of the 2016 presidential debates. Luckily there’s a shift in public perception, especially after the so-called 2018 “blue wave” in Congress, which elevated policy proposals like the Green New Deal. Recent reports from the IPCC and United Nations, coupled with the savvy social media strategy of climate strikers and emerging civil disobedience from Extinction Rebellion, every Democrat running for President in 2020 is expected to have a climate platform and the news media will likely play it up.
Hertsgaard and Pope lay out the clear challenge: “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?” They offer the following critiques and suggestions:
• The MSM argument that climate change is a “ratings killer” needs to be challenged. Find better ways to report and tell stories, but don’t blame the audience. Moreover, there is an implicit bargain between the news media and the public that if the public grants the right to use its commonly shared bandwidth and infrastructure to private entities, those entities are expected to provide a public service. Giving Trump disproportionate free coverage and a platform may boost ratings, but it’s toxic to democracy and deadly for the environment. Climate change is full of “drama and conflict” (sit-ins, David-and-Goliath story of oil CEOs vs. scrappy environmentalists) which creates lots of interesting stories to tell.
• Find new and different angles to cover the story. Business reporters can focus on warnings from some bankers and insurance industry concerns for impact on economy and “stranded assets.” National security reporters can cover military studies on the threat of climate change as the number one challenge of the future and the threat multipliers of sea-level rise, refugee crisis, drought and war. National and regional coverage can focus on food security (production and safety), health, immigration and sports (i.e. it’s too hot to play baseball in the summer). Furthermore, create diverse (i.e. economic, racial and gender) climate desks and don’t silo climate coverage. Reportes need to get out of the beltway go to the “heartland.”
• Learn science and the facts (do your homework).
• The status quo of political coverage must change. Horserace journalism focuses too much on who’s winning or losing without dealing with actual policies. Additionally, by allowing for false equivalence on the climate debate, a small, vocal minority sets the agenda. Furthermore, don’t buy into Trump/Republican/Fox spin.
• Climate change is “too depressing.” People tend to shirk from bad news, especially when it’s overly apocalyptic. But by these standards, the MSM has not avoided ginning up fear in their coverage of war and terrorism. Still, a shift to solutions oriented reporting would be a good start. The media need to fill the “hope gap” and show people that problems are solvable, albeit not as easily or simply as the problem-solving commodities hocked during commercial breaks.
• Point fingers, place blame. Let’s be clear, fossil fuel industry executives have committed crimes against humanity and ecocide. Let’s not pretend otherwise. To quote Utah Phillips, “The Earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.”
• Climate crisis should not be treated as a political dispute, but rather a scientific reality. This “underlying error” leaves people with the impression that proposals like the Green New Deal can only be evaluated on whether or not they are acceptable politically. This “tactical framing” against the Green New Deal is “strategy and polling rather than a policy’s substantive benefits” which leads to public cynicism and to being less informed (see Carlos Maza insightful analysis of this process). If a politician or pundit gets on the air and says, “climate mitigation is too expensive, there is no money to pay for it,” the immediate response of a journalist should be, “scientists say we have to decarbonize our economy, so if this is too expensive, what is your solution?” As it stands, Green New Deal coverage lacks discussion of the scientific consensus that we need to decarbonize the economy.
• The economic structure of the MSM is threatening climate coverage. Newsroom cuts, eliminating beat reporters, defunding investigative journalism, news deserts (loss of local news sources), closure of news bureaus in places most affected by climate chaos (i.e. poor and rural regions), and too much reliance on short-term stories (and Twitter) instead of long-view reporting. The underlying economic structure of the MSM requires maximizing audiences through cheap but popular programming (gossip, sensationalism, reality programming, comedy news, etc.). There needs to be better funding for local coverage (1,300 communities have lost news coverage in the US). This is not to say there isn’t good reporting, there just isn’t enough of it. For positive examples, the authors suggest emulating what works, such as local news weather coverage, The Guardian (including Co2 levels in its weather coverage and its “Keep it in the Ground” series), Chris Mooney at The Washington Post , The New York Times multimedia presentations, and MSNBC’s Green New Deal town hall. (Also, see Bill Moyers, “What if reporters covered the climate crisis like Edward R. Murrow covered the start of World War II?“)
Using the ecosystem metaphor, it can be argued that the media ecosystem is weak, and therefore susceptible to “invasive species” like corporate disinformation, propaganda and so-called fake news. A healthy ecosystem is resistant to such attacks, assuming that by “healthy” we mean one that strengthens the public sphere and serves the needs of a healthy and resilient society that doesn’t trash the very environment it depends on for survival. So, if the dominance of private-owned, market driven, corporate dominated media is not tenable, what can be done? Canadian journalism scholar and activist, Robert A. Hackett, makes the following recommendations*:
• Media need to bridge the “hope gap” by producing stories that promote empathy, hope, solidarity, other-oriented ethics, political efficacy, civic trust, and belief in the possibility of collective action. Unlike the goal of “objectivity,” journalism should motivate public engagement and mobilization. This includes telling local stories, inspiring community action and resistance, and amplifying counternarratives that give meaning, direction and a sense of connection for people becoming active citizens. They should play a role in community building, collective identity formation, and participatory citizenship to help the formation and mobilization of counterpublics and counternarratives.
• Treat media as a “public good” (like roads, airports, etc.). Recognize that they are part of a commons. This includes strengthening alternative media, which provides diversity.
• Shift from event driven image politics to “elaborated explanations, solution-building and pro-climate journalism.”
•Revive trust in a democratic media through reform. This can be achieved with a diverse strategy that includes: giving charity status for non-profit news; allow for a “Citizenship News Voucher” (such as contributing funds to an outlet of choice when filing taxes); create trusts (like The Guardian); set up cross-subsidization schemes by applying small taxes on telecoms, cable subscriptions, advertising or spectrum licenses; increase funding for public broadcasting; and fund multimedia community access centers.
• Support alternative media (through grants, donations, subscriptions, patronage, etc.). There are many great research and news outlets producing excellent research and reporting, like Democracy Now!, Desmogblog, National Environment Reporting Network, and Inside Climate News.
* Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives, eds.Robert A. Hackett, Susan Forde, Shane Gunster, Kerrie Foxwell-Norton.
In closing I offer one of the most inspiring media reform manifestos to recently come out. It was a letter by Extinction Rebellion’s Clare Farrell to The Guardian on how the BBC can change its climate reporting practices. This is worth quoting in its entirety because it’s a model that can be applied to any media organization:
1. The director general, Tony Hall, agree to a meeting with a delegation from Extinction Rebellion to discuss how the BBC can tell the full truth on the climate and ecological emergency.
2. The BBC declares a climate and ecological emergency.
3. The BBC places the climate emergency as its top editorial and corporate priority by adoption of a climate emergency strategic plan, at the level of urgency placed on informing the public about the second world war.
4. The BBC to divest all pension funds, investments and bank accounts from fossil fuel corporations and their bankers.
5. The BBC, its subsidiaries and its supply chain to agree to be zero-carbon by 2025.
6. The BBC to publish an annual eco-audit of all BBC operations, including summary of key ecological and carbon data.
7. The BBC to take a lead on encouraging other national and global media corporations to join the global efforts to save humanity/nature from existential crises.
8. The BBC to only allow thinktank spokespersons on air to discuss the climate emergency whose funding is fully transparent.
One final word. Media reform also entails breaking up media monopolies and turning companies like Facebook and Google into public utilities. The domination of media oligarchs leads to a kind of monoculture in the media ecosystem. Specific policies and ideas will be the subject of a later post.