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Journalists, climate crisis isn’t a topic up for debate

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For years, scientists have been stressing the need to act quickly and effectively on climate change. And as part of my work as a media psychology academic, I’ve seen the way media outlets along with readers have discussed climate change over the past decade.

I’ve observed very slow progress on the issue. But many news outlets do now present the climate crisis as fact rather than a matter of belief. Though given the scale of the problem, this feels like too little too late. This is why I, along with many other academics and psychologists, have joined the environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion (XR).

This group of activists has long advocated for the need to put in place policies and regulations aimed at addressing the climate emergency and breakdown. Extinction Rebellion poses three demands:

  1. Tell the truth
  2. Net-zero emissions by 2025
  3. Organize Citizen Assemblies whose decisions are binding

Extinction Rebellion repeatedly claims that the government and media alike are not telling the truth about the gravity and seriousness of the climate crisis. This has led to a series of recent demonstrations against mainstream media outlets calling on them to highlight the crisis and to increase their coverage of climate issues.

So just how much of an issue is press coverage of the climate crisis and are journalists going far enough in their reporting?

False balance and distortions

Back in 2007, researchers from Oxford University highlighted the barriers to accurate and consistent coverage of the climate crisis.

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One of the key messages of their report was that sometimes coverage is poor not because of an intentional distortion by the media, but because of a clash between journalistic values and the need to tell the truth about the climate crisis.

Providing a balanced view is an important aspect of reporting and is highly valued by journalists. But research has found that so-called “false balance,” whereby a counter-argument or expert is given on a topic where there is otherwise overwhelming consensus, can distort the public’s perceptions of what ought to be non-controversial subjects.

The way the news is often framed (for example, whether a natural disaster is presented as an isolated incident or in the context of a large-scale phenomenon) can also lead to distortions. So can the types of images associated to climate change news – such as the iconic polar bears, or the melting ice. These images can make it seem like this is something happening far away that won’t impact most people’s lives.

Beyond consensus

I’ve spoken with Extinction Rebellion critics who argue that modern coverage of climate change no longer questions consensus. Indeed, research has found that more recently, the media does generally recognize the existence of a consensus in the scientific community – and that critics of climate crisis are in a small minority.