When it comes to accessing information, most of us find it in published or broadcast news outlets; including newspapers, TV, radio, and little click-bait articles on our Facebook feeds. We can’t all be in Aleppo when a bomb goes off, or on the ocean floor when an oil pipeline leaks. Essentially we, the public, have to be told about things before we are aware of them. Links between stories and themes often need to be made explicit before we realise they even exist.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” He understood how large the role of the media is in shaping society. It exerts great influence over how we, as consumers of information, think about things. It also gives them a responsibility to educate and enlighten the public when it comes to world events and what that means to us as global citizens. But are they doing a good job?
It’s a strong consensus amongst the scientific community that as climate change progresses, cyclones, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, along with all manner of natural disasters, will be unleashed upon us in greater intensity and with greater frequency. But according to the latest enviornmentalcoverage.org report, only 1.2% of media headlines published between January 2011 and May 2012 across 30 national news organisations mentioned ‘environmental issues’. During that same period, according to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, over 400 natural disasters impacted 245 million people worldwide, killed in excess of 30,000 and caused damages totaling more than USD350million. Does this equate to the coverage provided by major US media sources at the time?
Media outlets often report on issues in response to interest from consumers. Often news reports show greater coverage of victims within the Western world, potentially as these events are ‘closer to home’. For example, the #jesuischarlie movement and the Italian Earthquake disaster received more coverage than the sum total of all terrorist attacks and occupations in the Middle East or West Papua at the time, despite the death tolls being much greater in the latter. However, this rule has exceptions. In 2011, there were 69 ‘natural disasters’ across America, each victimizing at least 150 people each, but these events only made it into small local newspapers. Perhaps environmental disasters, even those affecting Western countries directly, just aren’t of interest to Joe Public?
Except no. A University of Yale project on Climate Change Communication found that if all Americans were to take a foundation level class test on climate change, 8% would get an A or B, 40% a C or D and 52% would fail. In this same project, 57% of respondents knew that the greenhouse effect traps heat, 50% knew that humans were responsible, 45% know that CO2 traps heat, and only 25% knew of coral bleaching. All this said and done… 75% of participants wished they knew more. Furthermore, an opinion poll conducted in 2012 by Opinion Research Corp showed 79% of Americans want better environmental news coverage.
So there is a lack of and demand for information about global environmental issues, and well, we’re not meeting it! Why? (insert conspiracy theory here about how it won’t financially benefit the big corporations who secretly run the media, if everyone is concerned with and informed on environmental problems).
The less obvious and perhaps more problematic issue with current media coverage of environmental issues is the dissociation between the event and its cause, human-caused climate change. For example, in July 2016, a mass grave of reindeer from the early 1900s was uncovered because the permafrost layer had melted to unprecedented levels as a result of record summer temperatures. This exposed the deadly anthrax virus that had killed them, infecting scores of people and livestock in the surrounding Siberian countryside. However, out of 45 mainstream news outlets we read at the time, including media sources from Europe, North America and Asia, only 4 had used the phrase ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’. Fast forward two months, and more articles had started appearing, firstly on less well-known, more left-wing, and attested pro-environment media sources, then slowly widening to the mainstream reports. The two first ‘mainstream sources’ to report the link to climate change were the Guardian (based in the UK) and Al Jazeera (based in Qatar). That’s not all, even when news sources are talking about climate change, they are often wrong. Between February and July of 2012, Fox News made 40 references to climate change, of which 93% were misleading and scientifically inaccurate. The Wall Street Journal, between August 2011 and July 2012, made 48 references, and only 9 were correct. Curious… as the company’s founder, Rupert Murdoch, made the statement: “I think when people see that 99 percent of scientists agree about the serious extent of global warming, it’s going to become a fact of life.”
This leaves little hope for issues that are even more obscurely related to the environment. Like migration, which in much of Europe, North America and the ‘West’ is becoming a highly divisive, and debated issue. If climate change continues at its current rate (or actually, even at half of its current rate) we are set to see an entire generation of climate refugees within 100 years. The Maldives, Kiribati, and Tuvalu, all small island states, are already being forced to come up with contingency plans for resettlement when their countries disappear beneath the waves. The sociopolitical impacts of cut and pasting an entire country’s population somewhere else are immense. The recipient nation will need to find the physical space for these people and the ‘resource space’, (e.g. school places, hospital beds, food, water, electricity) to cope with such a rapid population increase. Given the current, relatively constant and slow, rates of migration to the UK and USA, are giving rise to radical right-wing figures like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, who knows what the political climate will be like when the sh*t really hits the fan? At the very least, it’ll be on the news.
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