Climate change spurs journalistic awakening

Art+by+Vivian+Spear.

Art by Vivian Spear.

Nora Crutcher-McGowan

For members of Generation Z, the threat of climate change is a life-long presence. Junior Brooke Novinger, co-president of RBHS Conservation Club, said she first heard about the issue in late elementary school while reading National Geographic “articles about glaciers melting and rising average temperatures.” Stories about climate change as a pressing issue first appeared in the Associated Press (AP) stratosphere in the 1980s as a result of a decades-long build-up of various media and studies addressing the concern of climate change. Previous generations have grappled with how to handle and communicate on climate-related issues. Since the recognition of the matter, our country has had a whirlwind relationship with climate change awareness, advocacy and conspiracy.

A 2019 article from UC Berkeley News addressed the failures of major news publications, such as the New York Times, in reporting and teaching the basic facts of climate change, stating “a large percentage of the public doesn’t know that global warming is happening now, that it’s caused by record levels of CO2 from fossil fuel burning, that 99% of climate scientists agree on this and that the changes are effectively permanent.” Dr. David Romps, one of two authors of the analysis primarily used in the piece, is leader of the The Climate Physics Group at UC Berkeley. Nathaniel Tarshish, a graduate student with the group, stated that one of the first wide-received warnings of the effects of climate change was the 1988 testimony to the U.S. Senate delivered by James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies at the time. Hansen warned of the dangers of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with the famous line, “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and is changing our climate now.”

“His clear and confident statement that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels were increasing the temperature was a pivotal moment in climate science communication and received widespread coverage,” Tarshish said. “As political battle lines formed around climate change over the ensuing decades, the coverage has shifted more and more away from the science and into the political arena.”

Hansen’s speech led to significantly more reporting on climate change in the late ‘80s and the following decades. Various factors, such as Reagan’s presidency, aligning conservatism and ‘80s economic practices, both compounded this journalistic discovery of climate change, but also consciously rejected it as a result of the culture of the ‘80s. Together, these factors created a contentious relationship with environmental issues and journalism from the beginning of climate change coverage. Additionally, the most critical values of journalism, like objectivity and balance, unintentionally resulted in flawed reporting, as mentioned by both Tarshish and a 2014 study by University of MissouriColumbia associate professor at the School of Journalism, Sara Shipley Hiles, on journalists’ approach to covering climate change. 

A notable 2004 study titled “Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press,” labeled the journalistic value of balance implemented into climate coverage as the “balance as bias” phenomenon. Essentially, journalists attempted to maintain balance in their reporting of climate change but gave both climate change doubters and affirmers equal voice in their reporting, despite significant scientific consensus on the existence of climate change. This misstep implied to readers that “theories” of climate change had room for doubt, leading to divisiveness and general misconceptions that remain prevalent in our cultural dynamic of science and politics. Flawed reporting was only further perpetuated by findings that some oil companies sponsored climate change skeptics and misinformation.

Hiles’ study largely considered the journalist’s perspective, as the primary subject matter pertains to journalistic strategies and climate-related reporting. Several longtime environmental journalists were interviewed in this study, and it can be inferred that despite the recognized general insufficiency of news publications in the ‘80s and ‘90s in reporting climate change and continued lingering failures, many journalists care about effective, improved reporting on such issues. While virtually all journalists interviewed held strict rules for themselves regarding fairness and objectivity, and all subjects believed journalists should stay neutral in terms of policy and legislation connected to climate change, “they disputed the idea that they should not care about the environment in general.” One subject said, “I think journalists would not be human if they didn’t have a concern about the fate of the planet.” Even so, both Novinger and Tarshish remarked on the sensational aspects of journalism that place climate change only as a precursor to major weather events, and dramatize opinions or narratives to grab interest. 

“The media needs to sell papers, advertisement slots, and subscriptions and thus largely talks about climate change when something novel has occurred, whether that be an extreme weather event or a new round of climate negotiations. The airwaves then crackle with debates over how much a given event can be attributed to climate change or who said what about a new climate deal,” Tarshish said. “Competition for the viewer’s attention can push the news to misrepresent the science at both extremes.”

This points to the “balance as bias” issue rampant in environmental journalism. Both scientists and journalists notice this problem, but it points to a difference in career values between the two. Journalists and scientists value “objectivity” and “accuracy,” while “scientists view their work as technical, neutral and apolitical, whereas journalists value individualism, creativity and skepticism of authority—even of scientific findings,” according to Hiles’ study. Therefore, journalistic intentions can lead to flashy, sometimes sensationalized headlines and stories that misrepresent basic facts, which is almost certainly seen by the general public, not just scientists. Novinger relayed some of Tarshish’s points in her experience as a young person and consumer of climate change media.

“I think news companies report what will capture people’s attention,” Novinger said. “I feel there has been less clear and updated information over the past two years because news companies knew people were more focused on the pandemic. I also feel there can be more focus on how you can make a difference in regards to educating both young people and the general public about lifestyles.”

 In Hiles’ study, climate change was often described as its own special, delicate sub-facet of news journalism wherein deeply-rooted journalistic values had to be adapted or changed. Journalists say they now value a “weight-of-evidence” approach to covering climate change by quoting authoritative figures and factual information more than skeptics, according to the study. Perhaps the complexity of climate change as a journalistic endeavour also applies to the COVID-19 coverage controlling the media in March 2020, which like climate change, requires journalists to gain “interactional expertise” and continue to relay new findings to the public as the situation develops. Hiles said the pandemic is also “an environmental issue.” While reporting of climate change is historically fallacious and complex, Hiles’s study indicated that such reporting has improved significantly since the ‘80s and ‘90s. Journalists developed “interactional expertise” of the issue, and continued research on the subject proves its validity. The 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed this change for journalists in Hiles’ study, as it delivered stronger evidence of environmental degradation by human activity. 

Overall, reporting on the matter is improving but still needs work, according to scientists such as Romps and Tarshish. Both national and local action, such as Novinger’s work through Conservation Club, are important in spreading awareness and curbing climate change. It all goes back to how the issue is represented to the public, as well as changing American culture and our long-held, dangerous practices that we deem normal. 

“Climate change poses significant threats—heatwaves, sea level rise, drought, to name a few,” Tarshish said. “On the other hand, climate science does not forecast tipping points or thresholds past which the climate suddenly spins out of control and ends civilization as we know it. While climate impacts get worse as the temperature rises, we have control over how much the future temperature increases.

Where did you first hear about climate change? Let us know in the comments below.