On Monday 20 March, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) published AR6, the synthesis report for their sixth assessment cycle. The IPCC, formed in 1988 by the United Nations environmental programme, set out in AR6 that there are “multiple, feasible, effective” ways to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change effects, but that preventing a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels will require “deep, rapid, and sustained” greenhouse gas emission reductions in all sectors. For a deeper analysis of the report itself, see Brian McHugh’s piece in Yorkshire Bylines last week.
An idea of the problem
Media organisations and newspapers’ response to the report have been varied, but underwhelming across the board. In the worst cases we see opinion pieces (the Telegraph) denouncing it as “hysterical” or brief rundowns of its findings deep behind other supposedly more important stories (the Daily Mail), while in the best cases we still see it as just another item on the news agenda. This demonstrates the urgency of discussing why climate change is rarely if ever given due prominence and how we can change this. If we can’t, protecting the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal will be ever harder.
Geoff Cox, chair of South Yorkshire Climate Alliance, echoed the above, telling Yorkshire Bylines: “Does it get a day in the headlines? Yes, half a day, shared with the Met Police report; and then tomorrow we’re back to Love Island, back to premiership football, there’ll be some other event and it’s gone again.”
It’s essential to keep the issue in the public debate, he stressed. For those eager to see serious climate coverage, it was frustrating to watch how the IPCC report failed to generate the urgent attention it warranted.
The Guardian should do better
It is not unexpected that papers like the Telegraph and Daily Mail take the lines that they do on the IPCC report and climate generally at this time. When discussing good climate journalism, it is perhaps more instructive to look at a paper like the Guardian, which has the editorial will to cover the issue, plus a receptive readership.
The IPCC report was published on Monday 20 March, on which day the Guardian ran a preview. On the Tuesday they ran, as part of the front page, the story that had appeared about the report online the day before, headlined “Scientists deliver ‘final warning’ on climate”; it continued onto page 2 of the paper.
Theirs was the best coverage of AR6 of any mainstream paper, but it is still disappointing that they did not make more of it. Out of the three stories that made the front page (the others being Baroness Casey’s Met report and Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow) the IPCC report was given the least prominence – little more than a sidebar – and the picture on the front page did not show burning forests or flooded villages, but Xi and Putin shaking hands.
Think back to 10 August 2021: the first of the three primary reports of the IPCC’s sixth assessment period, titled The Physical Science Basis of Climate Change, was given absolute front page dominance in the Guardian, along with a hugely impactful image.
The EBU’s climate journalism report
Taking a look at a recent report by the EBU (European Broadcasting Union), Climate Journalism that Works: Between knowledge and impact, can help shed some light on why the situation last week, of even climate leaders like the Guardian failing to give due prominence to the synthesis report, has arisen.
The primary problem we see, a criticism of the media in the EBU report, is that climate change is treated as ‘just another issue’ on the news agenda. When something notable happens it is covered, but in between big events like the IPCC report and climate change induced flooding in Pakistan, there’s nothing. Even the Guardian, after running it as a front page story on a Tuesday, moved on quickly and didn’t follow up much through the week.
The situation we’re in is almost paradoxical; climate change is, in the words of the EBU (p. 13), like “music in a shopping mall”, always there in the background, yet only rarely given the attention it warrants.
Instead of treating climate as just another issue, the EBU report recommends that we should see it as a “frame through which all of journalism operates” (p.10), in the same way as human rights or democracy. To do this may well allow for more holistic and more positive coverage.
Towards better climate journalism
The reason climate change is treated as an issue like any other is because the pressures of the news cycle, the need to be fast on breaking stories and not be left behind by competitors, limit the amount of choice journalists have about what they cover.
There is a culture of ‘presentism’ in newsrooms – it’s hard to look to the future when there’s so much to be covered now, even if we know that these things, day-to-day politics or celebrity gossip, are less important than long-term climate degradation. Often newspapers obsess over one topic – think recently of Gary Lineker and the illegal migration bill – and there’s little room to cut through with other stories.
The concept of ‘slow journalism’ is something that newsrooms can incorporate to achieve better climate coverage. Slow journalism, defined by Tony Harcup in his chapter in The Routledge Companion to Journalism Ethics (2021) as valuing the qualities “depth, breadth, context, thoughtfulness, and fact-checking” more than being “first or fast”, is seen by him as an antidote to the “tyranny of immediacy” in newsrooms.
By setting aside resources for long reads, for example about climate change, separate from the day-to-day news cycle, environmental issues would not always be competing with other breaking news for the spotlight.
Stressing the positive
The way climate news is covered – in terms of content, as well as depth – is also important. In the film Don’t Look Up, talk show hosts are parodied as trying to ‘keep it light’ during an interview with two scientists warning that the world will soon be destroyed by an asteroid. But there is something in this; people do prefer to read positive, or at least constructive material, and a diet of negative stories can result in news avoidance from audiences and disaster fatigue from audience and reporters alike.
Communications campaigns chief at the UN, Nanette Braun, is quoted in the EBU report (p. 37) as saying that offering hope and stressing that there are solutions is essential – such as looking at everyday lifestyle issues like food and fashion, and showing pathways out of the crisis.
By giving more, and more in-depth, attention to climate issues and by focusing more on solutions-based information, we could improve media climate coverage significantly. An event like the IPCC synthesis report should be a hook to put climate change at the centre of reporting, at the very least temporarily, but Britain’s media need to change tactics and grasp the opportunity to engage their audience in what Braun calls “the great challenge of the moment”.