Nature & Climate

The Media Can’t Sell Climate Change

Readers are asking news outlets why they aren't hitting harder on climate change. But who are they hoping to convince?

4 min read

Forest fire
Image via Quarrie Photography (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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It’s been a long summer–and in many parts of the world, it’s been a brutal one. Severe wildfires swept across Europe, from Greece to Scandinavia; in the final week of July, fires in the coastal region around Athens killed 98 people, the second-deadliest wildfire globally in the 21st century, and Europe’s worst since 1900. 7,000 miles away, Californians, fresh from the historically devastating 2017 wildfire season, are back in the thick of it: the Carr Fire, near Sacramento, began in late July, leaving a huge swath of destruction, and the Mendocino Complex Fire, which has been burning for more than a month, has surpassed last year’s Thomas Fire as the largest in the state’s history.

These wildfires were exacerbated by record-breaking temperatures around the world. In Europe, long weeks of baking fields exposed cropmarks–the remnants of settlements from hundreds, even thousands of years ago, an extreme-weather story that was framed as fun, not kind of scary (for the record, I thought it was exciting!). In other parts of the world, the heat wasn’t accompanied by drought: halfway through the summer, the Washington, D.C., region had received a year’s worth of rain already. And in Kerala, in southern India, unusually high rainfall during this year’s monsoon season has led to horrific floods–at least 445 people have died in the past few weeks, and more that a million people were evacuated from their homes.

Unless you threw your phone in the sea and just sat on the beach for the past few months, you’ve likely heard about at least a few of these natural disasters. (And even then, you might have noticed the weather has been pretty abysmal: I’ve been to the beach in the past week, and the breeze off the Atlantic was sticky and hot, 0/10, this is not what I come to the beach for!) News about our summer of extreme weather flooded my regular feeds and airwaves, alongside continuing coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which has now claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people in Puerto Rico.

But the curious thing I observed this summer–I mean, aside from what felt like an overwhelming number of stories about rising temperatures and historic floods and wildfires torching thousands of homes–was a particular sort of backlash against the media. “Why haven’t you mentioned climate change once in this story?!” I read again and again on Twitter and Facebook. Beyond life-threatening natural disasters, in stories about any environmental struggle where things were “getting worse,” interviews with farmers, or residents of low-lying coastal areas, journalists were getting through whole stories without uttering the dreaded C-phrase–and a portion of their readers and listeners were getting fed up.

It’s a particularly tricky moment for the mainstream media, on a number of fronts. I’ll note that “mainstream media” is a messy, imprecise term, but it’s the one we’re left with when discussing mass media, particularly in the U.S., without an explicitly-stated partisan slant. The media has spent years sloppily attempting to walk some sort of tightrope between reporting on facts and showing “both sides of the story,” even when one side is incontrovertibly false.

Climate change has long been one of the worst victims of this treatment–while it isn’t a partisan issue in other parts of the world, it certainly is in the United States. Mainstream publications tread carefully around it, leaving space in both factual reporting and opinion sections for denial, to the chagrin of science reporters trying to cover the topic in a responsible way. Journalistic treatment of climate change sometimes mirror the way American politicians are asked whether they believe in warming temperatures and rising seas, rather than treating climate change’s factually-proven existence as the foundational starting point of the conversation.

Both-sides-ism isn’t new, but it’s grown more visible than ever in the past few years: many news outlets seem to think that highlighting “diverse points of view” on factual issues can be an antidote to many Americans’ distrust in traditional authority structures like government bodies and academic institutions, or that it will help tamp down the growing popularity of conspiracy theories, new ways to label and order the world, that are rushing in to fill that vacuum. Media critics have spent the past few years wringing their hands in frustration: the attempt to appease the skeptical often winds up giving platforms to bigotry, or dangerous anti-scientific claims.

Trying to appease people who reject everything you say feels like a losing game–and increasingly, a dangerous one. Donald Trump’s designation of the press as “the enemy of the people” has joined MAGA and “drain the swamp” amongst the ranks of his–and his fans’–favorite catchphrases. Unlike “fake news,” “enemy of the people” rhetorically moves the target directly onto journalists rather than their work. That rhetorical shift is growing frighteningly literal: just this week, the FBI arrested a man for threatening to shoot employees in a series of 14 phone calls to The Boston GlobeGlobe reporters were, he said, “the enemy of the people.”

I don’t want to draw some kind of direct line between the radio silence on climate change and the very real fear of violence many journalists are facing right now; it would be a stretch to suggest that mainstream outlets are diminishing mentions of climate change because they fear violent retribution. (It would be easier to draw that line between radio silence on climate change and fear of alienating news consumers–emphasis on consumer.) But it all fits into the same paradoxical space: mainstream media outlets are bending over backwards to court readers, listeners, and viewers who won’t believe a word they say, frustrating the already-converted, science-trusting people decrying these outlets in the process.

I understand why people are asking for the media to hammer us over the head with talk of climate change. If you believe it’s real, and that our increasingly extreme weather–the severity of our storms, the breadth of our fires–is one of the results, it’s hard to reconcile all that death and destruction with the idea that millions of your fellow Americans refuse to see that this is all linked. Extreme weather events make us feel powerless, whether we’re directly affected by them or not, and they are concrete evidence of something that generally feels too abstract to describe–seas rising in tiny increments, the world steadily changing all around us, but too slowly for us to see in real time, the frog in a pot of water, set to boil.

Speaking as a journalist, I feel as powerless about all this as I do in the rest of my life (that is, as a human being in the early 21st century, living half a block from a harbor that surged up over its banks five years ago, and will surely do so again with the next big storm). When I write or edit pieces on climate change–or even just environmental stories that touch on it–my feeds fill up with denial, anger, suggestions that we are ignorant, or that we’re part of some vast media conspiracy.

It’s hard to face that, again and again, and wonder why we’re bothering to talk about it at all: if a good portion of my fellow Americans refuse to believe, and real systemic change needs to be pushed at us from on high, from the government and corporate level, what can any individual do? If the news consumer feels powerless, shouting at the journalist, where does that leave the journalist, knowing the people who most need to understand the links between extreme weather and climate change will never believe them?

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Nature & Climate section, which looks at how human activity is changing the planet–for better or worse. Click the logo to read more.