Hidden from Headlines: Climate Change News

Candice Gaukel Andrews April 12, 2016 1
In Samburu County, Kenya, climate change means less rain. Pastoralists must travel farther to find pasture for their animals, mostly cows. Combined with an influx of small arms in the area, this pressure has intensified competition for resources and violence between local groups, such as the Samburu and Turkana peoples. ©Edward Harris, flickr

In Samburu County, Kenya, climate change means less rain. Pastoralists must travel farther to find range for their animals, mostly cows. Combined with the area’s influx of small arms, this pressure has intensified competition for resources and violence between local groups. ©Edward Harris, flickr

Although ostriches don’t really bury their heads in the sand, it appears that we humans do—at least when it comes to climate change. According to a new report from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialized agency of the United Nations, climate change is rarely featured in the news media, despite its being one of the biggest threats facing humanity.

And, for me, that’s a huge problem.

2015: a year filled with climate change news that wasn’t covered

Despite the fact that 2015 was the hottest year on record since we started keeping track, the general news media spent relatively little time doing stories on the rapid climate change issue.

Major broadcast news media collectively spent five percent less time covering climate change in 2015 than in 2014. ©Media Matters for America

Major broadcast news media collectively spent 5 percent less time covering climate change in 2015 than in 2014. ©Media Matters for America

A March 7, 2016, study by Media Matters for America backs up the IFAD report. It stated, “ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox collectively spent  5 percent less time covering climate change in 2015, even though there were more newsworthy climate-related events than ever before, including the EPA finalizing the Clean Power Plan, Pope Francis issuing a climate change encyclical, President Obama rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline and 195 countries around the world reaching a historic climate agreement in Paris. The decline was primarily driven by ABC, whose climate coverage dropped by 59 percent; the only network to dramatically increase its climate coverage was Fox, but that increase largely consisted of criticism of efforts to address climate change. When the networks did discuss climate change, they rarely addressed its impacts on national security, the economy or public health, yet most still found time to provide a forum for climate science denial.”

2016: a year for uncovering our heads?

Some other, specific and stunning findings of the IFAD report were:

• Between September 2015 and February 2016, the number of stories on climate change covered by the British and French media fell from five to two: the U.K. published no stories on climate change, and the only French stories appeared in February 2016.

• News outlets reporting on agriculture and challenges to agriculture saw this as a predominantly domestic issue—not a worldwide problem. In September 2015, the French media covered three stories concerning agriculture, but all of these were domestic.

• In focus groups, news consumers stated that they did not believe that major media helped them understand climate change and, in particular, that a connection exists between climate change and issues such as agricultural failure, conflict, food insecurity and migration from developing countries.

• Editorial decisions made by news organizations and editors have a direct impact on audience views and beliefs about climate change. News consumers tend to repeat the mainstream news agenda when asked to produce their own news stories on climate change.

The Chikwawa district of southern Malawi, where this farmer grows his crops, is one of the worst impacted by rapid climate change. ©Eoghan Rice/Trócaire, flickr

Southern Malawi, where this farmer grows his crops, has been hit hard by rapid climate change. ©Eoghan Rice/Trócaire, flickr

• In all countries covered by the research, there were more reports that focused on the response of institutions to climate change (interviews with academics and climate change specialists) than on the response of individuals. In September 2015, not one news bulletin reporting on climate change focused on individuals impacted by it. In February 2016, only three of eight stories on climate change focused on individuals. Focus group participants said that news organizations need to make the stories and the impact of climate change more about people and individuals and less about institutions.

In December of last year, world leaders gathered in Paris to try to work out a climate deal. At the same time, extreme weather events brought droughts across southern Africa—leaving millions of people hungry—and record numbers of migrants continued to arrive in Europe. While the Paris Agreement itself made headlines, coverage on climate change leading up to the conference and in the months following it significantly fell off the radar of major media outlets across the United States and Europe.

Those who want to find in-depth articles on climate change can find them. Specialized media do provide a rich variety of climate stories. But such features are few and far between on the front pages or in television news programs. That makes the general public’s broad understanding of the climate change issue unlikely anytime soon.

It’s a myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand. But I think I know how it started. It’s looking more and more to me like it’s a projection of our own, human behavior.

Is the lack of climate change news in the mainstream media a problem for you, too?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

One Comment »

  1. Kathryn Papp April 15, 2016 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    This election in the USA has been instructive about the practices (and politics and money) of the Main Stream Media. There seems to be too little investigative and intelligent journalism that finds its way to the general press.
    Thank goodness for the ICIJ and the Panama Papers … hope springs eternal!

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