10 Apr 2022

Mismatch in coverage of climate science and climate solutions

From Mediawatch, 9:11 am on 10 April 2022

The media has accepted climate is in crisis, and time is running out to implement fixes. But climate solutions, particularly when it comes to transport and housing, are still often framed in the most negative terms.

Newshub at 6 sums up the message from the latest IPCC report last week.

Newshub at 6 sums up the message from the latest IPCC report last week. Photo: screenshot / Newshub

On Monday, Samantha Hayes opened Newshub at 6 with a dire warning.

"Scientists say humankind can still avoid a climate disaster, but it is now or never for a strong global response."

Politicians have a poor track record of acting on those calls to move to a low-carbon society, to say the least.

UN chief Antonio Guterres has called this latest report “a file of shame cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world”.

On RNZ's Morning Report, Massey University professor Ralph Sims also pointed out that inaction.

"We've been dragging the chain for the last five IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports," he said.

Sims said transport was the world's fastest-growing source of emissions, and the one that needed to be reformed most urgently.

Helpfully the report includes a summary for policymakers on how they can go about making those changes.

It prescribes increases in housing density to cut back car dependency, along with investment in public transit, walking, and cycling infrastructure.

You would think our media companies would be right behind those policy goals. 

After all, many of them have committed to taking climate change seriously.

In 2019, Stuff, the New Zealand Herald, TVNZ, RNZ, Newsroom and the Spinoff took part in a week of special climate change coverage for the event Covering Climate Now

Stuff has a dedicated climate section, and the Herald has reporters which ably spell out the science on global warming.

But whenever our central or local governments make moves to reform transport or housing in line with those IPCC recommendations, the coverage tends to be framed in the most negative terms.

"Auckland Council is drawing up a radical plan to remove parking on many of the city's roads to make way for more bus lanes and cycleways," the Herald announced in November last year.

It recently followed that up with a story focusing on business concerns over the plan.

In reality, the council’s proposal is far from radical in global terms, with kerbside parking expected to be removed on about 3.25 percent of its 7600km network of local roads over 10 years.

Paris by contrast has removed 70,000 carparks - or 50 percent of its total number - in around three years, and is using the now spare space for a massive network of urban cycleways.

But the Herald was far from alone in being incredulous at Auckland’s comparatively modest goals.

On Morning Report Corin Dann sounded shocked as Auckland Transport’s Andrew McGill explained that parking would be repurposed to allow for more frequent bus services and cycle lanes.

"You're saying to those people 'sorry you're not allowed to have a car'. That's quite a big decision to make," he said.

McGill said he wasn't telling people they're not allowed a car.

"But they'll have nowhere to park it," Dann said.

In reality they would still be able to park it on 96.75 percent of Auckland's roads for at least the next 10 years.

Two days later, Dann talked to mayoral candidate Viv Beck about the proposal.

"You can't have a few holdouts - I'm being the devil's advocate here - on parking on roads, a few businesses, holding up key public transport," he said.

Decarbonising transit and creating safer spaces for vulnerable road users doesn’t seem like the traditional purview of Satan and his flock.

Still, this style of coverage has been par for the course when it comes to climate action.

Simon Dallow introduces the 1News at 6 story on the latest IPCC report

Simon Dallow introduces the 1News at 6 story on the latest IPCC report Photo: TVNZ

When the government and National put forward a bill enabling the type of dense housing prescribed by the IPCC last year, RNZ’s Morning Report honed in on the fact that constructing new buildings would mean dealing with demolition waste from the old ones they’re replacing.

Elsewhere, the Herald dusted off a familiar phrase to describe the bill.

"Auckland Council is ratcheting up its opposition to Labour and National's radical plans for greater intensification," it said.

All this is relatively tame compared to the coverage authorities get when they try to build bike paths, or any facilities that will stop cyclists being run over quite so regularly.

When cyclists briefly blocked Auckland’s Harbour Bridge last year, Newstalk ZB's Kerre McIvor compared them to a horde of "rats" and "mice".

Those hundreds or thousands of apparently rodent-esque lycra wearers had turned out to petition authorities to devote a lane of the Harbour Bridge to walking and biking.

They didn't get their wish, but when the government did propose to fill in that glaring gap in Auckland's cycle network, and create a separate pedestrian and cycle path over the Waitematā Harbour, the proposed project was widely panned in the media for its poor benefit to cost ratio of 0.6, or 60c on the dollar.

That same scrutiny doesn't always get applied to roading projects. A highway with around the same BCR as that pedestrian and cycle bridge - Transmission Gully - opened last week.

Despite the fact that unlike that cycle bridge, it will lead to increased carbon emissions in the longer term, the coverage rang with almost unalloyed delight.

"It's not very often you get excited about roads, but it was so smooth and it was so nice to drive on," reported TVNZ. "In terms of the driving on the road, it was incredible, it was so nice."

The media talks about climate change being the defining issue of our time.

But when the rubber meets the road, the people most incensed at the prospect of change often take centre stage, and what the IPCC says is an unworkable status quo gets reinforced. 

Auckland University researcher Kirsty Wild said that's creating a growing chasm between what’s seen as reasonable in the media, and even the bare minimum action required to credibly address climate change.

"It's been really surreal particularly over the last few weeks where we've had record rainfall in Auckland, the insurance industry saying it's already unaffordable for us what's happening over the last year. There were serious conversations on whether we could effectively rebuild Westport or whether we'd have to move it," she said. "We've had conversations like that next to the supposed parking kerfuffle, totally unselfconscious about why this is an important issue for climate. There's a really important role for journalists in helping us to tease out what's the really important."

Wild said journalists should report on the benefits that come from moves to mitigate climate change, rather than just leading with anger.

"You get scary reporting on climate change, but then you just get scary reporting on the solution as well. It's all scary. Journalists - there is an important role to help us figure out if these things are actually scary solutions, like removing parking for instance."

Simon Wilson, a senior writer at The Herald, does regularly put his coverage in the context of climate change.

He said part of the reason that remains rare is due to tension between traditional news values which prioritise conflict and the imperative to give a fair hearing to climate solutions.

"There is an ethic in newsrooms that suggests in my experience that your coverage is responsive to immediate events, and that means you're responsive to those who shout the loudest. If people are complaining, it'll get them reading, that tends to rise to the top."

Wilson said journalists don't always see their coverage of housing or transport as connected to the larger problem of climate change, despite the IPCC drawing direct links between the issues.

He compared it to coverage of the housing crisis, where rising property values are often reported as good news, despite them being closely associated with the lengthening waiting list for social housing across Aotearoa.

When stories cover moves with significant impact on climate action, that context needs to be included, he said.

"You can't treat every news story by attaching a full-blown analysis of everything to it. But when there are climate implications for something that's been announced - a policy or whatever - that needs to be stated."

Wilson said the newsrooms could improve their coverage by delivering a more comprehensive picture of how climate solutions can create a better society, and by holding authorities to account for their promises on carbon emissions.

"We can paint a picture of how to make a better world out of this. The climate crisis is an opportunity. All crises are opportunities. What are the ways we can make society better?

"If we do understand that, we have to always be asking ourselves how that impacts on other things we do. Holding governments to account, holding councils to account for not just for their fine words about the climate. How do their policies impact? If we have a mindset of asking that question always, then I think we'll be making real progress."