13 Oct 2019

The evolution of climate change media coverage

From Sunday Morning, 11:22 am on 13 October 2019

It's been hard to miss the media reportage on climate change for the past few weeks with Extinction Rebellion beginning their worldwide protest action here in New Zealand, and Greta Thunberg's address at the UN.

But in general, how is New Zealand media faring when it comes to shining the spotlight on the climate crisis?

Visiting Canadian professor Robert Hackett is an expert on media coverage of climate change and has been speaking in Wellington this week.

On a previous visit in 2016, he said it was incumbent on journalism to find ways to tell those admittedly complicated climate change stories in ways that are of interest and relevance to the public.

Prof Hackett told Sunday Morning in his time in New Zealand he’s given on up on television because they seem to lack the necessary investments for resources to do more in-depth current affairs coverage in general.

The coastal cliffs at Oamaru were washed away in 2017, climate activist Greta Thunberg, climate protest in Auckland, small island of Tuvalu.

The coastal cliffs at Oamaru were washed away in 2017, climate activist Greta Thunberg, climate protest in Auckland, small island of Tuvalu. Photo: NIWA / Murray Hicks, AFP, RNZ / Jordan Bond / Jamie Tahana

“I've seen The Press newspaper in the Canterbury region, and some good stories coming out of the climate strike from September 27. It was sympathetic and gave some background, not just the strike itself, but the issues that have led to it.

“So I think there are signs for hope, [there’s] certainly greater attention to the issue compared to when I was here three years ago.”

And the checklist he suggested for better media coverage in 2016 is still relevant today, he says.

“Treat climate change as a crisis, and that means combining urgency with a sense of empowerment so people that don't feel overwhelmed.

“The researchers talked about a hope gap in the media - that you get a lot of depressing or disaster news, but not much sense about how you can address it through solutions.

“Beyond that, I think we could be doing more accountability journalism. I certainly like to see more of that in Canadian but also, I think, in New Zealand media, which means assessing the consequences of action and inaction by governments, corporations and other major institutions.”

Professor Robert Hackett

Professor Robert Hackett. Photo: Supplied

That includes covering what he calls “the new denialism” – an agreement among people for what the science on climate change says but a failure to translate that to effective policies.

Another point that’s important for media to do through their reporting, he says, is to shine a light on collective action for ordinary citizens.

“That's through political action. But don't just leave it up to politicians. It means things like the school strike, or even at the far edge of legitimate politics is the so-called Extinction Rebellion.

“But it's also through writing letters to editors, contacting your MPs, being engaged with citizens and demanding action, and getting communities together to formulate what kinds of policies and action they feel they need to move forward.”

He suggests that journalists can approach the climate crisis through a value-oriented lens, such as looking at the Just Transition concept, which advocates building a low carbon economy by transitioning from fossil fuels in a way that involves workers and communities in the industries that are going to be most affected.  

One example of that, which he says there was little coverage of in the media, was an event in New Plymouth with the prime minister as well as keynote speakers like director James Cameron. It entailed discussions on how a “just transition” would look – the different stakeholders, the trade-offs, and the sacrifices farmers would have to make.

Environmental activist Suzy Amis Cameron
with her husband, hollywood director James Cameron, at the Just Transition event.

Environmental activist Suzy Amis Cameron with her husband, hollywood director James Cameron, at the Just Transition event. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

The other potential value oriented framework for media to talk about is how the countries and groups who benefit the most from a high-emission economy should pay the most to mitigate the effects, he says.

Prof Hackett says this has received more attention in New Zealand than the Just Transition, with the sympathetic attitude towards Pacific Island nations.

“So offering an open hand to them both in terms of, if necessary, providing a pathway for climate refugees to resettle in New Zealand or elsewhere and also taking seriously the commitment to keeping the global temperature average to just a 1.5 percent Celsius increase.

“So that hopefully those nations have some hope of staying above sea level.”

Meanwhile, he says the American press for the first 10 years have misused the concept of journalistic balance by giving equal weight to climate change deniers.

“It's a conscious strategy by the way, some of the same people involved in confusing the American public a generation ago about the link between tobacco and lung cancer were actually involved in public relations campaigns with respects to climate denialism.”

However, he says in recent years there’s been more organisations saying they will no longer publish editorials from climate deniers. “Although unfortunately, with the election of a climate science denier to the White House, climate denialism has gained a kind of second lease on life.”

Prof Hackett says it’s hard to rank how countries fare in terms of reporting on climate change due to great variability between organisations, but what is definitely needed is an investment in independent journalism.

“New Zealand seems to be fairly middle of the road, I don't really see what we might call independent alternative media in New Zealand. But the major press seems to be reasonably moderate to middle of the road, if I can put it that way, compared to Canada, but also probably Australia, where you have a more polarised media system.

“I think there is scope for better public broadcasting on certainly New Zealand television, simply more current affairs coverage in general.

“But also it'd be good to see more established independent, public politically oriented magazines or online sites, like I said, we have in Canada [and] are flourishing in the United States, like The Nation for one which is behind that Covering Climate Now initiative.”

More than 250 media organisations from around the world joined the initiative, including RNZ, which was a commitment to heighten climate coverage in the week leading up to the UN Climate Action Summit on 23 September, 2019.

Prof Hackett says the initiative is encouraging but the momentum for that coverage must continue and not just be linked to elite events like UN gatherings.