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How To Report On The Climate Crisis
Mainstream media is built to fail
Last week I interviewed Dahr Jamail, an investigative journalist author and climate reporter who cut his teeth on the ground during the invasion of Iraq. Dahr’s story is astonishing—fed up of watching war propaganda at home in the US, Dahr left his job in social work and took a flight to Iraq, where he spent eight months reporting on the invasion.
After his time as a war reporter, Dahr became a climate reporter trying to uncover the truth driving the climate crisis and the solutions available, convinced the mainstream media was failing to cover the reality of the crisis in a way that would impact, change or inform the public. This is one of my favourite episodes of Planet: Critical, and I highly recommend you listen to it in full.
Built To Fail
We discuss at length during the episode the vested power interests that make it impossible for a media outlet to prioritise accurately informing the public whilst simultaneously maximising value for its shareholders. When relationships between institutions are built upon the financialisation of mutual interests, for-profit media will inevitably become embedded in the ecosystem of powerful industries rather than the vanguard of public discourse. For-profit media houses have more in common with fellow corporations than they do with their audience. Dahr calls the nation states reliant on these ecosystems “corporatocracies”.
Given the vested interest in the status quo, and given that profits can only be yielded by maintaining the status quo, how can for-profit media accurately comment on the climate crisis? The very nature of their business model is at odds with the reality of our current situation and the likely outcome—reducing energy demands, minimising consumption. Getting to grips with the situation is hard enough for anyone. Deconstructing the very power which allow the West to dictate global hegemony (and thus the invisible hand of the market) during a time of increasing instability must seem suicidal. And yet, to avoid such risk reveals news to be nothing more than narrative.
Centre and left-wing mainstream media recently woke up to the danger of continued fossil fuel consumption—but only after the groundwork was done by independent journalists and activists. You may recall the the recent BBC documentary, Big Oil v the World, which told the story of how the oil industry worked with PR companies to create climate denialism. This story was first told in 2019 by independent investigative climate journalist Amy Westervelt who claimed the BBC (and other big media houses over the years) ripped off her work with no credit.
Mainstream media waking up to the climate crisis are simply hedging their bets now that the jury’s out to be on the right side of history; they’re playing catch up to the individuals and groups who dare challenge history. Yet still, they fall short.
The problem isn’t fossil fuel in and of itself—it’s our dangerous and excessive exploitation of fossil fuel at any cost. It is our economic system and gross inequalities and structural racisms which fuel the problem, not the fuel itself. The problem is our obsession with growth, our disregard for the natural world, our conflation of technological development with quality of life. That the revenues of these industries line private pockets, and access to their product is unequally distributed throughout the world so that we have nations like the United States using 15 times the energy per capita that they should be.
Until the mainstream media start reporting on dots joined by their independent counterparts, they’re simply covering fossil news.
Planet: Critical investigates why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it.
Balance as Bias
During the interview, Dahr and I discuss objectivity at length and the fallacy of professional journalists maintaining they can be impartial when reporting on any subject. Not only was objectivity debunked rigorously by postmodernists decades ago, much of the literature in journalism theory has been devoted to rejecting ‘the myth of objectivity’.
As Dahr says, the minute a journalist chooses what story to cover, they reveal their bias. This bias is present at every stage of the selection process: what’s the angle? what facts do we highlight? who do we speak to for comment? which quotes do we choose? what’s the spin? how do we make it newsworthy?
Journalists are not objective, they are not impartial, and sometimes their grasping to present both sides in a bid to maintain the illusion of objectivity results in a dangerous bias, especially when reporting on the climate crisis.
Yet just last week a BBC podcast with senior environmental journalists aired their claims that they can, in fact, report objectively on whatever their editor tells them to. If our senior professionals are decades behind the academic literature, do we really expect the solutions will come from them?
Get Your Story Straight
There is no second side to the climate crisis. We are facing an existential threat that could displace billions of people and wipe out innumerable species. We are changing the very nature of the environment we depend on for our survival. We are looking at mass migration, starvation, droughts, catastrophes, chaos and collapse.
We’re looking at the collapse of our financial institutions, running out of energy, food systems failing, supply chains disappearing. Already, rumours are spreading of investment companies pulling out of the global south due to forecasted desertification and displacement. We're looking at wars over resources. We're looking at mass deaths and losses of education, of information, of technology.
The world as we know it simply will not survive. There is still time to make our most crucial systems resilient enough to weather some storms. Yet we lose precious time when journalists present “both sides” of climate change by platforming capitalists and growth-obsessed neoliberals, opportunists who claim we will substitute our fossil-fuelled economy with a renewable economy, and politicians who stoke geopolitical tensions and warn of the great threat to the East (which our renewable economy depends on).
Presenting opinion as both sides of an existential threat is morally reprehensible, and part of the reason we failed to mitigate when we had the time, and are failing now to confront the reality at one minute to midnight.
Pretending we can abide by impartiality only benefits those playing the partisan game. It is left-wing, ethical journalists who hobble themselves in the name of professionalism whilst right-wing propagandists deliberately busy, skew and ignore facts. The premise of impartiality is to present facts to an informed public who can then use their critical analysis skills to inform their representatives about the future of their democratic nature.
Quite obviously, this is not the world we live in. Bias is everywhere, objectivity is dead, along with god. The partisan propaganda machine exists to perpetuate the status quo which sees extraordinary riches flow to the few. Impartiality is a self-soothing myth which turns most journalists into stenographers.
Here’s an idea, rather than pretending we can exist outwith the cultural, societal, gendered, racial and class biases which inform how we see the world in order to just report the facts, what about if journalists were honest about their politics?
Transparency is the only way for the public to engage critically in anyone’s work. How I report on the climate crisis depends on my politics. Surely, readers would be better served knowing my opinion before they interpret the facts I’ve chosen to present to them in my reporting.
Does it undermine my journalism that I believe in redistribution of wealth, in the contraction of our economies, in climate justice and the dismantling of bloated corporations in order to conserve necessary resources for a sustainable world? Does it undermine my reporting, or highlight that I’m informed on the topic? Do you prefer to engage with my reporting because I’m transparent with my politics, or do you think I’m incapable or reporting accurately?
My knowledge about the climate crisis drives both my politics and my reporting. I firmly believe anyone who comes across Planet: Critical or my articles is in a far better position to critically assess what they should discern from my journalism because I am transparent about my views.
Journalists are deeply political people; transparency only reveals what is already there. Presenting all the facts also demands presenting bias which shapes the perception of facts. It democratises information.
Journalists are the people who hold the pen that tell the stories that shaped the world. If we don’t know anything about the story-tellers, how can we judge how to engage with the stories they tell? “Separate art from artist” straight, white male hegemony demanded during the twentieth century. Yet in the 21st there’s a reason English students read Lolita at university and film students reject Polanski.
Journalists must report their opinions with the same tenacity they believe to report the facts. More of them must also take a stand against the propaganda machine which exists on the other side; more must join the fight to dismantle the regime destroying our planet.
Impartiality is a blindfold — it will be nothing to be proud of when the lights go out.
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