Last week, I interviewed Lucy McAllister on Anglophone media’s coverage of the climate crisis, and the phenomenon of “balance as bias”, in which journalists leaning on the time-old tradition of “balanced” reporting by giving space to the “other side” of the climate “debate” actually creates bias.
The 2004 Boykoff & Boykoff study ‘Balance as bias’, which Lucy’s team updated, showed that journalists in the US elite press were “two sides-ing” the climate crisis by giving column inches to climate deniers. The updated study expanded the scope by collecting data from papers across five Anglophone countries. They found that reporting on the climate crisis has improved, with 90% of the articles in the study accurately reporting the science—that climate change is anthropogenic. However, there were statistical differences between the left and right wing, with some right wing rags such as the UK’s The Telegraph achieving just 70% accuracy. Lucy also said the problem spanned Murdoch-owned media across the five nations.
Discourses of Delay
Whilst coverage has improved, Lucy explains that the tactics for misrepresenting the climate crisis have become far more sophisticated. She revealed the phenomenon of “discourses of delay”, a subtle tactic deployed by the right wing who is no longer foolish enough to outright deny climate change. Instead, column inches are being given to climate delayers: those who want to delay action being taken, those who say that it's too expensive, those who claim labourers will lose their jobs, and those who claim it’s just not as much of a problem as the 97% of scientists who are in consensus on this topic would have us believe.
These people are in no way denying that climate change is anthropogenic, but they are delaying our ability and our desire to take action. The work of Lucy and her colleagues show that, in some rags, more column inches are being given to these people in certain articles than climate scientists, policy-makers and other relevant experts.
Here are some of the most popular discourses of delay: It's too expensive. We need to protect jobs. It's impossible. If we degrow then we'll lose our global position. What about China's emissions? What about India's emissions? Population collapse is the real problem.
Even using hydrogen as heating is a form of delay because this technology is supported by the fossil fuel industry (blue hydrogen is made using fossil fuel energy) seeking to maintain relevance on a planet it is polluting to death.
These are all ways of impeding the necessary action we need to take if we're going to provide a hospitable planet for human beings and the many species with whom we live. Lucy says these discourses of delay are a form of normalising not taking action—the more that it is said the easier it is to believe. Shifting Baseline Syndrome comes to mind, a psychological phenomenon where people adapt to the “new normal” and find it difficult to reorient themselves in the cultural norms and expectations of the recent past when things were very different.
Most subscribers to this newsletter and many others will recognise that climate change is not merely anthropogenic, but a result of a voracious, growth-obsessed, neoliberal economic system—but you won’t see that on the news.* Instead, we are still subject to the individualisation of responsibility, the driving narrative that citizens as consumers are responsible for ecological breakdown, and that the best weapon in your arsenal is your purchasing power (a sick joke to make in broken Britain). Of course, this framing is a logical fallacy — if you're using your buying power to make changes then you're still subscribing to the economic system that is causing the problem.
Let’s put to bed the myth that consumers have power, and that papers publish what their readers want. Studies have shown that the media doesn’t publish what they think their audience wants to know. Instead, journalists are gate-keepers of information, setting the agenda for public discourse. The belief of the "symbiotic relationship between publication and reader is simply false, no doubt a self-empowering narrative which denounces actionable responsibility. Once one decides upon your political slant, your paper of choice feeds you what they deem important, not what they think you deem important. publications don't publish. What they think their audience wants to read.
The public square is dead, folks.
What are the solutions? What are the framings that we can participate in? Lucy highlights that studies show that people respond well to positive framing and solutions journalism. Equally, reframing the climate crisis as a health problem, and an immediate problem, bolsters support for climate policies. Reporting on bottom-up community solutions which highlight imagination and creativity is also incredibly helpful.
A critically important note is that the balance as bias phenomenon is much less present in global south media, in nations which are on the frontline of the climate crisis.
Perhaps, then, if we want an accurate understanding of the climate crisis and what needs to be done, we must abandon privately-owned, for-profit, Western media, bound to the same economic superorganism cannibalising the planet, and the ideological dictates of corporate monopolies and maniacal oligarchs.
Just a thought.
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N.B. Channel 4’s news bulletin on Sunday April 30 invited Environmental Economist, Matthew Agarwala, to speak on Europe’s droughts. He drove home the link between the economy and the climate crisis, saying we can respond to climate crisis with policy or "decarbonise by disaster". It was a relief to see this framing on mainstream news.
Balance as bias, resolute on the retreat? Updates & analyses of newspaper coverage in the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and Canada over the past 15 years
Positive, global, and health or environment framing bolsters public support for climate policies
Media Representations of Climate Change: A Meta-Analysis of the Research Field
The 2021 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: code red for a healthy future
“positive framing and solutions journalism.”
Let’s lean into that. Because the reason climate activism is trapped in an infinite loop of inaction is the framing, in the manner of George Lakoff, is being chosen by the bad guys.
We accept a framing of the problem as “carbon emissions are driving climate change”. That shows us a pollution problem that requires a pollution control solution: regulation to compel self-regulation. Leave the problem makers in charge, but make them pay!
The public isn’t buying what climate activism is selling. Because we sense, intuitively, that pollution is not the problem and government is not the solution. So we ignore the words of anger that government needs to act. It does not.
What if climate activism expanded the framing, and started talking about “energy extraction from hydrocarbons is diminishing the habitats on earth in which modern humanity can keep ourselves ongoing”.
That shows us a choice of energy technology problem. That requires a new choice of new energy technologies solution.
The public knows we do not know how to do that. Not within the rubrics of our existing social contract for defining our economy as a market for allocating scarcity through the mechanisms of the market clearing price.
So we need a new definition of the economy, and a new social contract for defining the economy. That new social contract has to add in “the missing social architectures of agency by human beings” (Infra Adnan).
That’s the conversation at the vanguard of public discourse that climate activism needs to be activating. That’s the search for solutions that solutions journalism needs to be journaling.
Public discourse is not dead. It’s uninspired by the conversation of the day.
We need to change the conversation, to inspire discourse.