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Media Moves to Reframe Coverage of the Environment

The British newspaper The Guardian took a major step a few weeks ago that has been heralded throughout the globe as one that has been long overdue—it announced that it is changing the language it uses when reporting on the environment.

Damian Carrington, Environmental Editor, proclaimed that “The Guardian has updated its style guide to introduce terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world. Instead of ‘climate change’ the preferred terms are ‘climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’ and ‘global heating’ is favored over ‘global warming’, although the original terms are not banned.”

Editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner backed Carrington’s decree by declaring “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue, the phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity. Increasingly, climate scientists and organizations from the UN to the Met Office are changing their terminology, and using stronger language to describe the situation we’re in.”

polarbearIn explaining the move to be more explicit on this issue, Carrington wrote, “The scale of the climate and wildlife crises has been laid bare by two landmark reports from the world’s scientists. In October, they said carbon emissions must halve by 2030 to avoid even greater risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. In May, global scientists said human society was in jeopardy from the accelerating annihilation of wildlife and destruction of the ecosystems that support all life on Earth.” He went on to highlight the fact that his paper’s style guide includes a number of other concurrent moves to be more definitive by saying, “Other terms that have been updated, including the use of ‘wildlife’ rather than ‘biodiversity’, ‘fish populations’ instead of ‘fish stocks’ and ‘climate science denier’ rather than ‘climate sceptic.’” He added, “In September, the BBC accepted it gets coverage of climate change ‘wrong too often’ and told staff: ‘You do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate.’”

Here in the U.S., the non-profit group Public Citizen praised The Guardian’s move by issuing a press release titled, “Fewer Than 10% of Articles in Top 50 U.S. Papers Used ‘Crisis’ or ‘Emergency’ to Refer to Climate Catastrophe” and called on all U.S. media to follow The Guardian in calling it a crisis.

David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program, was quoted as stating: “Kudos to The Guardian. We call on the U.S. media to do the same. When news outlets consistently fail to use language that conveys that climate change is a crisis or emergency, they unwittingly put a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of complacency and inaction. It’s past time for the media to call the climate emergency what it is – and to cover it with the regularity, focus and depth merited by an urgent, existential crisis.” An April Public Citizen analysis found that in 2018, only 50 of 1,429 national television news segments (3.5%) that mentioned climate change referred to it as a “crisis” or “emergency.” With these findings, the organization launched the Call It a Climate Crisis campaign.

“The crisis and emergency designations are accurate, concise and informative,” Arkush said. “They educate the public about the stakes of the issue, as well as the urgency, and they facilitate critical national conversation about what should be.”

The Guardian’s actions came less than a montwildfireh after an article jointly published in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) and The Nation, titled “The Media Are Complacent While the World Burns.” In that piece, authors Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope wrote:

“Yet at a time when civilization is accelerating toward disaster, climate silence continues to reign across the bulk of the US news media. Especially on television, where most Americans still get their news, the brutal demands of ratings and money work against adequate coverage of the biggest story of our time. Many newspapers, too, are failing the climate test. Last October, the scientists of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report, warning that humanity had a mere 12 years to radically slash greenhouse-gas emissions or face a calamitous future in which hundreds of millions of people worldwide would go hungry or homeless or worse. Only 22 of the 50 biggest newspapers in the United States covered that report.

Instead of sleepwalking us toward disaster, the US news media need to remember their Paul Revere responsibilities—to awaken, inform, and rouse the people to action. To that end, The Nation and CJR are launching ‘Covering Climate Change: A New Playbook for a 1.5-Degree World,’ a project aimed at dramatically improving US media coverage of the climate crisis. When the IPCC scientists issued their 12-year warning, they said that limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require radically transforming energy, agriculture, transportation, construction, and other core sectors of the global economy. Our project is grounded in the conviction that the news sector must be transformed just as radically.

The project will launch on April 30 with a conference at the Columbia Journalism School—a working forum where journalists will gather to start charting a new course. We envision this event as the beginning of a conversation that America’s journalists and news organizations must have with one another, as well as with the public we are supposed to be serving, about how to cover this rapidly uncoiling emergency. Judging by the climate coverage to date, most of the US news media still don’t grasp the seriousness of this issue. There is a runaway train racing toward us, and its name is climate change. That is not alarmism; it is scientific fact. We as a civilization urgently need to slow that train down and help as many people off the tracks as possible. It’s an enormous challenge, and if we don’t get it right, nothing else will matter. The US mainstream news media, unlike major news outlets in Europe and independent media in the US, have played a big part in getting it wrong for many years. It’s past time to make amends.

You can’t solve a problem by ignoring it.”

In their examination of the climate issue and the media’s response, Hertsgaard and Pope quoted a piece by Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist at The Washington Post, who they noted has “become a critical watchdog for American journalism” that said:

Just as the world, especially the United States, needs radical change to mitigate the coming crisis, so too for the news media…. This subject must be kept front and center, with the pressure on and the stakes made abundantly clear at every turn…. Just as the smartest minds in earth science have issued their warning, the best minds in media should be giving sustained attention to how to tell this most important story in a way that will create change.

The CJR/Nation essay concluded: “If American journalism doesn’t get the climate story right—and soon—no other story will matter. The news media’s past climate failures can be redeemed only by an immediate shift to more high-profile, inclusive, and fearless coverage. Our #CoveringClimateNow project calls on all journalists and news outlets to join the conversation about how to make that happen. As the nation’s founders envisioned long ago, the role of a free press is to inform the people and hold the powerful accountable. These days, our collective survival demands nothing less.”

— Negative Population Growth, June 25, 2019

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