Across the ages, mass media coverage has proven to be a significant influencer of scientific and policy discourse, as well as public attitudes and action. But, how influential is the media in driving public action towards the urgent challenge of climate change? Moreover, is it possible that the persistent and recurrent theme of climate change has potentially created a precarious atmosphere of monotony, saturation and lack of concern among civil society? In the same vein as continued mass shootings in the U.S. draw limited concern from residents, do we run the risk of having climate change impacts and even climate change inaction as simply a normal part of life? Are we so de-sensitised to climate change that news of its impacts draws limited concern, or are we simply at a loss as a society about what to do about it?
In the U.S., the proportion of people reporting concern over climate change since 2007 has decreased at an alarming rate. This shift in public opinion has been attributed to several different factors. One explanation touted to explain this swing is the increasing de-sensitisation of citizens to climate change.
A number of journalistic norms, such as personalisation, dramatisation, and novelty permeate throughout the media today. It is these characteristics that often lead to news that is embroidered, customised and embellished. A study by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has found that the ‘disaster’ style story is the most common approach to the coverage of climate change in the UK. Although this approach to covering the topic may be effective at attracting short term attention, studies suggest this form is not as strong in motivating behavioural change. Instead, it was found that “nonthreatening imagery and icons that link to individuals' everyday emotions and concerns” tend to be the most effective at driving engagement and behavioural change.
It is not only the media that inscribes a philosophy of dramatisation, which can often lead to inundation and unresponsiveness. In politics, a similar story has been emerging. As recently as the Hilary Clinton campaign for the U.S. presidential election, James Cameron directed a short film titled “Not Reality TV” for the Democratic National Convention, which presented a dark outlook on hurricanes, agriculture, fires and drought. While this support from a high profile individual is important, the apocalyptic depiction may be exactly the sort of portrayal that is leading to the public's desensitisation to this critical issue.
Further, political impetuses have swayed coverage of energy security and climate change measures. This was evident in Australia with the depiction of policy ideas such as the mining tax and emissions trading scheme being the cause of much political quarrelling and fear-mongering “great big new tax”.
Considering these challenges, it is imperative that the intersection of political, public and media actors seeking change on climate change to be undertaken in a more considered manner. Moreover, the public conversation needs to be reinvigorated. A shift in the style of communication around climate change may go a long way to re-engaging the public on this issue. A movement away from dramatised accounts of climate change threats, which often trigger disbelief or reduced concern, to that of realistic policy solutions and actionable ideas are perhaps a key part of this solution.
Ultimately, bulk-media exposure of climate change is not merely a random amalgam of articles, television segments and broadcasting. In reality, the media helps facilitate and mediate the social relationship between scientists, policy actors and the public. We need to ensure that this is done in the right manner, or else we risk losing interest to the myriad of other topics that sit at the forefront of audiences' minds in today's ever-moving and ever-changing world.
Tom Perfrement is the Climate Change & Energy Security fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.