How the Media Continues to Fail Us on Climate & What Needs to Change
Back in March, Rachel and I had the pleasure of speaking at Harvard’s Social Enterprise Conference about “The role media plays in shaping climate change narratives”. It went really well! Lots of great people, questions, ideas, and dialogue.
But, for one reason or another, I was never asked the main question I was told to prepare for:
What are mainstream media’s main flaws when it comes to covering climate change?
I think this is super important for everyone to understand so I want to share my answer with you today. And add some potential solutions as well 🙂
We wouldn’t be in as deep of a hole on climate change right now if it weren’t for the mainstream media. Their job is to inform the public. They’re supposed to cover the most important things that are happening and effectively communicate what’s going on and why so people can make well-informed decisions.
But the mainstream media has been failing to do this for decades when it comes to the planetary emergency. The climate crisis and ecosystem collapse are the stories of our time and the media is nowhere near where it needs to be on both the quality and quantity of their climate coverage. They’ve failed to effectively communicate that this is an emergency, what is causing it, how it connects to everything we care about, that we already have most of the solutions that we need to address this, who is working to prevent those solutions from being deployed, and that immediate and systemic action is required to address this.
Television news is probably the worst. In 2022, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox spent just 1.3% of their time covering climate change (that’s an all-time high).
That’s 4 major news networks barely mentioning the greatest challenge of our time.
According to Yale’s program on climate change communication, 66% of people in the US say they only hear about global warming in the media once a month or less.
And not surprisingly, given mainstream media’s influence and pervasiveness in our lives, practically the same number of people, 64%, say they rarely or never talk about global warming. We’re never going to solve this in time if people aren’t hearing and talking about it more.
It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t for lack of opportunity. Media Matters found that ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, MSNBC, and CNN only mentioned climate change in 5% of the news segments on the record-breaking heat in Texas this summer. Even less name the main cause of climate change – burning fossil fuels.
So climate coverage on TV is…pretty abysmal overall.
But even the biggest names in print media, although vastly improved in recent years, are failing to cover climate properly in large part because they continue to spread the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda.
Even when good journalists at the New York Times or the Washington Post write a great story on climate, the paper’s fossil fuel ads can be in that exact same story, telling people that the fossil fuel companies are a part of the solution, which is a lie.
Many of the most reputable for-profit media organizations pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry in exchange for printing their “advertorials” and creating “native advertising” on their behalf which look like normal articles to readers.
(For the record, natural gas is not a climate solution – it’s about as bad as coal when you account for methane leaks. And despite the overwhelming number of the fossil fuel industry’s ads saying they’re part of the solution, in reality, they only invest about 1% of their money into climate solutions.)
As Emily Atkin writes:
“[The ads] attempt to sell readers not on a product, but on an idea: that fossil fuel companies are helping save the planet. This idea is false, as repeatedly demonstrated by The *Times’ own reporting. Fossil fuel ads are political propaganda, attempts by the industry to placate public outrage about climate change.” – Emily Atkin
At best, these ads are misleading readers. At worst, they’re straight-up misinformation. Reputable media outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post are being used (for really not that much money) to disseminate and give their stamp of approval to the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda.
Exxon PR man Herb Schmertz pioneered this technique over 50 years ago. And Exxon’s internal reports show that he and his team celebrated how they were able to shift the New York Times’ editorials over the years to more closely resemble the industry’s talking points that they paid to have published in the paper.
This started back in 1970 and continues today.
At first the fossil fuel industry lied about whether climate change was real or not. Now they can’t lie about whether it’s real or not so they lie about the solutions to avoid regulation, accountability, and maximize their profits.
And these prominent media companies lend their credibility to the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda and lies by printing it. They seem to hold back on criticism of the companies sending them money. And, ultimately, they confuse readers and influential decision-makers by publishing mixed messages.
Over the last 40+ years, the fossil fuel industry has spent billions of dollars to delay climate action in what investigative journalist Amy Westervelt calls “the propaganda campaign of the century”. The fossil fuel industry’s campaign has been incredibly effective. And they wouldn’t have been able to do it without the media.
I think, in the future, climate change won’t be seen as something that happened to us but as something that was done to us by a very small number of people. It’ll be seen as a crime against humanity by executives in the fossil fuel industry and their allies. And their disinformation campaign that influenced the media and shaped the public and political narrative will be a part of that story.
At the end of the day, when large swathes of the public don’t fully know what’s going on, why, or how bad and immediate the threats of the climate crisis are, they can’t make informed decisions.
“A decision maker can’t respond to information he or she doesn’t have, can’t respond accurately to information that is inaccurate, can’t respond in a timely way to information that is late. I would guess that 99 percent of what goes wrong in systems goes wrong because of faulty or missing information.” – Donella Meadows
After 50 years of the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda and the media failing to effectively inform the public about the biggest challenge of our time, it’s now 2023 and the climate crisis is in full swing.
It’s long past time to fix this. Because right now, we need as many people as possible to understand what’s going on and start making more informed decisions for the sake of our future. And the media is key to making that happen.
Improving Climate Coverage in the Media
Let’s start with a quick refresher on the basics.
- Truth & Accuracy → Deliver fact-based information. No deceptive handling of the facts.
- Independence → Do not act, formally or informally, on behalf of special interests.
- Fairness & Impartiality → Be balanced and add context to show multiple sides of the story.
- Humanity → Show humanity. Be aware of the consequences of what you publish. Do no undue harm.
- Accountability → Hold ourselves accountable. Listen and correct mistakes.
I think you could argue that, overall, the media has been failing on most or all of these when it comes to covering climate change.
Here’s an incomplete list of actions the corporate media could take to both help get in alignment with journalistic principles and do what’s right by their readers and the world.
Truth & Accuracy
- Tell readers the truth → climate change and ecosystem collapse are an all-hands-on-deck emergency that changes life as we know it.
- Actually act like it’s an emergency → increase the number of stories focused on the climate crisis. Climate should get at least as much airtime as Covid did. Quality and truth-telling matter of course, but quantity is walking the talk and lets people know that this is indeed a big deal.
“In many ways the most important thing about media is what it doesn’t cover. It’s really hard for voters and other citizens to formulate opinions and try to influence their elected representatives if they don’t even know something is an issue.” – Craig Benzine
- Integrate climate into more stories → climate change touches just about everything. Educate all journalists so they understand how climate connects to and affects their beat so they can weave in the climate context when appropriate.
- Educate people on what is causing the emergency → only 49% to 58% of people understand that today’s rapid climate change is man-made. This is in stark contrast to the 99% scientific consensus. The media needs to connect the (factual) dots until way more people understand that the increasingly extreme weather we’re experiencing is because of climate change and that its downstream effects will continue to worsen until we stop burning fossil fuels and get to zero emissions.
This one is pretty simple:
- Stop publishing ads from the fossil fuel industry.
Media has been and continues to be complicit in a decades-long, multi-billion dollar disinformation campaign run by the fossil fuel industry.
The fossil fuel ads make up a very small portion of their revenue. And most readers say that printing fossil fuel ads makes them trust the paper less and that they want them to stop doing it.
Fairness & Impartiality
For a long time, the media let the fossil fuel industry weaponize this core value in the form of “both sides-ing” climate change. More often than not, the media gave equal weight to a climate scientist saying climate change was real and a denier saying it wasn’t (often funded by the fossil fuel industry).
When there’s a 99% scientific consensus (and that fact isn’t stated in the reporting), it’s highly misleading to share both sides and leave it at that.
If someone says it’s raining outside and someone else says it isn’t, you don’t give both answers equal weight. You follow the facts – go look outside.
Here’s Amy Westervelt piecing together some eye-opening info:
“Data on how effective this strategy has been is hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence of its success abounds. In the early 1990s, polls showed that about 80 percent of Americans were aware of climate change and accepted that something must be done about it, an opinion that crossed party lines. By 2008, Gallup found a marked partisan divide on climate change. By 2010, the American public’s belief in climate change hit an all-time low of 48 percent, despite the fact that those 20 years saw increased research, improved climate models and several climate change predictions coming true.” – Amy Westervelt
Also, to follow this principle in a positive way, the media should incorporate more stories from the global south and underserved communities where climate and environmental injustices are hitting hard and fast. These people’s voices and stories are especially important and are often ignored. The same goes for climate activists who are often vilified by the media, businesses, and governments.
If we don’t get climate right, everything else will be wrong.
This issue is about our safety, well-being, and human rights. And we are so far behind where we should be given how long society has known about this issue.
So much is at stake. And there is still so much that we can save if we act, wisely, now.
Choose which stories to write about, and write them, with that in mind.
Also, again, stop creating and disseminating fossil fuel propaganda.
The New York Times banned ads for cigarettes in 1999 because it was harming their readers. It’s long past time they do the same for fossil fuels which kill 350,000 Americans every year and over 8 million worldwide according to Harvard research looking at the impacts of air pollution alone.
Finally, report on the good that’s happening as well as the bad. Increase solutions journalism so people can learn what works and replicate it within their spheres of influence. This is not only great journalism, it leads to hope, agency, and positive action.
It’s also long past time that the media apologize for its role in disseminating this misinformation, both sides-ing the issue, not reporting widely on what is likely the biggest disinformation campaign of all time, and generally not treating climate change like the world-changing emergency it is.
What You Can Do
Here are a few options:
- You can pressure your favorite media organizations to no longer accept fossil fuel ads! To make this easy, our friends over at Climate Changemakers have created an action playbook that you can use :)a) With all that contact info in the playbook, you can also pressure your media outlets to do everything else in this newsletter! (e.g. talk about climate change more, treat it like an emergency, explicitly state what is causing it such as burning fossil fuels, etc.)
- You can sign this petition by Ads Not Fit to Print to tell the New York Times to stop promoting fossil fuels.
- When you see something that could be improved in a specific article or program, reach out to the journalist and let them know. Trust me, criticism sticks out more than praise (and is more effective when delivered respectfully). On the flip side, thanking journalists and outlets when they do good work validates and encourages them to do more of it.
- Support media organizations and individual journalists who are already doing amazing work! A few that come to mind are:
And some individuals and orgs who have done a fantastic job illuminating much of what this newsletter was about.
The Bottom Line
Not only is the media failing to properly cover the greatest story of our time, they actively undermine the good work that they are doing when they publish the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda and lies – ultimately spreading misleading or misinformation, sending mixed messages, confusing readers, and delaying climate action.
They need to disentangle themselves from the fossil fuel industry, fully investigate and report on the industry’s disinformation campaigns to delay action, talk about climate more, tell the truth about the direness of our situation, connect it to everything (including its root causes), and increase reporting about the solutions that exist and the people around the world accelerating them.
We need the media to follow journalism’s core values, especially when it comes to covering climate. In doing so, they’ll help people to make more informed decisions and we’ll fare much better than we otherwise would in the years to come.
And we can all help nudge them in the right direction 😉