A Drumbeat of Tragic Narrative that Turns Audiences Off

The unending bleak news on climate change is not breaking through to the public. What might do it?

Anyone following the daily stream of climate-related news these past few years knows one thing: The future looks grim. Sure, the media have a way of making it look especially grim, but let’s be honest, there is increasing alarm regularly expressed in many quarters, from the U.N. Secretary-General to the U.S. Pentagon. All told, the cumulative message conveyed in the media since the mid 2000s can be summed up by the tagline on a Time magazine cover story on global warming: “Be Worried. Be Very Worried.” That was in 2006.

Commentary

This tenor of media coverage, which projects a climate crisis unfolding before our eyes, has a familiar feel to it. Indeed, before global warming became the “mother of all environmental problems” (as Jon Foley has lamented), reporters routinely spit out the unceasing bad news on biodiversity, endangered species, rain forests, etc. Those stories are still duly reported (though they are now second billing to climate change) and they constitute what science journalist Michele Nijhuis calls the “tragic narrative in environmental journalism.” As Nijhuis noted in another essay:

Environmental journalists often feel married to the tragic narrative. Pollution, extinction, invasion: The stories are endless, and endlessly the same. Our editors see the pattern and bury us in the back pages; our readers see it and abandon us on the subway or in the dentist’s office.

Well, if that’s the case with articles like this one, then perhaps we should expect no less a mind-numbing effect to accrue with the constant drumbeat of gloomy global warming stories.

So instead of being “very worried,” as Time advised six years ago, people seem to be turning off, tuning out.

Kathy Seal, in an article in Miller-McCune, reports that “83 percent of Americans believe the Earth is heating up, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsons poll. Yet most live as though global warming isn’t taking place, even while knowing that it is.”

What gives? Seal reasons that the prospect of global warming is “so horrifying” to readers “that you may feel like clicking away from this article right now.” The piece goes on to discuss various defense mechanisms people employ to avoid thinking about climate change.

Another explanation for the lack of serious, sustained engagement on climate change is offered by Andy Revkin, who has likened public attitudes to “water sloshing in a shallow pan — lots of fluctuations, little depth or commitment (particularly when money is involved).”

Will an unremitting drumbeat of climate catastrophe stories finally force the public to pay closer attention to global warming? Nijhuis suggests it’s time to abandon the “tragic environmental narrative,” if for no other reason than to “startle the reader out of his or her mournful stupor.” She showcases different approaches that can be taken.

If the news on climate change (and other environmental issues) is as worrisome as many in the media report, then perhaps breaking out of the “tragic narrative” is the last, best shot at getting the public’s attention.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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15 Responses to A Drumbeat of Tragic Narrative that Turns Audiences Off

  1. RickA says:

    The other reason people tune out is that there is no real solution.

    We need technology to provide non-carbon energy sources, which hasn’t been invented yet.

    We could do it with nuclear – but there are political reasons that push back against this.

    It is largely out of the control of the average citizen – they have no control over how their power is produced.

    • Right you are Rick. We don’t want to give up our risky lifestyle. Like a 2 pack-a-day smoker who coughs up blood. No clear solution – meaning no painless solution., happy capitalism won’t fix it, and the science is too messy.

      News media does not want to dip their toe into those waters. Pity.

  2. Oh puhleeze Keith…

    The only thing you got right is the title of your post… it is very much the media at fault here. And so you should know that when any news media insists on pandering to their audiences they fail their readers and lose community. Surely you are not asking that news media be excused from any responsibility for failing to properly sound the alarm?

    Serious followers of this issue really don’t bother with mass media like the NYTimes and Miller-McCune. Neither are responsibly covering the greatest story of all time. They try hard but they really have not discovered global warming… and Revkin insists on a wacky combination of fair-and-balanced opinions that nearly includes flat-earthers. Revkin was removed from the science beat and put into an opinion blog — because even the NYTimes – heavily supported by carbon fuel advertising could not support his style.

    Mass media is failing. Blundering through a folly that somehow we can keep whistling in the dark and everything will turn out OK by magic.

    Humans now seek information elsewhere – mostly online. Try ClimateProgress or RealClimate, or SkepticalScience.

    If mass media appears trapped by grim laments of science, then perhaps it is time to discuss human psychology, civilization or risk analysis?

    Time to wake up please. Time for Yale Climate Media to start kicking dust into their presses – calling for real changes.

  3. Bud Ward says:

    Thanks to a reader who called our attention, albeit off line, to this provocative commentary by Grist’s David Roberts, expressing a different perspective on these issues: http://www.grist.org/climate-change/2011-12-16-brutal-logic-and-climate-communications

    An intriguing suggestion that Andy Revkin was “removed” from the Times because of the paper’s carbon advertising. But there is no evidence to that effect, and plenty to the contrary…that is, that Revkin’s move to Pace University was in the works for some time and was his own initiative. Intriguing suggestion,as noted…just no basis to think it has merit.

    • Thanks for checking my facts…I confess that I do not know the reasons for Revkin’s move…

      Thanks for the steer to Roberts at Grist.

      And Yale Climate media performs a valuable service in hosting these discussions. Many thanks for that. This is a very tough issue for mass media and you do much to influence change.

    • Richard Pauli says:

      Just found a nice discussion between Revkin and Roberts at http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/39338

      Although both have facial hair, neither one has horns.

  4. Jon Flatley says:

    Another thing to consider is that the media prefers debates and conflict and something “news worthy” – which usually equates to bad news. When couched that way day after day (whether or not they believe) they tune out.

    If as much energy were put into trying to convince some people about human induced climate change as were put into a whole-hearted effort to find reliable and consistent alternatives to fossil fuels, we’d be further along as a society. What it takes for much of society – in charge of policy making at least – is urgency, not unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years ago. You can bet your bottom dollar if there was an ultimatum of “replace all fossil fuels by 2020 or the world would blow up” that you’d see a REAL effort (not that we’d succeed though).

  5. I, along with Larry Altman, Cornelia Dean, John Noble Wilford and now (as of this week) Nicholas Wade, left The Times science news staff because the paper is shrinking its news-gathering apparatus in the wake of declining advertising of all kinds (not just oil etc). The paper offered generous buyout packages and I’d already been charting various paths to broaden my work — given, as I’ve written, that traditional journalism is a shrinking wedge of an explosively growing pie of communication options.

    For what it’s worth, my transition didn’t seem to faze the National Academy of Sciences, which made me the first science writer to get two of its communication awards — the 2011 prize for Dot Earth, in its Op-Ed incarnation. I’ll take their plaudits over blogosphere complaints any day of the week.

    Details: Four Years, 1,630 Posts and a Nice Award: http://nyti.ms/nh6rj5
    Details on my transition to academia: http://j.mp/RevNew

    • Thanks Andy. You have done much good work. Although with our failure to recognize and remove ourselves from the progressively dangerous situation that AGW presents I am not sure I would trumpet any legacy right now. We have failed to protect the future from our own damage.

      This blog is about climate change and then about media – and to many, it seems the climate is changing faster than the structure of media.

      You do a marvelous job keeping a large readership, but when you present a buffet table of ideological quagmires it means that our civilization misses the latest research that we need to see. (methane, ice loss, sea level rise, ozone, etc.)

      I want to follow the calls to cast off the anti-science dogma and dangerously irrational policies that come from a corrupt pro-carbon industrial base in this country. And the clock is running down fast.

      You document well, but I want to read more about the ramifications of the science you cover. Climate change and continuing research is not well reported by mass media – Including your Grey Lady friend.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Keith Kloor, there is no evidence for your claim that the American public is exhausted from reading doomsday articles about global warming. A 2006 Time article does not qualify. In fact, articles like this one

    http://www.flipdocs.com/showbook.aspx?ID=10004692_698290

    don’t even make it into the press. The average American is more likely to hear Sean Hannity claim that it’ all a hoax, or to turn on the evening network news and hear… nothing.

    The people who are aware of the quite frightening developing science are the climate scientists themselves, and the few members of the public who have taken the trouble to investigate the most recent developments.

    Andy, at least you brought up the Semiletov Arctic expedition, before dismissing it as alarmist tripe. Actually, it was the opposite.

    Keith Kloor, Andy Revkin, and Roger Pielke Jr. write elevator music, and have done more damage to public awareness of global warming than anyone in the country. Your articles have a patina of concern and knowledge, neither of which is actually present. Watts, Morano, and McIntyre, who mostly cater to Tea Party loonies, do far less damage.

    We need a heavy metal band here. If the public finds the music troubling and discordant, that’s a shame, because you can’t sugarcoat and dissemble the most critical facts that humanity will ever have to address.

    • keith Kloor says:

      Mike Roddy,

      You write: “The average American is more likely to hear Sean Hannity claim that it’ all a hoax, or to turn on the evening network news and hear… nothing.”

      I would say that perhaps the average Republican, if he gets his news primarily from Fox News, will hear the hoax stuff from Hannity. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say the “average American.”

      And as most folks know about the evening news, it usually contains the worst of humanity condensed into 22 minutes. (Well, your local news, anyway.)

      In terms of that constant drumbeat of doomsday articles, I could give you a list miles long. I just linked to a few representative examples.

      Lastly, let me ask you this: are climate skeptics (or the media) responsible for the explosive economic growth of India, China, and other developing nations, and their reluctance to cap their emissions and agree to a binding climate treaty?

      • Mike Roddy says:

        Keith-

        I stand by my earlier statement that the average American has no idea about the more recent, and quite “alarming” scientific studies. The controversy in the media appears to be over whether Muller’s study confirms that it’s actually getting warmer. MSM thinks they are being brave by acknowledging what anyone who lives on this planet has been able to observe.

        Few Americans know anything about methane, accelerating Arctic melt, increased forest mortality, feedback loops, the impact of a 2C increase, etc.

        As for China and India, American media bears some responsibility here, actually. Leaders in those countries see no reason to act as long as the leading historical emitter- the US- is doing nothing.

        You may be interested in something I wrote on this subject for Climate Progress a while back, called “What About China and India”. My brother Steve helped me. He is a Princeton PhD in Asian Studies, who also earned a Fulbright and a Wilson, and studied in Beijing. He is currently a professor at the University of San Francisco. Steve informed me that China is beholden to coal interests and export industries in ways very similar to our own government’s capture by fossil fuel and banking interests. This means that international pressure on both nations is needed, to include sticks as well as carrots. A key root cause of this problem is the American public’s being soothed and distracted by corporate control of our media. Greed crazed hillbillies like David Koch, Gregory Boyce, and Rex Tillerson are screwing up the whole world, and the media is complicit. We won’t defeat them unless we get around to putting up a fight.

  7. Paul Beckwith says:

    I just had a quick look at the NGU brochure from 2009. Seems to me that the 1 km diameter methane plumes indicate that abrupt climate change is already well underway (also considering the unprecedented ozone hole in the NH, the extreme weather events of 2010, 2011; the acceleration of sea-ice melt, etc. etc.). What are you guys personally doing to prepare for the rapidly approaching crap-fest?

  8. Mike Mangan says:

    Keith, I have to side with Mike Roddy on this one. Just because a technique has failed 1000 times in a row doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying. Maybe even scarier stories and even more press intimidation will work. I’m sure the result may be different, someday.

  9. Sundance says:

    I think Kloor sees it correctly.

    “The British Social Attitudes 2011 survey — an annual survey but one that only occasionally covers climate change — shows that almost across the age, economic, social and educational spectrum, the issue (climate change) has dropped well down the list of priorities.”

    http://www.eenews.net/public/climatewire/2011/12/19/2

    I also think the public just doesn’t trust traditional media and the climate science community as much as they used to and it really doesn’t matter how a message is crafted or how often the message is delivered if people dismiss the source as not being trustworthy.