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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethical News Coverage of Climate Change Needs to Prioritize Efficacy

Man reading a newspaper

Man reading a newspaper

Anita Varma

AP Photo - Sang Tan

Anita Varma is the assistant director of Journalism & Media Ethics, as well as Social Sector Ethics. Views are her own.

For years, climate change news coverage could be relied upon to provide an example of the follies of false equivalence. Determined to “balance” evidence of climate change, news outlets regularly amplified detractors (commonly termed “deniers”) who insisted that climate change was yet another liberal fiction designed to cost the taxpayers money and infringe on corporate freedom.

More recent coverage has displayed a concerted effort to no longer treat climate change as a question, but as an unequivocal crisis. This is a reassuring shift in some respects, but news coverage is now plagued with a different problem: relentless coverage of a daunting global issue that sounds like it will undoubtedly kill us all.

The stakes of climate change are not hyperbole. Indeed, the masses of (mostly) young people who marched on September 20 did so with sound reason. Their futures, and ours, are at stake. Yet at the same time, many people remain rationally ignorant of climate change—and those who do peek at the news are quick to turn away, unsurprisingly, because the news seems to go from bad to worse.

Putting a rosy spin on climate change would certainly be unethical, and is a poor alternative to the current stream of news coverage that sounds like it should be set to the R.E.M. song, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” Instead, climate change coverage would serve society better by aiming to cultivate efficacy.

Efficacy is defined in the political communication literature as “the feeling that political actions taken by individuals can have an impact on the political process” (Moy, 2008). More specifically, efficacy is usually divided into two types: internal and external efficacy. Internal efficacy means that people regard themselves as capable and well-equipped to participate in politics, while external efficacy means that people regard the political system as responsive to constituents’ actions and wishes.

A recent and impressive cross-news outlet collaboration called Covering Climate Now offers an expansive set of stories, explainers, features, and reports on climate change. With a mix of science reporting, political coverage, and in-depth stories on affected communities such as farmers and far-flung countries experiencing the grave effects of climate change, anyone who reads even a handful of articles published as part of the collaboration would find it nearly impossible to deny that climate change is a gargantuan force to be reckoned with, and one that requires action.

The problem is that after reading even just a few of these articles, readers may find it impossible to deny that they feel worse than they did when they began. Alarmed and vigilant, they are likely to be incensed and concerned—for a while. After that, social psychology literature suggests, they may begin to go numb, particularly when they see no clear path forward and have low levels of external efficacy because of (often well-grounded) doubts that the political system and their elected officials will respond to their wishes.

Communication studies on news consumption and news avoidance also indicate that journalists do not get many chances with audiences: when audiences become fatigued, they readily switch to lighter content and may actively avoid future coverage altogether.

There is a window of opportunity between when people are alarmed and when they go numb, which is when journalists have a chance to show people how they might channel their alarm into solidarity. As best-selling author Rebecca Solnit has argued in the context of protests that have defied narratives of a disengaged and disempowered public, “In these great collective moments people showed up because they cared; when they showed up they often found a new sense of solidarity and power, which generated yet more possibilities.”

To prioritize efficacy in news coverage, journalists should begin to help people not only understand climate change, but also understand the paths forward by leading with how we can still make a difference. Doing so means moving away from crisis frames and towards constructive frames that emphasize how change can be realized, while also representing the structural impediments to these changes that make people’s reluctance and aversion reasonable rather than ignorant. Otherwise, the promising shift from a stance of “climate change may or may not be real” to “climate change requires your action immediately” may alienate instead of energize people to engage with the issue—and may end with readers clicking away from a wide array of coverage.

News outlets have regularly sounded the call for people to mobilize to affect change, and they have been met (at least initially) with skepticism. To mitigate skepticism, and to take seriously the risk of numbness setting in, climate change coverage should emphasize not only who is responsible for the current and growing crisis, but also how we might move forward together.

Oct 14, 2019

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