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Climate crisis, news coverage and emotions: a disempowering mix

Luba Kassova | August 13, 2021
Climate crisis, news coverage and emotions: a disempowering mix Climate crisis, news coverage and emotions: a disempowering mix

Although predictable and expected, the global news headlines about Climate Change 2021, the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment report published this week, left me feeling depressed, overwhelmed, hopeless and borderline terrified… so much so that it made me want to just shut down. This is unsurprising really, as all these emotions which the news evoked in me (and in others I spoke with), are not just negative, according to Russell’s Emotions Circumplex, but are perniciously deactivating. They are quite simply the exact opposite of the ones we need to feel in order to act. A quick content assessment of the headlines on 9th August relating to the IPCC’s report in 25 of the most linked to/influential news outlets globally revealed that 79% of the headlines evoked worry, fear, hopelessness and/or a feeling of being overwhelmed, 10% had a neutral undertone, 6% evoked some hope and only 5% alluded to a solution.

Tragically, we have reached a point in history where inaction on the climate crisis equates to peril. Doing nothing involves too high a cost for us all to pay. We need to be feeling activating emotions such as anger and rage but also hope that we can make a difference, that all is not lost. Overwhelming headlines like: “Global Climate Crisis: Inevitable, Unprecedented and Irreversible” or “'Nobody is safe': UN warns climate crisis poses immediate threat” are damaging to our ability to act on the problem because they strip us of our feeling of agency. News providers have a duty of care to their audiences when they report on the biggest existential story of our lifetime (arguably bigger than the pandemic story). Journalists need to pair the grim facts (and grim they are!) with viable solutions if they are to engage audiences in the story effectively. If these hard-hitting apocalyptic headlines continue to be unaccompanied by solutions, there is a danger that audiences will switch off, adopting a ‘denial’ mode or resigning themselves to their dark fate of a slow hot death. Audiences need more headlines that leave them feeling empowered. Some journalists are achieving this already: “A Hotter Future is certain, Climate Panel Warns, but How Hot is Up to US,” “14 ways to fight the climate crisis after 'Code Red' IPCC report” or “The IPCC report is a massive alert that the time for climate action is nearly gone, but crucially not gone yet”.

Should journalists, especially those in the global north, redefine how they perceive their role in society, moving away from being agents of truth to also being agents of change? According to the Worlds of Journalism Study, 93% of journalists in the UK, 98% in the US, 93% in Kenya and 88% in India believe that it is “extremely” or “very important” that journalists “report things as they are”. By contrast, only 29% and 30% of journalists in the UK and the US, as opposed to 79% and 75% in Kenya and India, believe that journalists should “advocate for social change”. Catarina Garvalho - former Executive Editor at Diário de Notícias and Fellow at the RISJ, retweeted a tweet I had posted on the depressing impact of the climate news coverage on Monday, adding a powerful thought: “… Part of human nature is to let go of bad feelings - we have to make our consumers of information agents of change not victims of the news. Right?”

The climate story demands that we all - the public and journalists alike - become agents of change…and fast. Every person on the planet has a role to play in arresting the downfall. The story also demands respect for solutions and for data journalism. Not taking a solutions-focused journalism seriously or not seeing oneself as a “numbers person” is no longer an option for journalists today. News coverage on the climate crisis will be crucial in galvanising the public globally to act in the next few years. So let’s make it empowering. Let’s make it count.

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