As the tree branches outside the window bend violently under the weight of Storm Eunice, the worst storm to hit the UK in decades, the climate crisis has never felt more real and imposing. In the background, the melancholic tones of Richard Ashcroft’s “Ain’t the Future so Bright” sarcastically project the despondency that the climate change story evokes in many audiences globally; at least in those who are engaged with it, which – we have learned – is a minority.
There is a great need to engage global audiences in the undeniably relevant climate crisis story that is soon to seep into every aspect of our lives. Yet, ever since the story first emerged decades ago, engaging audiences, let alone prompting them to act, has proved a challenge for news providers worldwide. What can be done to change this? First of all, we have to close the significant gaps between what audiences may need from climate change news coverage if they were to get more engaged in the story and what news providers cover.
The relevance gap
To engage with the climate change story, audiences need to perceive it as relevant to them personally. Unfortunately, however, audiences globally perceive the story to be less relevant to themselves than to others. When AKAS questioned members of the public about their personal worries recently, through a series of surveys in different countries, only a fraction of respondents – 3% in the US, 8% in Canada, 10% in the UK and 12% in Australia – spontaneously singled out climate change as a personal worry. This low perceived relevance of the story is partly caused by the climate news coverage failing to infuse the story with enough of the angles which are most relevant to audiences. For example, AKAS’ analysis of GDELT news stories between January 2021 and February 2022 revealed that news coverage of unemployment, jobs, Covid and corruption, all of which are of high audience relevance, rarely mentions the impact of climate change on these issues. Conversely, climate news coverage does not zone in sufficiently on angles such as poverty, inequality, and political or business corruption, that audiences do find relevant.
The news coverage volume gap
To engage audiences with a story which is important but often perceived as lacking relevance, audiences need to stumble across it frequently in the news. However, AKAS’ analysis of the GDELT database of more than 750 million news stories worldwide since 2017 reveals that coverage of the climate news story is a drop in the ocean of news. Over the last five years, news referencing climate change constituted less than 2% of the overall news coverage. Interestingly, seven of the ten countries with the highest news coverage of climate change in the last year are island states – those most acutely battered by the problem. Last year climate change was mentioned in 9% of the news coverage in the Seychelles, followed by Jersey (7%) and the Solomon Islands (6%). Perhaps this is the level of coverage we should expect when the story is perceived by all to be relevant.
The emotions gap
Journalists rarely think explicitly about what specific emotions their news reports evoke. The climate change story demands that this changes so that emotions become a lens through which journalists assess their reporting. Why? Because if audiences continually experience deactivating emotions on reading stories, they are more likely to disengage completely from the coverage. Google surveys commissioned by AKAS in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and Nigeria between October 2021 and January 2022 revealed that sadness – a deactivating emotion – is universally the most frequently felt emotion in relation to climate change and climate change news coverage. It is more prevalent than fear, anger, or hope. In the UK, as many as 29% of respondents spontaneously mentioned feeling sadness when questioned about the emotions they experienced when consuming climate change news reports (vs. 14% who felt sad when thinking of climate change per se). In the US the proportion was 19% vs. 15%. In both cases, the news coverage seems to have overlaid an additional layer of negativity onto the audience’s general despondence.
Alarmingly, an Ipsos survey undertaken in November 2021 in 27 countries revealed that a fifth of young people (vs. 12% of 50+ year olds) believe it is too late to fix climate change. Bipasha van der Zijde, a communications consultant at Words for Everything, based in the Netherlands, believes that there are two factors contributing to young people’s higher levels of fatalism. Firstly, their certainty that they will bear the brunt of the changing climate. “With the goal to evoke some action or outrage, some media and non-profits document the horrors that await them by instilling fear without providing any concrete solutions. There is much debate about solutions journalism, but simply instilling fear for a future that is doomed will unsurprisingly result in fatalism.” Secondly, van der Zijde thinks their fears are then often dismissed by the media, “by patronizingly referring to millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) as snowflakes, or Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) as the ‘woke’ generation” which leaves them feeling disempowered.
Headlines such as “Global climate crisis: inevitable, unprecedented and irreversible” directly fuel the deactivating feelings of despondence, disempowerment, or apathy. In recent decades, journalism’s emphasis in climate change coverage has shifted from an era of “it’s real” to “it’s bad”. If journalism is to engage audiences and usher in progress, it needs to move forward to an era where coverage highlights that “it’s bad but we can act to contain this”.
The solutions gap
To be able to act on the behavioural-change demand that climate change places on us all, audiences need to be clear about what they can and should do. However, at present, solutions-based news reports are a few soft voices lost in a gigantic choir of hundreds of thousands of voices amplifying the challenges posed by climate change. A recent analysis of the cumulative mentions of climate change terms in Google news article headlines uncovered 336,000 stories which contained the term climate change. Out of these, only 0.2% contained the term “climate change solutions” and 0.5% contained the terms “climate change” and “solution(s)”.
According to Ipsos’ November 2021 survey , a majority of the 20,000+ respondents (62%) agreed that they hear much more about the negative impacts of climate change than they do about progress towards reducing its impacts.
Storm Eunice in the UK provided an opportunity for news providers to ramp up their climate change news coverage, establishing a more explicit link between events such as this storm and the longstanding climate crisis. Yet, there was no change in the pattern of climate change coverage in the UK either during the storm or afterwards, with only 2% of stories that referenced the storm also referencing “climate change”. It felt like yet another missed opportunity to engage news audiences with the topic of the climate crisis.
In the aftermath of Storm Eunice, what does emerge is a degree of clarity in relation to what can be done to close the significant gaps that are impeding audience engagement. Three ideas stand out among the dozens of opportunities:
News providers should avoid the solely apocalyptic “the end of the world is inevitable” news narratives that leave audiences feeling defeated and overwhelmed with sadness, fear, or both.
In addition to stating the problem, they should ramp up the coverage and story narratives that relate to progress made to date, thereby combatting the overwhelming negative bias. Their content should be centred around helping audiences to empower themselves.
To increase the volume and relevance of the news coverage at the same time, news providers need to look for links to other high relevancy topics within their climate stories, as well as searching for the climate connection in all their high-profile stories.
This article is based on research conducted by Luba Kassova and Richard Addy of AKAS, an international audience strategy consultancy, for the Journalism and the Climate Crisis global eSummit.
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