Four ideas to journalists for reporting climate change

04-11-2009 23:00
If journalists think there is little they can or should do to help people deal with climate change, they should think again. In a thought-provoking talk at the conference, professor Susanna Priest came up with four simple ideas for actions that journalists can undertake without offending professional norms of objectivity and the economic restraints of the news business.

Simply furnishing people with enough information is not enough, Priest said and referred to recent research she had done amongst people in Louisiana about what made them decide to leave their homes when the hurricane Katrina hit the area.

She and the other researchers wondered if the media had failed to give people information about the severity of the approaching storm, but the 114 people interviewed said that they knew the hurricane was going to be bad. But the decision to actually leave their homes was only made when somebody in their community - a neighbour or a relative - had said: Hey, it is time to get out.

This rhymes with findings from research on the social psychology of persuasion. Priest pointed out that appealing to fear is  not enough to induce action.

“Gloom and doom messages can lead to paralysis and inaction, avoidance of the issue or even denial of the threat.”

What people need are stories about the actions they can take themselves which can help build a feeling of “you can control climate change.” Part of that is to appeal to community norms with stories where people can see others with whom they identify take action. People also need to feel as though they themselves are expected to take action.

A third option for journalists is to look at their ability to legitimize social movements through media coverage. Media has been legitimizing movements for change in many important areas over the years such as women’s rights, gay rights and the abolition of slavery. Now media can bestowe legitimacy on the climate movement by taking it seriously.

Finally, Priest pointed out that research shows that people actually do care about issues of social justice. Therefore climate change should also be covered as an issue of social or distributive justice.

The debate after Priest’s presentation showed that some conference participants were wondering whether it would appealing to community norms would be enough to get through to people. Those needing inspiration for what this kind of journalism could look like, should take a look at the companion site to the conference website.

On the website Climate Changers, journalists enrolled on an Erasmus Mundus programme  have written stories from their respective home countries about people or organisations taking action on climate change. The overall feeling from the stories is what Priest is looking for: Hope and in some cases also empowerment of the individual by knowing that other people are taking action with success.

by Kirsten Sparre

Category: Conference news


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