Are we too pessimistic for our own good? When it comes to climate change, it sure seems that way: Each week comes with a barrage of increasingly bleak stories of suffering and death.
The New York Times has a phrase for this trend: bad-news bias. And new research shows this bias is infecting how the media reports stories: 87% of national U.S. media stories about the coronavirus were assessed as negative.
Applying that research to climate change, we’d likely see similar results.
Of course, with little progress on the international climate goals, it’s hard to stay positive. But writing about the climate crisis shouldn’t seek to just inform people of the dangers — it should offer solutions and inspire action. Otherwise, writing may be overtly obstructionist, creating crippling anxiety, or even fear, two traits that impede meaningful action.
Unfortunately, bad news sells.
“Human beings, particularly consumers of major media, like negativity in their stories,” Bruce Sacerdote, lead author of the recent research, told The New York Times. “We think the major media are responding to consumer demand.”
Case in point, last week, five of the seven stories in our newsletter were negative. One of the positive stories, that air quality improved last year, might actually be negative because it focused solely on temporary gains. Since we compile the biggest climate stories in the U.S. media each week, the newsletter can serve as a case study of broader trends.
If we’re going to turn things around, the U.S. media must cover good stories when they come along. For example, Bloomberg reported last week that renewable returns tripled in the last decade. But that story was largely ignored by other American outlets.
Another problem is the gravity of some of the stats, some of which are too big to ignore. Coverage, then, tends to focus on one or two alarming stats, giving them extra weight in headlines.
One recent headline does just that — “Extinction threatens third of freshwater fish species, report finds” — but in the process, ignores the Emergency Recovery Plan to save these fishes, as laid out in that report.
But it’s not reporters who are solely at fault. In our content-saturated world, there’s often little time to dive into reports, especially when they’re not the focus of an article. To briefly reference the United Nations’ recent Emissions Gap report, like I did in this post, writers likely mention how we’re on pace to exceed 3 degrees Celsius of temperature rise — certainly not good news.
Afforded more space, CarbonBrief presents the same findings through a positive lens, focusing on the potential for a “green recovery” from the pandemic and “the opening” for the world to close the growing gap between commitments and actions to meet Paris Agreement goals.
Writing through bad-news bias isn’t inherently bad. Sometimes it’s just being realistic, acknowledging the lack of climate progress and constraints going forward. But if climate reporting’s goal is to also inspire action, then balancing outrage with rational steps forward is also necessary.
It’s the difference between an angry, shirtless Matt Damon, who gives it to you straight, and a patient doctor, who clearly articulates the prognosis and charts next steps, no matter how dire the future.
Striking that balance is one of the many steps to tackling the climate crisis.