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The Media Is Only Telling You Half of the Climate Change Story

Network news outlets are tricking us into thinking there's nothing we can do about climate change.
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(Photo: Public Domain)

(Photo: Public Domain)

The latest United Nations climate report was another reminder that climate change's insidious effects are already pervasive. Most news coverage dwells on seemingly irrepressible impacts—acidic oceans, floods, wildfires, and monster storms.

But there's more to the climate story than destruction porn, and we have more control over climate change than most coverage suggests.

We can curb global warming by reducing fossil fuel burning. Most countries now have laws that limit fossil fuel use and support cleaner energy. And we can manage global warming's effects on our lives. Efforts are underway from Wisconsin's Dane County to the European Union to refashion cities, farms, and spending priorities to help cope with changes in the weather. President Obama wants to spend $1 billion next year on climate adaptation.

Nearly nine out of every 10 stories that discussed climate change's impacts failed to mention any actions we can take against the problem.

Much more action is needed to slow the effects and adapt to them. But building that momentum—the kind needed to pressure governments to end fossil fuel subsidies and to rebuild coastal ecosystems to buffer floods—is more difficult when a sense of helplessness pervades.

"Media coverage of the most recent [U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report generally discusses the significant threat that climate change poses—while suggesting that, due to political conflict and other barriers, it's unlikely that effective action can be taken," says Sol Hart, an assistant professor of communication studies and the environment at the University of Michigan.

It's not that network news totally ignores renewable energy advances or other ways of tackling climate change. It's that those actions are rarely discussed in the same stories that focus on climate change's impacts.

Hart led a study that examined climate-related coverage by U.S. network news from 2005 to mid-2011, including 152 reports from ABC, 102 from CBS, and 186 from NBC. Nearly nine out of every 10 stories that discussed climate change's impacts failed to mention any actions we can take against the problem. The findings were published online in February by Science Communication:

Overall, 59.3% of network news broadcasts [dealing with climate] mentioned impacts from climate change. A nearly equal percentage of broadcasts, 59.1%, discussed actions that could be taken to address climate change. However, impacts and actions were more likely to be discussed in separate broadcasts than in the same broadcast: Just 39.8% of broadcasts that discussed actions also discussed impacts, whereas 87.3% of broadcasts that did not mention actions discussed impacts.

"If an individual is reading multiple climate change stories this probably does not matter as much," Hart says. "However, climate coverage in the news is still very scant. When coverage is offered, individuals are likely to only read a single story on the issue—if at all."

Senior Democratic lawmakers and Senator Bernie Sanders suggested in a frustrated letter to network bosses in January that fossil fuel industry advertising was causing them to avoid climate coverage. Hart's findings suggest that the problem is more nuanced than that. Even when networks do cover climate change, they're helping polluters by paralyzing us with a false sense of dread.