Media silence on urgency of climate change?

Is the media doing a bad job covering climate change and the energy sector? If not, why do so many experts think so? A group of them recently met in Germany to discuss the issue. Between practitioners (journalists) and outsiders (climatologists), what was missing was media analysts. Craig Morris explains.

Dieter Janecek (MdB, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), Gerd Wessling (Co-Autor und Mit-Übersetzer "Einfach. Jetzt. Machen!‟ und Vorstand, Transition Netzwerk e.V, Bielefeld), Foto: www.stephan-roehl.de

Dieter Janecek of the German Green Party has said that there is not media silence on climate change in Germany (Photo by Stephan Röll, modified, CC BY-SA 2.0)


“Turn on N-TV” (the German equivalent of CNN) “and you see reports about the German football team getting off the bus,” one speaker complained at the meeting in Berlin in June, “and all the while, the planet is collapsing!”

Stefan Rahmstorf, one of Germany’s most renowned climatologists (he blogs in English here), presented an excellent overview of the problem. Based on proliferous literature, Rahmstorf showed how moneyed interests have funded climate skepticism for decades. Skeptics then pick and choose data without showing the full data range available, for instance. One egregious example was Björn Lomborg’s article from 2008 in the Guardian entitled, “Let the data speak for itself.” “And yet,” Rahmstorf explains, “that’s exactly what he didn’t do – let the data speak for itself.” Instead, Lomborg cherry-picked a small section that supported his argument, leading to a series of articles between Lomborg and Rahmstorf at the Guardian – and the famous face palm graphic featuring Lomborg.

Greg Laden facepalm

(Source: Greg Laden)

But is it really that simple?

The evidence presented at the meeting was not only overwhelming, but also clearly entertaining (my favorite: Heartland’s short-lived billboard). What was lacking was analysis. For instance, the Guardian was praised as one outlet that does its job well; yet, that’s where Lomborg’s article was published! (The Guardian’s business model was also praised as an option, but what is it (start here)?) Furthermore, moneyed interests from fossil fuel are indeed a problem in US media – but not in Germany. “There’s media silence on climate change in the US, not in Germany,” stated Green parliamentarian Dieter Janecek.

The real problem with money in the media is different – and even worse. The German coal sector is not funding N-TV’s focus on the German football team, for instance. To understand what’s actually happening, we need to study media theory (start here – from 1993!). And to understand N-TV, we have to understand CNN.

Founded in 1980, it was the first German 24-hour news channel. No one needs such a thing; when nothing is happening, pundits state their opinions to kill time, and when something major happens, uninformed reporters try to get as close to the event as possible to talk about the confusion before they themselves have even understood it. Still, CNN was the fastest game in town for a while, so it did fill a gap – arguably, one that no longer exists thanks to Facebook and Twitter, which are even faster than CNN, contain even more opinions, and are arguably even better equipped to clear up confusion (think: news wiki).

CNN doesn’t sell news to viewers; it sells viewers to advertisers. Google and Facebook are CNN’s old business model with some web tweaks. Advertisers want big audiences. The result in media is breathless reporting of controversy to the detriment of clarifications.

It helps to understand what’s new about the current challenge and what’s not. German journalist Joachim Wille pointed out that “those who want to can find a lot of information.” That’s not new – here’s media critic Noam Chomsky on media failures from 1967:

… the citizen who does not undertake a research project on the subject can hardly hope to confront government pronouncements with fact.

But those who did, could – decades before the internet. This is new: a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist leaving the profession to work in PR so he can pay the rent. German journalist Dagmar Dehmer called current journalism “self-exploitation,” adding “a lot of young journalists do not stay in the field long enough to understand what they write about.”

Two conclusions: first, we have to make journalism a middle-class profession again; second, we have to get advertising out of the media. The two goals seem to conflict. They don’t have to.

None of the bad media examples presented in Berlin were from German public media (in addition to N-TV, RTL and Der Spiegel were justifiably singled out). Per capita, Germany spends 60 times more than the US does to provide the public with ad-free news. German has no equivalent for “pundit,” “false balance,” or “teach the controversy.”

Wille stated at the meeting that neo-liberalism pushed environmental issues out of the spotlight in the 1990s after they reached center stage in the 1980s. To put a finer point on his message, advertising pushed them out – who the hell wants to buy a car if they know it kills the planet? Fossil fuel is not funding the cover-up. Consumerism is. We are.

In the meantime, enjoy the video CNN aims to broadcast at the end of the world, which it does not see coming – but will be there when it happens!

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.

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Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

5 Comments

  1. S. Herb says

    Neoliberalism? Undoubtedly in part. But for sheer corrosive influence, I would nominate Rupert Murdoch (libertarian, anti-liberal), in particular for his set-up of Fox (frothing anti-liberal). So far as I know (which is not much!) Fox has played a significant role in polarizing attitudes on climate change. Media advertising would seem to be a secondary issue here.

  2. Jarmo says

    “who the hell wants to buy a car if they know it kills the planet?”

    A pertinent question in a country whose automotive industry produces 14 million vehicles annually domestically and globally. But not necessarily one automotive workers and politicians want to air…

  3. William Gloege says

    To see how industry fights science & truth. Read “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes. Cancer and smoking, industry and acid rain, Global warming Deniers. Sell-out scientists are for hire if you need to protect your industry profits. Just come to them with a lot of cash and they’ll spin what you require to safeguard those profits. They have good connections in media to make it happen and fool the public on any topic.
    William Gloege

  4. Bill henderson says

    Hi,

    just discovering your blog chasing after your new book. Concerning media and climate how about:

    This is today’s denial. The climate science facts are not denied or re-interpreted, but instead “the psychological, political or moral implications that conventionally follow” from those facts are denied or ignored (Kari Norgaard’s implicatory denial). People accept that climate change will bring about an inevitable calamity but live as if this reality did not exist, by disavowing the obligations and consequences that such acceptance entails (Rowson’s stealth denial). We would all love to solve climate change by just tweaking BAU. Arguing for a slow transition to renewables – the American way of life is not negotiable – is unjust to those most effected by climate change now and in the future. This is denial that keeps us from needed action.

    I too have a critique of this ‘slow transition’ mitigation path: Renewables And Carbon Pricing Are New Climate Denial and a critique of The Guardian mis-educating their audience:
    An Open Letter To The Guardian On Climate Change. Decarbonization with carbon pricing – as presently conceived – allows fossil fuels to stay in the game. If we were serious about climate change we would treat fossils as now toxic substances requiring urgent regulated winddown of production and use (without effective CCS, etc). Instead, real keeping it in the ground isn’t even considered in the MSM.

    Bill Gibsons, BC

  5. Hans says

    I cannot help but notice that climate denialism and the false balance coverage of the climate topic is very strong in the US, Australia and Britain. These countries have in common that they have district/first-past-the-bar voting system which leads to only two or three parties in parliament. Most of the times a single party forms the government, leading to a strong political and cultural polarisation which is reflected in the media. In countries with a proportional representation system (or a mixture of both systems as in Germany), there are always coalition governments which leads to compromise and nuance which is also reflected in the media.

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