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.
“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.
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!