What was the most important angle in the news coverage of Superstorm Sandy?
Was it – should it have been – the storm’s impact on the US presidential elections a week later?
Was it the number of human deaths – the usual measure of newsworthiness – or the personal stories of New Yorkers caught by the winds or the floods?
Or was it – should it have been – a much more profound message about the dramatic changes now underway in the Earth’s capacity for sustaining our present civilisation?
Businessweek got it right with its stark front page “It’s the Climate, Stupid”.
But most journalism about Sandy stayed with the old news clichés of individual human dramas. Within days, let’s be honest, the story was very quickly forgotten as attention switched to the Obama-Romney battle for the American presidency.
Thirty or fifty, maybe as little as five years from now, looking back at events like Superstorm Sandy, what will our children, and our grand- and great-grandchildren, be saying about how the world’s media covered climate change and sustainability in the first decade-and-a-bit of the 21st century?
I suspect they will not be very generous.
They will be mystified how the journalism of today essentially missed the biggest news story planet earth has ever seen.
They will see a journalistic culture stuck with business models and reporting conventions that are no longer – let’s face it – fit for purpose. They will judge harshly a journalism that failed to report in a coherent way the gathering collapse of the environmental systems that support life – including human life – on our planet.
The media are not uniquely guilty of that wilful blindness. There has been an even more catastrophic failure of political leadership across the globe.
However, it’s no good journalists blaming someone else. My case here is that the media, in their widest definition as the mirror in which humans see reality beyond their immediate perception, now have the greatest responsibility, and opportunity, to change.
Even a cursory glance at the science and the evidence – this is not an article about that evidence – makes clear that things are much, much worse than we are mostly led to believe.
Sandy isn’t just the future of climate change and collapse. That future is already here, and will there ever be a bigger news story than that?
The parallel has been made before. If we were to imagine climate change and the impact of human abuse of the planet’s ecosystems as a meteor heading for the earth, destined to strike, say, 30 years from now, what would future generations make of the news agenda on one random but typical pre-Sandy day in the autumn of 2012?
Leading British news for most of September 28th, for example, was the abduction of a little girl in Wales. Not far behind, we learned that TV news channels in the US had spent the day following a police car chase which ended with a man shooting himself dead, live on Fox News .
Gripping and dramatic news stories, yes, but of the meteor, minimal mention.
As the last, brief, item at the end of the BBC Radio 4’s 8am news bulletin? Australia’s Great Barrier Reef loses more than half its coral cover in the past 27 years because of storms, aggressive starfish, and, in this order, bleaching linked to climate change.
Oh yes, and also buried down later bulletins that day, as a news aside, a study predicting minimum average sea level rise of more than a metre by the end of this century, significantly more than previously assumed (and very possibly less than we will actually have to deal with).
From the perspective of our children, and of what constitutes news that we as inhabitants of this planet actually need to know for our future survival, which of those items was more important? The answer ought to be obvious.
I’ll come to the psychology in a moment, but as Sandy has reminded us, it’s much less threatening and dangerous, and much more comfortable and familiar (to name just some examples):
- for journalists to continue to cast news in the old, anthropocentric mould of what’s urgent, new, visceral, immediate – usually driven by how many humans were hurt or died in the process;
- for journalism to report individual climate-related events (superstorm Sandy, Arctic ice-cap melt, record US drought, weather extremes everywhere) as unique, stand-alone events rather than in their alarming context;
- for politicians to continue to urge growth and more consumption (the paradigm that got us into this mess in the first place) as the solution to the present economic crisis, and for journalists to accept that without question;
- to talk of the future – how cities might look, how healthcare might develop, what will happen with mobile computing – as if it will just be a continuation of the safely affluent present;
- for planners around the planet to build mega-cities and their power stations, nuclear and conventional, close to estuaries and coasts, and well within the range of likely sea level rise, and for stories about development to ignore that threat;
- for weather forecasters to continue to cast hot, dry, sunny days as good weather regardless of what we actually need;
- and, in short, for all of us to stick with a Business-As-Usual way of life, work and pleasure which we all know is unsustainable – and which, in the manner of all things unsustainable, will ultimately not be sustained.
The problem is that, as animals, we humans remain as fundamentally motivated today as we were 200,000 years ago on the plains of Africa by evolution’s imperative to survive.
That’s why we love fatty, sugary and salty foods, and why McDonalds and the like can make so much money out of our urgent greed for these things.
That’s also why our genes programme us to pay immediate attention to violence that could compromise our safety.
Rubbernecking past an accident on the motorway, we’re drawn to news of bad things happening – and as long as they’re happening to someone else, we keep coming back for more.
That’s why, in journalism, if it bleeds it leads. As consumers move from one sugar rush to the next, one could call it McNews.
Unfortunately, this kind of news is now about as good for the survival of homo sapiens as a species as a diet of junk food is to personal longevity.
But how might that be changed? How do we interest our affluent Western audiences, or indeed aspiring Chinese, Indian or African news consumers, in what at the moment seems like a tasteless, sugar- and fat-free diet of what’s still cast as a Not-Here-But-There, a Not-Now-If-Ever problem most likely to affect others rather than us.
There are those who argue, especially after the critical disappointment of the Copenhagen climate summit, that frightening people with too many grim facts – or putting the climate change link right at the heart of Sandy storm coverage – will push public and political opinion further into denial and disengagement.
I think that’s dangerous and wrong.
It’s true that as human beings we don’t like being told, or acting upon, uncomfortable truths that disturb us in our daily lives.
There are myriad illustrations throughout history, from our attitudes to drinking and smoking, through the way we assess the relative risks of driving (dangerous) and flying (largely safe), to the tragedy of Jews in Berlin or Vienna in 1939 or 1940 who couldn’t believe the Nazis would be as brutal as they turned out to be, staying put rather than seeking safety in emigration.
We don’t like stories about climate change, and we don’t like to feel helpless. We want to understand Sandy as a one-off event that happened to someone else, and is now safely over and the damage being repaired.
That’s why, since Copenhagen, climate change as a story in its own right has dropped almost entirely out American news and political discourse, and only marginally less completely from European news agendas.
It’s human nature to close our eyes to danger. If we had no mechanisms to filter our awareness of threat, we wouldn’t dare step outside our front doors in the morning.
As a species, homo sapiens operates on a collective level much as an individual does. As any doctor or psychotherapist knows when trying to stop a patient smoking, drinking, taking drugs or overdosing on junk food, deep down people don’t change because they choose to, but only when they have to.
We change when we (or our relationships) break down, when we get seriously sick, have an accident – when we hit the wall, when in short we are shifted from left-brain intellectual observation to a feeling knowledge in our gut and emotional right brain that our immediate survival, or that of our children, is under threat.
We can’t help it. That’s the way we’re built.
So before anyone anywhere on the planet will do anything truly serious about the drivers of climate change, and permit the upheaval that we’ll have to make in how the world organises its affairs, we don’t just need the information and the facts.
Humankind’s collective amygdala – the brain’s control centre for the fight/flight/freeze response – also has to fire in the face of what’s finally understood as existential threat.
It’s not that journalists (or politicians) should set out explicitly to frighten people.
But – and this is my central point here – with necessarily truthful reporting, we and they must stop being afraid of frightening people.
Stepping nervously around the urgency of the planetary crisis will only delay the moment when humanity’s collective emotional alarms do go off.
When that happens, with the death (both, in time, human and, already on a massive scale, other-than-human), misery and urgent migration that will accompany it, think of the headlines (and the judgment of our generation’s children).
“THEY KNEW. THEY DID NOTHING. AND THEY DIDN’T TELL US.”.
As a journalist looking for news pegs on the day, it’s hard to find fresh things to say about slow-burn climate change.
And it’s more than challenging to cope with the well-organised and funded vitriol that comes when you try.
Journalists can’t be condemned for stepping only very warily into such a snake pit.
But, to say it again, what’s so dispiriting about the media’s reluctance to face the challenge is that climate change and sustainability are, even in old news terms, an extraordinary story and a riveting narrative.
I know this what I’m about to say might seem a contradiction. But however desperate the emergency, I’m not in fact arguing for advocacy journalism that sets out explicitly to change behaviour.
I would be as critical of that kind of reporting as I have been of what’s termed Peace Journalism which positions the furtherance of peace as its core purpose.
The issue here, with both peace and our environmental future, is the simple one of good versus bad journalism.
With their reporting of the Jimmy Savile affair, ITV and the BBC – eventually – didn’t set out explicitly to change attitudes towards sexual abuse. But precisely such a change can be the consequence of fearless and honest reporting, and of good journalism.
Of course, if you look for it and are prepared to read it, there is much noble reporting of climate change, especially in the more serious newspapers and in the blogosphere.
But in the longer run, I believe it will be seen as having been both irresponsible and cowardly, in mainstream news, to have positioned such reporting for so long in the down-bulletin ghetto of ITV-News-at-Ten-style And Finally curiosities, and to have failed to connect the narrative dots of sustainability collapse as the world already changes palpably around us.
It’s time for those in the media business, whether reporters, editors, managers or owners, to take courage and show editorial and commercial leadership.
It’s going at first to be very uncomfortable, and extremely unpopular.
But where politicians don’t yet dare, journalism must embrace the story of climate and sustainability emergency – nasty scenarios included – as the single most important theme connecting and overarching everything it reports.
Not just on the environment or science sections, but on every page, every day, in every bulletin, in every programme.
Yes, we owe it to our children.
But above all, this is one hellova news story.
And we’re missing it.