Why is it so difficult for the press to cover climate change?
Newspaper editors and ad agency execs need to raise their game or make way for people who understand need for radical change, warns Raymond Snoddy
The report from the Royal Meteorological Society for the International Journal of Climatology was written in measured language, as you would expect, but the implications were stark.
The effect of climate change were already being felt across the UK with all of the top-10 warmest years, from records that go back to 1884, occurring since 2002.
The last 30-year period has been 0.9C warmer than the preceding 30 years and between 1991 and 2020 the UK has on average been 6% wetter.
Perhaps the most alarming observation of all – maybe suggesting an accelerating trend- was that 2020 was the first year on record that the annual values for rainfall, temperature and sunshine were all in the top ten in the same year. Last year was the third warmest, the fifth wettest and the eighth sunniest on record for the UK.
Professor Liz Bentley, chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society warned that the UK faced heat-waves of 40C, a temperature never reached in the UK before on a regular basis if there was further global warming of only 0.3C.
Mike Kendon, a climate scientist and lead author of the report warned that man-made global warming would last for a “very, very long time” and he was worried about the future of his children. The analysis could hardly be more important, given that it comes against a background of flooding in London, catastrophically so in Germany, and forest fires of unprecedented severity everywhere from California and Russia to Turkey and Australia.
What was the reaction of the media to such a significant report? Were there special supplements on the implications, for government, businesses and individual citizens or at the very least front-page status for such a story and extensive coverage on inside pages?
The Times managed a relatively short piece across three columns at the bottom of page 9 while the Daily Mail, splashed on its characteristic "Britain’s Back in Business" scenario. It finally got to the climate story in the bottom half of page 32 under the headline: “Get Ready to fry! UK summers to hit 40C within the decade.”
The paper did tell its readers that scientists fear the rate of global warming is spiralling out of control and that “climate change is happening and it’s happening now.”
The Sun managed not a word on the story preferring to splash with an “Exclusive TV Shock” that Simon Cowell had decided to axe The X Factor. There were a couple of paragraphs on home owners getting insurance discounts if they installed anti-flooding equipment.
Not even The Guardian put the story on its front page, although it was properly covered inside.
The Daily Telegraph had a climate change related story on its front although it majored on Government plans to prevent building on flood risk lands because of the likelihood of increased flooding.
Broadcasters did better with BBC’s Newsnight and Channel 4 News providing extensive coverage.
Is it all too scary for readers?
David Yelland, former editor of The Sun, was one of those to express surprise at the relative lack of coverage in a number of newspapers.
Yelland said if he had still been editor of The Sun he would probably have devoted five pages to the climate change story.
But then, in almost immediate second thoughts, he summed up very well the editor’s dilemma when faced with such stories.
“Mind you if it was still me there I would be aware it scares people and does not sell. Easy for me to criticise now…” he admitted.
The former Sun editor was right on both counts. The coverage of such a climate change story was in many cases inadequate, if not actually disgraceful, and pages devoted to the increasingly alarming effects of climate change may indeed be off-putting to many readers.
It is unfortunately easy to see how such a story might have fallen down some news lists. The Royal Meteorological Society produces an analysis every year and this time – despite more than usually trenchant facts and comments- it had to compete for attention not just with a pandemic but the Olympics.
It is also genuinely difficult for media institutions used to reacting to events in hours or sometimes minutes to cope with longer drawn out processes “hiding” in the clear light of day.
Time for changes
It is unclear whether the famous story about the boiling frog used by Irish management specialist Charles Handy is true or apocryphal. It is still a very relevant metaphor for our times.
As the water in which a frog is sitting is gradually heated the frog allegedly adjusts its body temperature and makes no attempt to escape - until at 100 C it is boiled alive.
What is certainly clear is that overall the media has found it difficult to cover climate change in a sustained, systematic and coherent way whether their customers want to know or not.
That will have to change at the very least before the Met Office’s next annual report, which could well be even gloomier than the current one.
Organisations throughout the communications industries, and indeed policy makers, will have to lead by example, in moving themselves and their corporate activities in the direction of carbon neutrality.
The Government’s climate spokeswoman Allegra Stratton saying she plans to keep her aging diesel car in the run-up to the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow simply will not do.
Newspaper editors and those who run advertising agencies, for example, will have to educate themselves in the science of climate change, or make way for younger people who have a better understanding of the need for radical change.
At least for once the Daily Express is now setting a good example. The Express editor Gary Jones has turned the paper from a home for climate deniers into one campaigning on green issues.
Jones promised earlier this year that the Daily Express “will be highlighting the issues affecting us all and future generations in the run up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this November and beyond.”
It is an approach that should be more widely adopted throughout the media.
After all, no-one wants to end up as a boiled frog.