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How the media is shaping climate action

The final IPCC report confirms the media’s role in how we perceive and address the climate crisis.

Global media coverage of climate change has been steadily increasing since the 1980s. In a study across 59 countries, researchers found that coverage had risen from 47,000 stories in 2016-17 to about 87,000 in 2020-21.

With this increasing reach and by effectively communicating the science, injustice, and hope behind climate change and solutions, the media can help further climate action. Many argue, however, that the climate crisis is still not sufficiently covered, leaving untapped potential when it comes to the media shaping the discourse around climate mitigation.

But this can go both ways. On occasion, according to the IPCC, the spread of misinformation by organised counter-movements has fuelled polarisation and had negative impacts on climate policy.

In other words, increasing media coverage does not necessarily lead to greater accuracy.

In the US, for example, accurate communication of climate science has been significantly undermined by counter-movements. In many countries, the rise of suspicions of ‘fake news’ and the resulting distrust in the media have continued to fuel the partisan divides on climate change, threatening ambitious climate policy.

Even with the increasing consensus among journalists on the basic science behind climate change, there remains a lot of room to make decisions on which considerations to emphasise and which to downplay.

Being such a complex and global issue that involves everything from science, economics, trade-offs and more gives journalists, parties, and interest groups the opportunity to frame the issue to serve their interests and beliefs, one study says.

This is done through a host of media platforms including traditional news media, social media, films, entertainment, and strategic communications campaigns.

According to an InfluenceMap report, in the days following the announcement of a $2 trillion climate plan in the US, there was a sharp jump in spending on Facebook ads in the US from fossil fuel groups.

‘The industry is using social media strategically and deploying its ads at key political moments,’ the report reads.

But social media has also proven to be a powerful tool for those advocating for real climate action as well.

 

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Leading a new wave of climate activism worldwide, youth activists have taken to the media platform to further awareness. Amassing hundreds of thousands to millions of followers across platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, they also work to better communicate the urgency, impact, and science of the climate crisis.

Recently, said activists have taken to Instagram reels to explain the main findings of the latest IPCC report, inadvertently highlighting the inaccessibility of much of the report’s language.

The news media, however, still plays a critical role in influencing much of the public who use it as their primary source of information on complex topics. As with other issues, scientific errors, alarmism, and providing a balanced perspective even though it may give weight to factually incorrect arguments can distort the reality and urgency of the situation.

But with an issue as pressing, global, and damaging to the environment and well-being of countless people as climate change is, the media carries the responsibility of treating it as such.

Doing so has the potential to help shift both public opinion and policy to one that favors effective climate action.

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