The Mainstream Media’s Climate Fail This Election—And What We Can Do About It
With the presidential race finally over, how can the climate movement reclaim the spotlight it deserves?
There will a lot of lessons for climate justice activists coming out of this election. But no matter what happens on November 8, there’s one thing that we know for sure: we need to do something about the mainstream media’s climate silence.
This election went by without a single climate question in any of the Presidential debates. It didn’t get better further down the ticket: a study by Media Matters looked at the 55 key presidential, senate and governors’ debates and found that only 12 of them featured a climate question. In six of those 12 debates, the question wasn’t asked by the moderator, but by a concerned citizen.
"What gives? Why does the network news continue to ignore the climate issue?"
The climate silence extended beyond the debates. During the Louisiana flooding this August, the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy, nightly newscasts ignored the climate change connection. The same held true for most other climate related disasters. Hurricane Matthew became a lone exception, but only because Hillary Clinton decided to hold a rally with Al Gore in Florida shortly after the hurricane.
What made the silence all the more deafening was the fact that climate change actually played a notable role in this year’s election. As Rebecca Leber notes in a brilliant essay in Grist, "this really is a climate change election." Climate proved a key dividing line between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the primaries, with Clinton forced to adopt much more progressive stances. She went on to highlight climate again later in the race as she struggled to turn out millennial voters.
There were also plenty of reasons outside of the election for news anchors to ask the candidates about the issue. Since this election started all the way back in early 2015, we’ve seen the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Paris Climate Talks, and more climate disasters than I care to count. Celebrities have even gotten in on the mix, with a new season of the Years of Living Dangerously, Leonardo DiCaprio’s new movie Before the Flood, and Shailene Woodley’s arrests fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
So what gives? Why does the network news continue to ignore the climate issue? On the one hand, climate change is made for TV: you’ve got one of the news' favorite topics—extreme weather; political intrigue; a clear villain in the fossil fuel industry; and celebrities who are looking to make a difference. On the other, you’ve got science. From talking with producers at most TV networks (ok, mostly calling them up and urging them to do more to cover fights like the Dakota Access Pipeline), I’ve gotten a clearer sense that most of them are just intimidated by the issue. Climate segments are well outside their comfort zone. Combine that with the inevitable vitriol from a digital army of climate denying trolls and it’s just easier for the networks to stick with keeping up with the Kardashians.
"Alternative and progressive press outlets have produced excellent content this year not only on the climate crisis, but the growing climate justice movement."
It doesn’t have to be that way. One of my favorite organizations, Climate Nexus, is working to educate newscasters about climate science, as well as help scientists distill their messages for more of a layperson, TV-watching audience. There also signs of hope in the digital and print media. Alternative and progressive press outlets like Common Dreams, The Nation, Grist, Huffington Post and Democracy Now!, which straddles the digital/TV/radio universe, have all produced excellent content this year not only on the climate crisis, but the growing climate justice movement. Newer operations like Vox and Vice News are cranking out thoughtful, in-depth commentaries.
And, to their credit, "old school" print outlets have largely dropped the false-equivalency of he-said-she-said coverage and done some great in depth reporting. As the Washington Post's digital editor James Downie recently wrote, the post-factual nature of this campaign may actually drive journalists to treat "falsehoods as falsehoods" and call out climate denial more clearly in the future. One can hope.
We can also act. Climate justice activists have vastly improved our communications work in two key ways over the past few years. First, is our ability to tell our own stories. The amazing coverage on social media of the Dakota Access Pipeline is the perfect example. Through Facebook Live, photographs, tweets, and activist journalism, Indigenous leaders and their supporters did the seemingly impossible: turn a far-off pipeline fight in the hills of North Dakota into a front-page (and newscast topping) story in the midst of an election year.
Second, is our ability to structure campaigns in ways that engage the mainstream media. Instead of being trapped in one-off days of action or esoteric policy debates, climate justice advocates have increasingly found ways to thrust our campaigns and questions into the center of the political discourse. By treating campaigns as ongoing stories (like the fight against Keystone XL), lifting up clear villains (like ExxonMobil), engaging in rich debates (like over fossil fuel divestment), and tapping into larger cultural narratives (like the mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples in the United States), our work has begun to resonate with wider and wider audiences.
TV remains a challenge, the final area of the media landscape that I would like to see the climate justice movement break into in 2017. Educational efforts like those run by Climate Nexus will help. But I think in the end it will come down to us organizers and activists. With the presidential race finally over, how can we reclaim the spotlight? Who are the frontline leaders and voices who can capture the public’s imagination? How can our campaigns have the same cliff-hanging intrigue of our favorite shows on HBO? How can we keep showing that climate change isn’t some far off threat but a clear and present danger?
Exploring these questions and more is what makes this work so fascinating. We’ve got a long way to go until we see a Presidential Debate entirely devoted to the climate crisis, but we’re making progress. See you in the news.
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