Updated: Jan 14
Media is a necessity – that’s been long established. The Fourth Estate, institutions that have the indirect power to influence public affairs, is the primary actor in this modern age of information that we are living in today. It has also long been deemed as problematic (Johnny Harris, an ex-Vox reporter and current YouTuber, has a fantastic video on why the news industry is particularly problematic).
Within the climate and environmental activism communities, media is also often the main method people have access to two things: other fellow activists, and to information surrounding the climate and biodiversity conversation. But the media – we’re talking about the entire spectrum, from long-form journalism to social media posts – have long been accused of being the enabler for organized collective action, as well as the prime facilitator of misinformation.
What are some of the problems the media faces within the context of the sustainable development community? What are some of the ways we can combat that?
PART I: Problems
I’d like to highlight two main problems of climate change discourse in the news:
1. The veneer of objectivity in a post-truth world:
Take a peek at any climate change reporting. Chances are you come across pieces that focus on carefully factual scientific knowledge. Though objectivity in media is a cause for reputation, at least for those who consider the ‘objective truth’ as a value, a dry piece that lacks rousing messages, vivid imagery, and chock-full of abstract concerns and quoted words (a reader could not look at the quoted term without thinking of sarcasm) is of no value.
Okay, so your readers know that “Within the next two decades, temperatures are likely to increase by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, breaching the ambition of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and bringing widespread devastation and extreme weather,” courtesy of our friends over at The Guardian. Now what?
For a reader perusing through headlines instead of making the split decision to delve into the environmental section, they are more likely to read what is in front of them, and the media decides what exactly that is.
Little things, from the placement of the article on the home page to the title itself, can determine who reads it and how they access it. A regular reader during their morning transit has only, say, 15 minutes to get their news, so they’ll choose different articles to read depending on whether the article is in the headlines, has a title that interest them, and/or has riveting pictures.
Simply put, the media outlet determines what is worthy of our attention, and what is not.
They can even choose what information they’d like to present, to put forward a cohesive narrative. Whose statements will they quote? Do they focus on scientific facts or stories from the local community? Any opinions from politicians? All these choices perpetuate a certain narrative. This is not limited to traditional print and digital journalism: whose Twitter feeds do you look at? What Instagram influencers do you follow? Each person has a narrative, and their narrative will show in their writing, for better or worse.
Do a little meta-reading: analyze the examples I’ve put into this piece. What is my narrative? What is my goal? How do my sources and examples put forward the points I’m trying to show you?
PART II: What can we do to combat these problems?
1. Social media. Beautiful, beautiful social media:
Some people call social media the work of the Devil (shoutout to my particularly opinionated friend). Others laud it for its quick spread of information. I stand somewhere in the middle – social media, like all other technologies, is a tool. Yes, it’s a tool that spreads misinformation, creates addictiveness, and exacerbates hate, but no other technology enables literally any individual to reach tens of millions of people with the click of a button (and with the help of our good friend SEO, of course).
I could write an entire article examining the pros and cons of social media. The point is, I’ve had enough of all these negative news that do nothing but undermine the effort of grassroot activism. Social media is there at our beck and call. Want more positive news? Make some! That’s the case with many grassroots organizations. It’s perfectly possible to have alternatives to 'proper’ media outlets, with its red tape and profit incentives, by creating one’s own content.
So rather than mindlessly scrolling through Instagram for memes and TikTok content (an activity we are all susceptible to) take some time to look for Instagram users that provide factual, credible, positive information regarding sustainable development (@the50percentglobal is a great place to start, by the way).
2. Critical thinking:
Articles are created by human beings, which naturally means they will have their own fallacies. Even the most reputable papers have their biases, which will reflect on their work. This may come as an obvious action to take, but always cross-reference what you read. Did another outlet write about this event/subject? Probably. Never depend on one single news outlet for your news – this only leads to an echo chamber; blind faith into a single entity that, more often than not, does not have your best interests at heart.
3. Listen to scientists, not politicians:
At its core, climate change is a science. It can be easy to listen to politicians, especially if they’re so prominent, and have their opinions held oh-so highly by the media. Politicians on social media are there to spread information to the public, but let’s remember they’re only secondary resources – and ones aiming to win the next election, let's not forget.
Listen to your high school teachers: always go for primary sources. Established Instagram accounts that are science-based are quick alternatives to media sources. NASA (@nasaclimatechange), the UN (@unclimatechange) and the IPCC (@ipcc) are particularly established accounts to begin with – on a side note, Hank Green is my favourite scientist in terms of being able to spread scientific knowledge to a non-science-based audience. He recently made a video on fixing climate change the other day! I am not saying you can’t listen to AOC all you want, but again: always check your sources.
I’m not here to discredit reputable media outlets and sources. I’m here, however, to shed light on the current methods we have that enable us to come to our own conclusions about issues we become knowledgeable about. Media has many benefits: it spreads information about the world, from all sorts of perspectives. Journalists often risk their health, and sometimes even their lives, to report on sensitive issues they believe should be known and discussed in a free world. The fourth estate yields incredible social influence, and has historically created a sense of accountability for the ruling class.
But like its creators, it has its flaws. Rather than decisively dismissing fruits of the labour of a long-established institution as “fake news”, consider the ways it has changed, is changing, and will change, and if possible, be a part of that change – both as a reader and a creator.
Picture by Ludovica Dri