‘No action’: Study finds fault in media’s climate coverage

GENEVA (AFP) : The arctic ice is set to melt and disappear, polar bears will lose their habitat and sea levels will rise… All of these, while maybe true, may not be the most efficient way to cover climate change and research as a Swiss study showed that such media coverage is largely carried out to provoke inaction instead of the pro-environmental behaviors needed to address the problem.

Most media coverage of the climate crisis focuses on broad, long-term projections and a narrow range of threats like melting glaciers and disappearing polar bears, according to a group of researchers at the University of Lausanne (UNIL) specializing in geosciences and psychology.

“This type of narrative does not activate the mechanisms known from research on psychology that might engage pro-environmental behaviors in readers,” they said in a statement on Thursday as they presented the study.

“On the contrary, the media’s selective choice of certain elements of climate change research could backfire, provoking denial and avoidance.”

For the study, published in the Global Environmental Change scientific journal, the researchers analyzed a collection of around 50,000 scientific publications on climate change for the year 2020 and examined which ones made it into the mainstream media.

The analysis revealed the media tends to pick up research within the natural science field and overly focus on large-scale climate projections that will occur far in the future.

The researchers warn this approach could cause a “possible distancing reaction on the part of the public.”

Fabrizio Butera, a UNIL psychology professor and co-author of the study, cautioned that “individuals exposed to these facts, not feeling directly concerned by them, will tend toward a peripheral, superficial and distracted treatment of the information.”

Co-author Marie-Elodie Perga, a professor at the UNIL Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics, agreed.

“If the goal of mediating research is to have a societal impact, then it seems that we are pushing all the buttons that don’t work,” she said in the statement.

Large-scale threats are known to create fear, and faced with purely descriptive articles only highlighting selective elements of climate change, the public will tend to ignore the problem, the researchers said.

They could also seek out less worrying information, they added.

Butera stressed “research on human behavior shows that fear can lead to behavioral change” – but only “if the problem presented is accompanied by solutions.”

To inspire action, Perga suggested the media should treat environmental issues in a “solution-oriented way,” and strive to “show that climate change has direct consequences on our lifestyles, our immediate environment or our finances.”