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COP-out: Why are so many media outlets failing to tell the climate story?

December 4 2017

Adam Corner

For the third year in a row, our analysis has shown that tired, cliched and uninspiring images dominate coverage of the annual climate conference.

We invite decision makers in the media to accept our Climate Visuals challenge: will you work with us to catalyse a more diverse visual language for climate change?

It is often said that climate change is a ‘difficult story’ for the media to tell - too slow-moving for the fast-paced world of journalism to dedicate regular coverage to (beyond specialist publications and some exceptions that prove the rule within more mainstream circles).

There are occasional peaks in coverage, which tend to reflect key moments in the climate calendar: the release of a scientific report, or the annual UN Conference of Parties (COPs).

But if the volume of coverage increases in response to these events, the quality of the coverage is questionable from the perspective of engaging the public on this crucial societal issue.

One recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change found that German media reporting on COP21 in Paris, 2015 (where a historic agreement between all the world’s countries was signed) had slightly decreased the level of concern among readers, with the authors blaming a lack of context provided in the coverage.

In essence, the reports had described the COP, but failed to explain why it mattered. Readers were left with the impression that the problem was being taken care of by politicians, and had little relevance to their lives.

Our own research at Climate Visuals suggests that a big part of the problem is the imagery used to illustrate the stories.

We analysed the dominant images in media reporting of the Paris meeting in 2015, and found that there were really only two types of images, illustrated below: negotiators in suits (inside the conference centre) and protesters in polar bear suits (generally outside the conference centre).

There was a complete absence of relatable, human images, that would situate climate change as an issue relevant to readers’ lives.

Screenshot of New York Times article

Screenshot of a New York Times article.

Screenshot of Washington Post article

Screenshot of a Washington Post article.

In fact, we looked at the images in media coverage of the following two COPs (in Marrakech, and most recently in Bonn), and saw no signs of progress.

Reporting of the UN conferences tends to focus myopically on the proceedings of the meetings, rather than the plethora of related issues that provide the essential context for the meetings. And the images follow suit: politicians or protesters are the only visual representatives of climate change at this crucial moment when ‘the world is watching’.

Why does this matter?

The Climate Visuals project (led by Climate Outreach) aims to catalyse a new visual language for climate change. The international social research behind it shows that people are turned off by staged photos of protesters, and uninterested in posing politicians.

Yet these are typically the only choices presented by a raft of high profile media outlets covering the COPs - including the BBC, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The first responsibility of a journalist (or photo editor) is to provide fair, accurate, and unbiased coverage. It follows that reporting on the UN climate events would involve a certain number of images depicting the work going on inside, and the civil society pressure around it.

But the COPs are annual events dedicated to solving an ongoing global problem - so in what way is using images of this ongoing global problem (rather than people in polar bear costumes or anonymous negotiators in suits) problematic?

This year has witnessed some of the most high profile extreme weather events in recent memory, with alternating catastrophes bludgeoning the US Atlantic coast and the Caribbean Islands.

This, sadly, is what climate change looks like. But you wouldn’t know it from the media coverage of one of the few times of the year that climate change inches onto the global media agenda.

There is no inherent reason why global media coverage should cement the meaning of climate change in the public mind as something that is remote, technocratic and irrelevant to their lives.

And the failure to tell a powerful visual story matters.

Every climate image that is chosen in a hurry, every cliche that is reinforced, every opportunity that is missed to connect climate change with the lives of ordinary people across the world makes the narrow meaning of climate change harder to undo, harder to diversify, harder to imagine.

So it’s time that leading media organisations did better on climate imagery, doing justice to the richness, diversity and urgency of the issue by telling compelling human stories (rather than reinforcing the same old cliches, once a year).

Some outlets are embracing this - Carbon Brief is one example - but too many major players are stuck in the past on climate images.

We invite decision makers in the media to accept our Climate Visuals challenge: will you use your influence on this vitally important issue, and work with us to catalyse a more diverse visual language for climate change?