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‘Isn’t Journalism about Finding New Stories?’: The Climate News the Media Ignores

Rachel Donald talks to scientists and activists who are turning to protest because of the gate-keepers in the media who refuse to cover their research

Photo: U. J. Alexander/Alamy

‘Isn’t Journalism about Finding New Stories?’ The Climate News the Media Ignores

Rachel Donald talks to scientists and activists who are turning to protest because of the gate-keepers in the media who refuse to cover their research

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Last week, four thousand people gathered at the European Parliament for the inaugural Beyond Growth conference, a three-day event on Pathways towards Sustainable Prosperity in the EU. The speakers revealed the planetary, economic, political and social limitations of economic growth, painting a grim and accurate picture of how an outdated idea has the world by the throat, before offering alternatives which place planetary and human health at the centre of economic thinking. 

Days before the event, 400 experts signed a letter calling for European leaders to implement a well-being economy, saying a post-growth Europe is “critical” to survival as endless economic growth in high-income nations negates effective environmental policies.

Green growth proponents (those think the problem isn’t how much we consume, but what we consume, and advocate substituting fossil fuels for renewable energy) rubbish this, claiming that we can “decouple” emissions from GDP and thus continue to see growth increase while emissions fall.

Unfortunately, there is no empirical evidence for this, no matter what The Economist would have you believe. Tim Parrique, the degrowth movement’s master debunker, has proven repeatedly that nations which claim to have decoupled are merely discounting the emissions of all the goods and services they import—their slash in emissions is due to relying on India and China to do their dirty work for them.

In short, growth is killing us. 

It’s quite the headline. Yet, the only journalism dedicated to the Beyond Growth conference in the mainstream press was scientifically illiterate anti-”Lefty” panic-mongering masquerading as analysis. A few days after the conference, Julia Steinberger, a lauded degrowth scholar, tweeted that journalists had been present but “their editors refuse to print any story critical of economic growth”. 

This is a common story among researchers covering the climate crisis and systems change. Their work may be peer-reviewed but the world doesn’t want to know—or, rather, the media doesn’t, and thus the world never gets to. Why?

It could be that concepts like degrowth are anathema in a status quo dedicated to capitalism, that raising the question of how many human lives we can sustain on the planet is too frightening (and a direct attack on individual liberty, capitalism’s favourite strawman), that highlighting the finite planet vs infinite appetite doesn’t appeal to the ravenous, self-styled masters of the universe.

Nandita Bajaj, Executive Director of the organisation Population Balance, struggles to get their research linking population and environmental degradation into the media: “It is difficult to compete for air time in a landscape so dominated by well-funded neoliberal institutions,” she explained, saying the organisations produce op-eds, letters and press releases to counter “pro-growth propaganda”, which editors refuse to publish. 

Recently, Population Balance responded to two “alarmist and slanderous pieces” on population written by people with links to the Breakthrough Institute – a group that is committed to cornucopianism, opposed to non-technological solutions to the climate crisis, and advocates for continued use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. “We laid out the scientific basis for our concern about population with respect to climate change, as well as the biodiversity crisis, land use, and worsening human well-being across the globe especially for women and other marginalised people. But our piece has yet to be accepted by The Atlantic or any other outlet that has peddled population denial.”

Extinction Rebellion Faces the Ugly Side of the Press

Steinberger and her colleagues studied this gate-keeping in relation to climate change research and found that the media showcases a narrow facet of climate change knowledge, limited to natural science and health, and outright discard the social, economic, technological, and local aspects of climate change research. This means column inches are being given to the symptoms of the climate crisis but not the cause and, therefore, not the solutions.

This may explain why scientists are now choosing to protest. After working on the frontline of the climate crisis in the Arctic for years, Aaron Thierry realised telling the truth simply wasn’t enough and began researching communication strategies of activist movements. He is now on the frontline of the UK’s Scientist Rebellion. Across the pond, NASA scientist Peter Kalmus was arrested last month for locking himself onto an entrance to the JP Morgan Chase building in downtown LA. In a letter written for the Guardian, he explained: “climate scientists are desperate”.

The actions of these scientists and civilians should force the media to turn a critical eye on its own failures. If the media really does what it claims to—hold power to account—then hegemonic ideology would be just as ripe a candidate for investigation, and climate change research which warns the world has to change to avoid collapse would be welcome news. Instead, acute observers read between headlines that the world will collapse before it changes.

A counter-argument to the failings of media is that they merely publish what their readers want to read, that they are beholden to their consumers, and thus if the population changed then media would, too.

This simply isn’t true. Academics studying the gate-keeping phenomenon show that journalists themselves select the stories, and thus shape public discourse, according to a group of news values. These values include proximity, immediacy, timeliness, conflict etc. There is no value which promotes the dissemination of complex topics around non-immediate threats (like challenging our economic system’s role in worsening—but not yet apocalyptic—climate change). Journalists, then, don’t select stories according to what they think their readers want, but rather what they believe news to be. After all, as the old adage goes, if everyone is a journalist then nobody is.

I’ve encountered this problem as a freelance journalist. As I write this piece, a major international outlet rejects my exclusive story about a new research paper claiming ecological overshoot is driven by maladaptive human behaviour. A few months ago, I couldn’t place a story about the dangers of decarbonising without decolonising. I couldn’t even find a home for a report on Chile’s draft constitution last year which was heralded in eco-policy circles as the most phenomenal piece of climate legislation ever drafted. The left-wing international media was silent, preferring to comment only after the vote. The constitution failed to pass—but not before the international right-wing press ran a smear campaign against Chile’s audacity to reimagine the purpose of its economy. 

‘It’s Not the Economy, Stupid. It’s the Press’

Closer to home, activists fight a losing battle to keep misinformation out of the press. Ali Rowe, a member of Doctors for Extinction Rebellion, was elated after the producer of a popular daytime chat show contacted her to organise an educational piece about how the climate crisis is impacting young people’s health. He went on to platform a climate denier on the same show. “When I confronted him, he said he hadn’t broken any rules according to Ofcom. But I told him that, as a producer, he’s responsible for what young people listen to. He, along with the entire profession, is responsible for how their mental health is shaped.”

She explained how dangerous it is to have non-experts setting the agenda for public discourse: “These journalists aren’t fighting to save the planet but they’re the ones cherry-picking what information the public gets. The problem is most of them haven’t grasped the gravity of the situation. They just want stories that fit their worldview, and we’re not given space to explain that their worldview is out of date because they’re arbiters of truth.”

The irony of the situation isn’t lost on Rowe: “Isn’t journalism about finding new stories? Come on, guys!”

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