Analysis by Ronald Joshua
ROME (IDN) - A new report funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has taken up cudgels on behalf of some 60 million people around the world, who are facing severe hunger because of El Niño and millions more because of climate change.
Just days before world leaders gather at the United Nations in New York to sign the concluding document of the twenty-first session of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP21), held in December 2015 in Paris, the report reveals that coverage on climate change has significantly fell off the radar of major media outlets across Europe and the United States.
IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze finds it “incredible” that in a year when we have had record temperatures, 32 major droughts, and historic crop losses that media are not positioning climate change on their front pages. “Climate change is the biggest threat facing our world today and how the media shape the narrative remains vitally important in pre-empting future crises,” he adds.
The report titled ‘The Untold Story: Climate change sinks below the headlines’ provides an analysis of the depth of media reporting around climate change in two distinct periods: two months before COP21 and two months after COP21. Specifically, the report explores whether issues connecting climate change, food security, agriculture and migration made headlines, and if so, how much prominence these stories were given.
The report asks what expert voices were heard throughout the stories and whether farmers or migrants themselves had a voice. And finally, the report looks at what newsreaders understand about food and climate-related migration and their impression of media coverage provided.
“The research shows how the average news-consuming public want to hear constructive stories that highlight solutions to climate change, yet this is exactly what is missing from major news outlets,” said Sam Dubberley, a former journalist and Director of Kishnish Media Ltd, and the author of the report.
Building on initial research that was conducted on media in France and the United Kingdom in September 2015, the report is augmented by focus group surveys that look at what newsreaders understand about food and climate-related migration and their impression of media coverage provided.
The research findings are drawn from an analysis of the content of news stories across influential and popular media outlets: TF1 and France 2 in France, RAI and LA7 in Italy, BBC and Channel 4 in the United Kingdom and CBS and NBC in the United States, as well as the front pages of print editions of Le Monde and Libération in France, Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica in Italy, The Guardian and Daily Mail in the United Kingdom and the New York Times and USA Today in the United States.
Among some of its key findings are:
- Climate change stories were either completely absent or their numbers decreased in major media outlets in Europe and the United States before and after COP21.
- Coverage on the consequences of climate change, such as migration, fell by half in the months after COP21 and people directly impacted by climate change rarely had a voice in stories or were not mentioned at all.
- News consumers want climate change issues and solutions to be given more prominence in media outlets and, in particular, want more information on the connections between climate change, food insecurity, conflict and migration.
A detailed analysis reveals that the number of stories on climate change covered by the British and French media that were monitored in this report fell from five to two between the September 2015 and February 2016 periods.
There were no stories published on climate change by the U.K. market in either coding period. The only French stories appeared on France 2’s evening bulletin in February 2016. In September 2015, stories appeared on France 2 and TF1.
In the two-week February 2016 coding period, two months after the COP21 meeting, eight stories about the challenge of climate change appeared either in main television news bulletins or on the front pages of the newspapers coded.
The majority of these stories appeared in U.S. media (five), the French media published two stories and the Italian media one. No stories on climate change appeared on the front pages or main news bulletins of the British media covered by this research.
News outlets reporting on agriculture and challenges to agriculture saw this as a predominantly domestic issue. In September 2015, three stories were covered by the French media concerning agriculture – but all of these were domestic. In February 2016, there was a stark increase in reporting about agriculture, but this was due, in the main, to French domestic stories (U.K. and U.S. news outlets also published domestic stories on agriculture).
The report also finds that European news outlets are explaining why migration is happening less frequently than in 2015. In the stories on migration coded in September 2015, news organizations explained why migration (for reasons linked to the conflict in Syria, conflict in general or economic reasons) was happening in 66 per cent of stories. By February 2016, this had fallen to 33 per cent.
Reporting on climate change, migration and agriculture tend to link their reporting to institutions rather than reporting on the impact on individuals, says the repor. In all countries covered by this research and in both coding periods, there were more stories which focused on the response of institutions to climate change, agriculture and migration than focused on the response of individuals.
News consumers in the focus groups did not believe that major media helped them understand climate change and, in particular, that a connection exists between climate change and issues such as agricultural failure, food insecurity, conflict and migration from developing countries.
While there are a rich variety of climate stories reported in diverse, specialist media, such stories are few and far between on the front pages or main television news bulletins analysed. When asked, news consumers say they do not know where else to go to find them.
In both periods covered by this research the numbers of climate change stories are very low. There were 5 stories in period one – only in television bulletins. In period two, there was a wider spread of news outlets that did cover climate change, but this was still only 8 stories over 14 days.
However, these stories did not report on agriculture-related impacts such as on small-scale farmers in developing countries – one of the biggest demographics hit by climate change. The audience noted this, saying: “The broadsheets, you can get the articles there [on climate change] that go in depth – providing you can find them. They certainly won’t be front page.”
Editorial decisions made by news organizations and editors have a direct impact on audience views and beliefs about climate change. News consumers tend to repeat the mainstream news agenda when asked to produce their own news stories on climate change.
For example, when asked to play the ‘news game’, a research tool that asks participants to recreate news stories as if they were journalists, focus group participants picked stories that repeated the editorial decisions of the news bulletins they referenced.
When asked why, one participant noted that: “I was thinking about what the media puts out, not what I thought was important to have in the news bulletin,” stating that, “it reflects back what we’ve seen previously, and then when you’re in the driving seat to do it, you do that.” When pushed on failing to include stories about agriculture, migration and climate change in their own news bulletins, people noted that “It isn’t a top news story.”
News consumers believe climate change-related impacts need to be taken more seriously by news organizations and given higher prominence. Although climate change coverage may have appeared in other newspaper sections, during the reporting period not one of the newspapers reviewed featured the issue on its front page.
Throughout the focus group interviews, there was a near-universal demand that news organizations give climate-related issues higher prominence and offer solution-driven reporting which, they believed, is not available currently. They perceived reporting on climate change to be either over-dramatic or boring and not focused on helping the public contribute to solutions to problems.
This was emphasized in one conversation in focus group 7 in France: (Julie) “Reporting on climate change is frequently exaggerated, it panics people, instead of helping find solutions, even small solutions, which could change the daily behaviour of each of us.” (Serge) “It’s preferable to start with small solutions than starting by criticizing huge catastrophes. We can’t do anything about huge catastrophes.”
Those on the front lines directly impacted by climate change rarely have a voice or are mentioned in stories. In September 2015, not one news bulletins reporting on climate change focused on individuals impacted by climate change. Instead, reporting concentrated on institutions, interviewing academics and climate change specialists.
In February 2016, of the eight stories on climate change, only three focused on individuals impacted by climate change. Focus group participants argued that news organizations need to make the stories and the impact of climate change more about people and individuals, and not about institutions.
This was emphasized by Roger from focus group 1 (U.K.): “I think [news organizations] should have a position. I think there are a huge number of people out there who couldn’t care less if there are polar bears or not. They are much more worried about if there’s going to be a bit of food on the plate. I think the media should be more high-profile about climate change and a bit more honest about what’s going on. I think an awful lot of it is not being talked about.”
This is the second IFAD funded report. In 2014, a research report looked at how 19 large global and regional news organizations covered issues related to migration and, in particular, food security and agriculture and how it impacted on migration.
It focused on two stories that made headlines over the summer of 2014 – the US/Mexico border crisis and the ongoing conflict in South Sudan, which created a large numbers of migrants. That report also found that the depth of coverage on the topics was lacking, and in particular that the voices of migrants were often left out of the stories. . [IDN-InDepthNews – 8 April 2016]
IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate.
Photo: Newly planted wind breaks prevent wind erosion of dunes in Badoulerey, near Niamey, Niger. ©IFAD/David Rose