April 27th, 2018

Bad news: why journalists get the environment wrong

7 minute read

by Mike Brown

 

Listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this year, I heard an interviewer premise a question by saying that coffee cups weren’t really disposable because they couldn’t be recycled. Read that again – it makes no sense however you look at it. While it betrays a pretty weak grasp of what “disposable” means, in itself it’s a fairly harmless blunder – but it led to me to reflect on how often media outlets, even those you might regard as ‘quality media’, get things wrong on environment issues, and the impact that this has.

If the media cannot get to grips with environmental concerns, it is a serious problem. The way that plastic pollution has suddenly risen up the government’s agenda is a reminder that when an issue reaches the popular consciousness, public opinion can be a potent force. Conversely, if people aren’t being properly informed about environmental problems, progress may be held back.

If media coverage of environmental issues is – with honourable exceptions – so often bad, why does this happen and how can we make it better?

 

Public interests

There seems to be wide-spread opinion that the reason environmental debate gets demoted around election time – or, dare I say, referendum time – is because the public isn’t interested. Personally, I just don’t buy that. For one thing, we British are obsessed with the weather, so getting traction on climate-related issues ought not to be difficult. In fact, YouGov polling shows a remarkably consistent ~10% of the public say the environment is one of the three most important issues to them. That may seem like a small proportion, but it ranks far higher than tax, transport or pensions, at a generally similar level to crime and welfare benefits, and just a little behind education. Few would argue that these are issues the public is not concerned about.

No – I am starting to think that the reason the environment doesn’t get more attention is because many of those who report on it simply don’t get it. Why does it matter? Because even if failure to clearly communicate the issues is not down to a deliberate spreading of confusion or due to advancing an anti-environmental agenda; the end result is much the same.

 

Same old story

It’s not just the environment that gets a rough deal. As a waste expert I’m most likely to prickle at sloppy reporting when it affects my own sector, but experts in other fields clearly experience the same frustration. We can see economists rankled by otherwise reputable journalists making wrongheaded assertions about economic forecasting, lawyers despairing at the quality of legal reporting, and there has been immense frustration among trade and legal experts about the nonsense written on Brexit and the failure of the media to challenge politicians who keep suggesting the impossible.

The problem is that areas of expertise, which require time and effort to appreciate the nuances of their arguments, do not easily translate to the pace and structure of popular media. In an age of sound bites and click-bait, stories become condensed and simplified, with the most easily identifiable components emphasised in a kind of caricature of the truth.

And new information tends to get forced into existing models of understanding, even when the information will be bent out of shape in the process. Take, for example, when the Independent reported in December 2016 that Sweden had become so good at recycling, with less than 1% of waste sent to landfill, that it was importing waste to recycle. Except that in reality it wasn’t; its recycling rate is similar to the UK’s. But it uses waste to power district heating systems, and the demand for heat now outstrips the available waste. As a result, it now needs to import waste to burn for energy – and may need to import more if it is to improve its recycling rate.

 

 

The failure to distinguish between two fundamentally different types of treatment can be traced to decades of thinking in simplistic terms of landfill bad, recycling good. My colleague Hattie Parke has written before on Isonomia about how decades of anti-landfilling messaging from environmentalists has led the media to describe any waste that isn’t recycled as “landfilled”. The Independent’s confusion is the other side of that coin: if it’s not landfilling, it must be recycling! Either way, incineration simply didn’t feature, despite being a widely used technology across Europe – something one might expect an environmental correspondent would find hard to miss.

Fundamental narratives like this emerge slowly in the public consciousness, and get repeated by the media because they make for an easy way to frame a story that can be easily – if wrongly – understood.

 

Fringe benefits

Another issue – especially for the BBC – is that ‘objectivity’ seems to have given way to ‘balance’. Rather than trying to help the audience weigh the evidence and work out what is likely to be true, they strive to present both sides of a story, giving two opposing viewpoints.

That might be a reasonable way to approach some areas of political debate, but is far less effective as an approach to subjects where an expert consensus stands alongside a fringe opinion. So, although 97% of the scientific community are in consensus that anthropogenic global warming is a reality, ‘balance’ dictates that the sceptical views of someone like Lord Lawson are given equal prominence.

The result is the appearance of a “debate” when to all intents and purposes, there isn’t one. If a range of voices are to be heard, and the public not misled, journalists need to undertake the hard job of making sure they’re sufficiently on top of the subject to highlight when their guests are mistaken or misleading – without becoming hectoring. It would also help if they were more willing to signal which views are central and well-evidenced, and which are fringe and cranky.

 

News tricks

While journalists could certainly do more to properly research stories and challenge fringe opinion, environmental and other experts also have a part to play in getting informed opinion out to the general public. The fringe contingent may appeal in part because they provide ‘better’, more attention-grabbing quotes and spark lively debate.  Against fake news, shock tactics and dumbing-down from fringe groups, experts need to learn how to play the media game better.

It can be difficult to condense the complexities of the environment, economics, the law or any area of expertise into attention grabbing media content. The challenge is to provide content that retains accuracy and detail whilst being interesting and accessible. However, there are a number of ways that experts can change their approach to better get their message across. Some of these are:

  • Making the most of their status as an expert. Generally, experts are well trusted, so they should feel comfortable about speaking with confidence and authority.
  • Speaking to people’s day-to-day experience and using examples they can understand. If climate change can be related to local issues and practical actions – things they themselves can do – rather than more abstract and hard to influence ideas such as global temperatures, it can make the issue more compelling.
  • Framing arguments and information in a narrative. Stories will connect with people more than abstract data, and will be easier for them to remember.
  • Focussing on what is known. Uncertainty is a part of climate science and economics, but to aid communication experts should lead with the areas on which there is strong agreement.
  • Using visual methods of communication, like infographics, to present information in a clear and engaging way. Many people learn better visually than verbally.

 

The good news is that, as the huge surge in reporting on plastic marine pollution over the past couple of years has proven, it is possible for experts to create media and public interest in environmental issues through sustained and powerful messaging. To build on this, environmental experts need both to take shoddy journalism to task, and to ask how we can change how we communicate to help provide the public with accurate, properly balanced information.

 

Mike Brown

 

 

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