Due to human activities such as greenhouse gas emissions, our planet is rapidly warming. This is already causing devastating consequences for all living beings.
An increasing corpus of scientific articles dealing with climate change and its impacts have recently been published. Parts of it are covered by a variety of popular media outlets.
But how does media select and relay research related to these issues to larger audiences?
To answer this question, a team of geoscientists and psychologists led by the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland has recently examined how a collection of over 50,000 scientific articles about climate change from 2020 made its way into the mainstream media.
The analysis revealed that most of the research selected by the media was biased to the natural sciences. They were focused mainly on large-scale climate projections that will occur in the future. They also focused on a narrow range of threats, such as droughts, storms, or melting glaciers, while discarding the social, economic, technological, and local aspects of climate change research.
According to the experts, these types of narratives often fail to activate psychological mechanisms that might give rise to pro-environmental behaviors in their readers and may thus potentially backfire, leading to denial and avoidance.
“The individuals exposed to these facts, not feeling directly concerned by them, will tend towards a peripheral, superficial, and distracted treatment of the information,” said senior author Fabrizio Butera, a professor of Psychology at UNIL. “Only a central, deep, and attentive consideration will allow the public to transform what they know into mechanisms of action and commitment.”
“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,” added lead author Marie-Elodie Perga, an associate professor of Earth Surface Dynamics at the same university.
Although large-scale threats such as those typically covered by mainstream media can create fear and potentially lead to behavioral changes in individuals and groups, such changes can only occur if the problems presented are also accompanied by solutions.
By contrast, faced with purely descriptive articles emphasizing highly selected elements of climate change, readers may tend to ignore the problem, search for less anxiety-provoking information, and surround themselves with networks presenting more reassuring scenarios.
According to Perga, in order to communicate in a more effective way that could encourage society to engage more widely in climate action, “the treatment of environmental issues in a transversal and solution-oriented way would be useful. It would show that climate change has direct consequences on our lifestyles, our immediate environment or our finances, for example.”
Such an approach requires fundamental changes in the behavior of communication managers in research institutions, publishers, and media. “For the time being, the most renowned scientific publications favor end-of-century studies,” Perga explained.
”Journalists then give very wide coverage to the publications of these journals, which are the most highly rated. Instead, in France, for example, a group of journalists has drawn up a charter advocating the adaptation of media coverage of these issues, and calling for more cross-disciplinarity.”
“With news usefulness defined as the ability to engage society in climate actions – through the publication and mediatization of more solution-oriented, interdisciplinary outputs that take into account the public’s resistance to change – both researchers and news professionals may move from being the whistleblowers of the problem to being part of the solution,” the authors concluded.
The study is published in the journal Global Environmental Change.