Why the Press Finds Climate Boring

Viewing journalism as entertainment means that only entertaining ideas are viewed as salient. Cliamte change is boring. CLimate catastrophes overseas are enervating. DOmestic climate catastrophes are interesting, but still rare enough and equivocal enough to make connecting the dots problematic.

Consider this from reporter Kevin Drum:

This is the problem with substance: it doesn’t change. Once you’ve outlined both campaigns’ positions on something, there’s not a lot new you can say about it. So you either repeat yourself (boring!) or report on campaign nonsense (non-substantive!). If there were dozens of issues to report about, that would solve the problem, but the plain fact is that most campaigns are won and lost based on three or four major positions. And if those are the things the campaigns are focused on, then those are the things you need to report on. Right now, for example, there are loads of important foreign policy issues we should be talking about: Afghanistan, Syria, the euro, Israel’s apparent desire to bomb Iran, and much more. But like it or not, those just aren’t center stage. You can write a long summary piece about all this stuff, but that’s about it. When you’re done, you’re done. If the campaigns choose not to address these things, there’s nothing new to report about.

It’s easy to say that the media is letting itself be bulldozed by the tyranny of the new. And they are. But the truth is that most of us will turn the channel if we see a star reporter delivering yet another half-hour special on the future of Medicare. And the blogosphere, which is obsessed with Outrage of the Day posting, isn’t much better. So the fault, dear readers, may lie partly in our stars, but mostly in ourselves. If we really, truly voted with our remotes for substance, we’d get it.

If you have a relatively complex message, which we do, we have to consistently and endlessly repeat the key parts of it until they sink in. But that makes us boring.

If we say, hey, “this heat wave sure looks like the sort of thing we were warning about” the whole matter goes away. If we say “this drought is a climate change related disaster” we are overstating what we can literally say by just a tiny bit. And we are up against Schneider’s quandary.

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

The whole problem as I see it is that the news is obsessed with what is new. People are half asleep. The press is half asleep. Making interesting things interesting requires a little concentration. So we graze aimlessly on the exciting and never encounter anything interesting or challenging at all.

Is a little tiny bit overstatement or oversimplification such a bad thing under the circumstances? If it is, obviously you could fool the press offices of just about any institution or organization that publishes anything on the subject. Or pretty much any other subject nowadays.

Schneider tried very hard to back away from being tied to sensationalism for this thoughtful and frank rumination. (See p. 5 here) Of course, people who don’t fight fair don;t recognize irony and wouldn’t let him.
The Planet3.0 solution to the Schneider quandary is to strive for slow news, so we’ll also try very hard to get things right, if not in the articles, in the follow-up conversation. We think reality is interesting enough if you give it a chance. But we’re not the mass press, at least not yet. Look for a lot more oversimplification until the mass media finally stop being the mass intermediaries too.


  1. "News" is ipso facto supposed to be "new." Op-eds and editorial opinions are free to repeat themselves as often as need be, but daily news isn't.

    Journalists are not supposed to play the role of seat belt reminder lights; we're supposed to note the messages they present and integrate newly reported information into our thinking.

    On the other hand, if the entire -subject- of climate change and its knock-on effects comes to be seen as yesterday's news, we miss such rare things as the entire surface of Greenland being in a state of melt.

  2. The media are the media. They traditionally produce comics and crossword puzzles and classified ads and sports standings. This discussion of "who is a reporter" or "what is news" is a discussion of habits and customs, not a real matter of substance.

    Things that gradually became true that were not true ten years ago are every bit as important as things that are true as of yesterday. Or more so.

    The issues that government faces are every bit as important as whatever posturing politicians did yesterday. Or more so.

    Whose job is it to talk about those things?

  3. For my part what I like to see is a paper with a vigorous and attentive reporting staff, backed up by intelligent editorial direction and assistance, with a clearly delineated editorial opinion page with an op-ed author roster able to provide long-wavelength attention to the hustle and bustle of daily pages.

    Give me a report of Greenland's surface melt, another on this year's disastrous ice record in the Arctic, another on how Australia is propping up its economy via coal exports to Asia. Then, on the op-ed page, put it together, and continue stitching that fabric as more news develops.

    I wish. 🙂

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