Among the issues that beset climate coverage is the question of its impact. There’s no longer debate in news that climate change is real or that it is indeed damaging. But does the way it’s being reported in the news support or impede the action it demands? And how does it affect its female audience, who are most likely to be impacted by the climate crisis?
People feel deactivated and despondent when they think about climate change. This is a key barrier to engaging audiences when reporting on the issue, particularly in the global north. For instance, 14% of people in the U.K. and 15% in the U.S. mentioned feeling sad when asked about climate change in google surveys commissioned by AKAS between October 2021 and January 2022. A noticeably higher proportion, however — 29% in the U.K. and 19% in the U.S. — reported feeling sadness in response to the news coverage of climate change. It appears that news is overlaying additional negativity onto an already struggling audience.
I asked Ana [whose name has been changed to protect anonymity] — a British-East European dual national with an interest in climate change — about her perceptions of the news coverage. She no longer follows mainstream news, she told me. Overly negative, gloomy and clickbait-driven, it doesn’t engage her. She finds it particularly guilty of generating fear and desperation without offering enough solutions.
More recent research conducted by AKAS in February 2022 also highlighted a north-south divide in emotional reactions to the climate crisis. While audiences’ most frequently felt emotions in the U.K., U.S., Canada, and Australia were sadness followed by frustration, in Nigeria, South Africa, and India it was frustration, followed by fear.
The psychological cost of engaging with the climate news story is particularly high for women
In a series of online surveys commissioned by AKAS in February 2022, we asked adults about their emotions in response to climate change. Across the global north and south, women were consistently more likely to report sadness (22% of women vs 19% of men in Nigeria, South Africa and India, and 24% of women vs 22% of men in the U.K., U.S., Canada, and Australia). These findings align with the Reuters 2020 Digital News Report: although still a minority, in the global north, women and young adults ages 18-24 were more likely than men to view climate change as an “extremely serious problem.” By contrast, in global south countries, the majority of both men and women thought that the problem was extremely serious.
Linn Martinsen, a psychotherapeutic counselor and author, suggested that the reason for more women feeling sadness could be linked to feelings of powerlessness that many women experience. “I wonder if something familiar gets triggered when faced with the overpowering concept of climate change. It is too big, too all encompassing; we can’t fight, and we can’t run away, leaving us with the melancholy of seemingly inevitable loss,” she said.
Bipasha van der Zijde, a communications consultant at Words for Everything, argues that sadness encompasses anguish, despair, hopelessness and helplessness. “The last two I believe are the key. We are not prepared for this crisis that threatens to disrupt the world as we know it,” she said. In her view, women’s pre-eminent role in child-rearing and community building makes watching their futures being threatened disproportionately sad.
When I asked Filipino climate activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan, who frequently analyzes climate data, what she thinks about climate crisis news coverage, her response worried me. “I actually tend to not read climate news right away,” she reflected, thoughtfully. “I give myself time and space to look through it. I only look at it when I know I can handle it because it is something that overwhelms me really easily.”
I am left with a clear realization that news coverage of climate change is failing its female audiences because it generates powerful, often deactivating emotions; it fails to build links between the problem and audiences’ lives; and it fails to adequately reflect the perspectives of female protagonists or activists. Journalists and newsrooms tend to prioritize the macro aspects of the climate story at the expense of the micro angles. This results in reporting that is less focused on the impact of, and solutions to the climate crisis at a personal and community level.
Here are three ways for journalism to foster universal engagement with the climate story.
Rebalance the climate crisis problem with macro or micro stories of progress from across the global south and north
In the words of Ana: “What I would love to see is objective reporting, where solutions are offered and where there is also more exchange of facts of what different countries or even smaller communities are doing to help solve the problem of climate change. I would love to see a nurturing of positive stories, which show…that there are people who are doing everything they can to make a difference.”
Accept journalism’s duty of care towards its audiences
Leaving audiences despondent or acutely anxious with calamitous headlines while offering no solutions is not only morally questionable, but also harms efforts to engage audiences. News coverage should consider what emotions it evokes and seek to activate anger and frustration, while counteracting deactivating emotions of sadness, despair and anxiety. While sadness is an appropriate response to the consequences of climate change, as Martinsen suggests, “this sadness needs to shift into something new and different if we are to feel energized and mobilized to effect change.”
Build an evidence-inspired vision of the future that audiences can find hope in and act upon
I asked Tan what keeps her going, and what benefits outweigh the psychological costs of her campaign work. Her response has stuck with me: “Whenever I do my activism, I try to bring it from a place of love, a place that doesn't burn you out, from love for the people and love for living and life and joy. Not just being anti-something, but being pro-something — building that better world that we're trying to create.”
What if, instead of writing about the climate crisis solely from a place of fear and outrage, we also touched on the brave acts of hope and love that exemplify concern for our planet? Might that kind of journalism engage our audiences more?