Former National Public Radio reporter and long-time climate reporter Elizabeth Arnold has some practical suggestions for her major outlet journalism peers still tilling for climate change stories: Offer audiences more hope and not just more of the impacts-focused coverage that she says often leaves people “with a sense of hopelessness” and despair.
Now living in Anchorage, Alaska, and studying and writing regularly on the changing climate, Arnold recently pointed to studies by University of Colorado media researcher Max Boykoff and others cautioning that an overdose of “fear and gloom” coverage leads to public disengagement on the issue.
“We journalists consistently fail to tell the hope story,” Arnold said in a recent public talk in Washington, D.C. She said reporters too often present those adversely affected by climate change as “falling into an inescapable hole.” She pointed to a dearth of mainstream media coverage of “solutions”-based approaches being taken by many public and private, individual and collective, interests around the world. She referred to some academic researchers’ findings of a “hope gap” when people get so over-exposed to adverse effects on people, species, and ecosystems that they in effect disengage, throw in the towel.
Arnold is keenly aware that some in the media consider such “solutions-based” reporting to be akin to “journalism-light,” not the kind of coverage that frequently wins page-one or prime-time coverage and even less often wins top editors’ kudos or recognition in major journalism awards programs. But she cut no slack for reporting she characterized as being myopically focused on hard science and select “experts” as sources, without adequate regard to persons/victims “on the street” and, for instance, to indigenous populations. Climate change victims need not be characterized solely as victims of “impending doom,” Arnold said. Many also can fairly be seen as legitimate emergency responders seeking ways for their communities and families to become more resilient.
Keep reporting solely that the prospects are “really bad, really, really bad” and the outcome for many will be what she said some academics characterize as “apocalypse fatigue.” Avoid dwelling solely on the conventional “superlatives” of each year’s being the hottest, driest, stormiest yet, she said; instead, also offer tools “to act” to manage attendant risks.
Arnold pointed to Earth Day founder Denis Hayes, now president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, as someone who once may have been seen as a doomsayer, but who now recognizes the need for hope to be part of the climate change story.
Along with recognizing the inevitable knee-jerk response some may have against the notion of “solutions journalism,” Arnold pointed to another constraint that must be overcome if climate-hope journalism is to become more common: The “news hole” available for climate change coverage generally in mainstream news outlets is small, and from that small slice of column inches or air time must be found more room for providing upbeat hope and persistence in the face of challenges she clearly recognizes to be substantial and of serious concern.
Arnold, now an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alaska and a fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, made her remarks in a live and online presentation sponsored by the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, ARCUS, in Washington, D.C. Her presentation – “The Face of Climate Change in the Arctic: The National Media’s Role in Public Disengagement” – is available to watch online.