Like a will-o’-the-wisp, Earth Day captures media attention periodically before fading into the background again.

Media focus on environmental issues is somewhat like a will-'o-the-wisp.
Media focus on environmental issues is somewhat like a will-o’-the-wisp. (Source: Kikasz via Compfight cc)

Why does this happen? Thomas Hayden has some ideas about why media focus on environmental topics waxes and wanes. He mapped out the coverage of environmental topics in The New York Times and found a gradual upward trend over the decades, punctuated by wild fluctuations.

These fluctuations – the jagged peaks on his graph – happen to coincide with our collective moments of excitement about environmentalism, which I have renamed:

  • “hippies and whales”
  • “tropical rainforests”
  • “temperate rainforests”
  • “climate change science”
  • “climate change movie”
  • “climate change reality” 

Although journalists’ interest in environmental issues may be growing over time, it is based on short-term events and catastrophes.

Do other people forget about environmentalism as often as journalists do? It’s hard to say. But an article on fads and the environment suggests social trends need to build on deeper underlying values in society to succeed.

This is an important point. If you want to build a successful environmental trend or meme, you need to speak to what already matters to people – their existing cultures and priorities.

Should environmentalists try to catch people’s attention with a series of trends and hot topics? Maybe that is not enough.

Like dieting, environmental change has to be more than a fad to succeed. If environmentalists want to achieve long-term, successful social change, that will require making structural changes to our everyday lifestyles so positive choices will lead to rewards. These rewards do not all have to be financial; they can be social. They can even involve saving time or simplifying our lives. 

Maybe environmentalists need to augment those will-o’-the-wisps of media coverage with solid structural changes behind the scenes.

I’m starting to believe apocalyptic predictions are becoming a journalistic cliché. Just this last week, an anticlimactic end of the world generated a considerable amount of tourism in Central America. And this isn’t the first time people have expected the world to end recently. The Rapture was scheduled to occur last year. The year 2000 was also supposed to bring mass disruption to society.

Apocalyptic predictions are also becoming commonplace in environmental news, a genre I read and write regularly. Because I wrote a graduate thesis on media framing, I have strong opinions about the uselessness of this story line.

Thinking about apocalypses paralyzes audiences. It also creates fear and removes personal responsibility. The end of the world is, by definition, beyond our control. In contrast, global warming is a situation where we can limit the damage.

Here’s a simple analogy to describe global warming’s effect on how we think.

When I was in junior high, I went sledding with a friend. My sled went out of control and began sailing in a dangerous direction. Since I was a levelheaded pre-teenager, I realized I had three options:

  1. I could pretend nothing was wrong. This is the way most Americans I know respond to global warming today. They make very few lifestyle changes. Most of my friends and relatives are not passionate environmentalists. Inaction is a very common response to large-scale environmental problems.
  2. I could panic. This is the “deer in the headlights” response to global warming which I see very often among concerned environmentalists. Apocalyptic framing in the news feeds directly into this situation. Some people who panic become hyper-focused on self-preservation. Others freeze, do nothing, worry, and never take proactive actions. And some take practical actions that are rational, but do so with a huge burden of fear and guilt.
  3. I could choose to minimize the damage. That is what I did; I intentionally flipped the sled over before it went completely out of control. I was embarrassed, but I wasn’t injured. This attitude is the most practical way to respond to global warming today, I think. We need to recognize we’re going out of control, be realistic, take action, risk embarrassment, make mistakes, and salvage the situation as best we can.

Unfortunately, the news industry is not designed to lead audiences toward such a rational response to environmental disasters. Instead, we are given narratives that suggest we have already failed and that the end is near. This happens because:

  1. In the United States, there is a bias within journalism against recommending actions or solutions. There is also a bias against communicating the recommendations of advocacy organizations. I think that in a situation as dire as the one we face with global warming, it’s reasonable to call these judgments biases. There is nothing objective about failing to recommend action in the face of an emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend hurricane preparedness; why aren’t more reporters recommending reducing the impact of global warming?
  2. Negative news attracts more pageviews. In the old school lingo – “If it bleeds, it leads.” Stories with positive angles lack shock value. If pageviews are a cynical writer’s only goal, then yes, apocalyptic framing works until audiences burn out. Some audiences may already tune out environmental news because of its negativity.
  3. Some environmentalists deliberately frame these stories as apocalyptic to raise awareness or communicate urgency. Reporters then pick up on this culturally powerful framing and transmit it to readers. Based on the popularity of apocalypses today, it’s understandable that this framing is common. But it is also disempowering, discouraging and fear-generating.

What’s the solution? Well, I plan to be a good example for other writers and take the “end of the world” frame out of my media vocabulary. I want to leave readers empowered with common sense information, not paralyzed with anxiety about the future.

And from now on, any time that someone suggests to me that an apocalypse is coming, I will be deeply skeptical. I suggest you do the same.

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claimtoken-50a01a203f085What makes energy journalism worth reading? Critical thinking, synthesis of information and perspectives, and coverage of the real-world impacts of programs can differentiate quality energy writing from other energy news.

I curate and write energy news for the Clean Energy Finance Center. So I’ve sorted through thousands of RSS posts and many Google alerts, looking for content that contains quality analysis and newsworthy ideas.

After reading these articles, I began asking questions about how energy journalism can be improved. A recent article from Grist explores this question from an industry-wide perspective. In this post, I’m offering a counterpoint to the Grist article by taking a “nuts and bolts” approach and brainstorming about how writers can improve their work.

A blog post from SmartPlanet has critiqued the absence of critical thinking and data analysis in some energy journalism. In January, I wrote a follow-up post with suggestions about how writers can ask questions about their data and get better results.

Thinking about the sources and reliability of data is just the beginning of retooling energy journalism, though. To make energy writing jump off the screen and catch readers’ attention, writers should try synthesizing information in original ways and reaching outside the field for ideas from other sources.

The Energy Efficiency Markets Blog* stands out as a very strong example of information synthesis. The authors of this blog draw ideas from multiple sources rather than writing single-sourced articles. They also develop interesting and original angles for stories.

Synthesizing ideas from multiple sources is one way to add depth to news stories and to combine ideas from interviewees who may disagree with one another. This can make energy journalism both more useful and more engaging than it would be otherwise.

Drawing on ideas from multiple stakeholders can also introduce practical perspectives. Practical perspectives can strengthen news articles, connect ideas to everyday life, and add human interest. I would encourage energy writers to reach beyond their usual lists of sources. For example, an article on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act might benefit from quotes from workforce development professionals, people whose homes have been weatherized, and green jobs training program graduates.

Weatherization photo
Including quotes and photos of weatherization can be one way to tell the story of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (Source: Photobucket)
Energy efficiency and renewable energy decisions are not just theoretical mathematical exercises. Including the everyday stories of people who participate in these programs and/or benefit from them can add human interest to these stories and help a broader audience relate to them.

If you take the idea of synthesis to its logical conclusion, you’ll arrive at interdisciplinarity. One reason I combine communications ideas with writing about technical subjects is that I’m convinced these two fields can benefit from collaboration. Communicators can benefit from learning more about math and science, including how to cover it accurately. Engineering and science professionals can also benefit from learning communications skills.

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, in their book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, have recommended training science graduates in media skills and paying them to do outreach.

Some energy organizations encourage researchers to write articles already. Many of the best articles I see on energy efficiency and renewable energy are produced by researchers, not media professionals. If research organizations start investing more in outreach than they do today – a step which I believe is necessary in the face of climate change and widespread science illiteracy – some of these researchers may end up as communicators.

Some of the skills that improve research – synthesis, critical thinking and awareness of practical outcomes – are the same skills which can strengthen energy journalism. So I’d encourage energy writers to think like researchers. I’d also encourage energy researchers to learn media skills and write news articles.

* Disclaimer: I collaborate with one of the authors of the Energy Efficiency Markets Blog.

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