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.

Dr. Laura Akers, who works at Oregon Research Institute, has spent years studying what motivates social change movements. She studies both the positive motivations behind activism and the dangerous edges of movements that pose risks to the public.

Recently, Akers wrote about how evoking hope can help us avert disasters like global warming. As she emphasized in several blog posts:

If we want people to act consistently with their beliefs about the world, we’ll be more effective if we stop talking about what we might lose. Instead, let’s make a point to stress all that we have to gain.

Whenever lifestyle choices are involved, we need to make it possible that “building” and “creating” and “growing” – positively framed activities – can be the ones that will address the problem. People want to build, create, and grow. We can build a more energy-efficient economy. We can create better technologies… In other words, let’s talk about global warming as a creative challenge, not a looming crisis.

Research posted on the Climate Access website shows talking about climate change in terms of public health can accomplish this goal.

A webinar Climate Access hosted on Jan. 22 underscored Akers’ recommendations.

“I always encourage people to communicate [about climate change] in combination with solutions – mitigation – what we can do on the front end – and adaptation,” said Dr. Suzanne Moser, one of the presenters.

Moser is working with a team of hundreds of experts to create the United States’ National Climate Assessment. The team is following best practices in communicating its results, which she says can be overwhelming for audiences otherwise.


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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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