Hot sheet: News coverage in a warming world

February 20, 2019

3-minute read

Hundreds of activists and organizers traveled to Ottawa last week to discuss the future of Canadian climate to counter climate change and climate injustice. Over four days, they converged to discuss advocacy strategies and the need to create a just and livable future. The event, PowerShift: Young and Rising, wrapped up on Monday, less than 24 hours before a different kind of group rolled into Ottawa for their own meeting on climate.

As anyone working in the downtown core of Ottawa knows, the United We Roll caravan arrived in town Tuesday morning to demonstrate their support for Canadian oil and gas extraction to the Hill. Mid-morning, their trucks began to jam up the streets in front of Parliament.

These two groups are diametrically opposed when it comes to their vision of Canada’s climate future: the former are advocates of bold action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and achieve lasting social and environmental justice, while the latter is campaigning for a backslide into Canada’s historical role as a fossil fuel producer and consumer.

But there are other differences separating them—one more troubling than others. While both groups convened similar numbers of people, nearly a thousand news stories had already been published about the caravan before it even reached Ottawa. PowerShift, on the other hand, went almost completely unnoticed by the mainstream media.

Ignoring progressive activism isn’t unusual for Canadian journalism, but it illustrates a pervasive problem facing Canadian efforts to combat climate change. During the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings, my colleague Robert Neubauer and I found that voices opposing the project  were often positioned as fringe, uninformed, and emotional while pro-pipeline voices were positioned as earnest and rational. The intentions and funding of pipeline opponents were held up to scrutiny—this was the heyday of Joe Oliver’s infamous “foreign funded radicals” claim—while oil and gas advocates were mostly given a free pass despite clear ties to the oil industry.

Given that we only have twelve years left to address the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, it seems unthinkable that the mainstream media would devote so much coverage—and lend so much credibility—to a group demanding the indefinite, state-supported expansion of the tar sands. Yet that is exactly what we have witnessed this week.

The critical role of media in climate action

A critical driver of Canada achieving a carbon neutral future is media reform. As Robert Hackett wrote for the Monitor, the way the mainstream Canadian news media currently writes about climate issues is a major barrier to climate action. The majority of coverage creates a “hope hole” for readers, which “may be helping to breed apathy, cynicism and pessimism.” Across the country, mainstream news outlets report on climate issues as mired in controversy, stunted by a lack of political leadership, and impossible to navigate. Every time our news outlets discuss and dismiss  resistance to climate action, they reinforce a status quo that brings us closer to environmental and economic ruin.

Years ago, media scholar Robert McChesney quipped that “whatever your first issue of concern, media [reform] had better be your second, because without change in the media, progress in your primary area is far less likely.” As I stood in front of Parliament yesterday, watching camera crews film caravan participants, this quote rang in my ears. For Canada to get serious about climate action—which it has so dramatically and repeatedly failed to do thus far—the media must play a pivotal role.

So what would climate justice look like applied to our news media landscape? Hackett identifies key actions that our news media ought to undertake to correct its coverage:

  • reporting that offers “reflexive and critical monitoring of climate policies and impacts”
  • greater attention to how climate change is already impacting vulnerable populations worldwide
  • creating content that assesses linkages between policies like trade agreements and Canada’s climate targets
  • and, perhaps most importantly, coverage that “posits climate crisis as an ethical question, not just another political controversy.”
Accountability is one of the central tenets identified in the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Ethics Guidelines. It is well past time for Canada’s news organizations to consider what it means to be accountable for how they shape public discourses about climate change.

Canada’s news media aren’t to blame for the pro-oil caravan that clogged Wellington Street, but how journalists, producers and editors choose to report on it is entirely their responsibility. Their reporting on this and other issues of climate policy will shape our collective response to  the extraordinary challenges that await us. We can’t succeed without them.

Katie Raso is the Digital Communications Officer for the CCPA's National office. She is a former organizer with Media Democracy Days.

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