Last night, Prad and I attended a fascinating presentation on the theme of ‘A Scoop in Time: Global Warming and the Press‘. Organized by E2, the event gathered a panel of environmental journalist luminaries, including Felicity Barringer from the New York Times, Chip Giller from Grist, and Peter Waldman, a recent export from the Wall Street Journal and now at Portfolio magazine. This was a timely talk given some of the discussions I have been participating in lately on DotEarth, the New York Times‘ environmental blog led by Andrew Revkin.
My main take away from the discussion were the difficulties facing journalists trying to report on the topic. The first point made by Felicity Barringer was the lack of immediacy of global warming. As Chip Giller put it, the thing oozes over time. Since the press thrives on news, this in itself makes it very hard to break global warming stories. There is also a lack of personal relevance. On the list of priorities in people’s mind, global warming comes way behind the economy, health care and immigration. This makes it hard for environmental writers to compete with writers from other desks, when the editor needs to decide which stories are going to make it in. Peter Waldman brought up the systemic nature of the problem, and the lack of easily identifiable perpetrator, as another source of relative low newsworthiness. All three of these hurdles are inherent to the topic of global warming.
The panelists confirmed some of the earlier research I discussed earlier in this blog, particularly Daniel Gilbert‘s theory, that stresses the need for the threat to have a human face, and be present and immediate, in order for it to trigger a human response. There is also Michael Oppenheimer‘s research on the need to make global warming as personally relevant as possible. According to Chip Giller, part of the reason Grist has been so successful has been their strategy of engaging their readers around friendly topics such as fashion, recycling, or practical green tips. All panelists agreed that the environmentalist movement has failed at rallying the public, largely because of its inability to meet people’s mindsets.
To this, I would like to add Maslow‘s hierarchy of needs. If I am worried about the recession and engulfed by a fear of losing my job, and of having no health care, I am going to naturally gravitate towards stories that address those immediate concerns, not news about ice melting in the Arctic, and possible flooding five, ten years from now. I am going to look for clues in the news that can answer my present needs for personal safety.
Last, Peter Waldman talked at length about the unrepairable damage from extensive misinformation campaigns over the last ten years. That the media are just now starting to come around to agree on the reality of climate change, cannot undo the negative effect misinformation has had on the public conscience and consequently, environmental U.S. policy.