“We need to get better at pushing big climate stories into the headlines; we are just not as good at it as we should be.” – Andrew Harding
Andrew Harding has been living in South Africa for over 10 years. He is currently the BBC African foreign correspondent. He has spent the majority of his career working and living abroad as a foreign correspondent for the past 30 years.
Climate change presents a “global challenge” as most of its impact is already being felt in countries that have least contributed to the global Green House Gases (GHG) emissions. According to the World Health Organization estimate, between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress. So, why isn’t climate change the biggest news story in the world?
The media plays a central role in communicating to the public about what is happening all over the globe, specifically in cases where the audiences do not possess direct knowledge or experience of what is happening around them.
According to the BBC African correspondent Andrew Harding, climate change is a problem facing countries all around the globe, but media coverage on this topic is still poorly covered by newsrooms all over the world.
“The BBC has a unique ability to help accelerate climate action through advocacy and education; they have a responsibility to inform people about climate change. Therefore, they have a role to transmit information that shapes how people understand climate change as well as the actions they are willing to take to address the climate crisis,” Andrew said.
Mass media coverage has proven to be a key contributor – among several factors – that has shaped and affected science and policy discourse as well as public understanding and action. Mass media representational practices have broadly affected translations between science and policy and have shaped perceptions of various environmental issues.
A new Afrobarometer survey, conducted across 34 African countries between late 2016 and late 2019, found that most Africans have been found to have “limited knowledge” about the link between human activity and the effects of climate change. On average, the survey found only 28% of respondents to be climate change literate, with South Africa and Nigeria ranked among the worst ten nations.
According to Andrew, the BBC’s biggest audience is rural across the continent. Rural communities are already living the reality of climate change, which makes it essential for them to be kept informed about it. Communities in climate-sensitive regions face several vulnerabilities making climate change communication at grassroots level extremely necessary. Unfortunately, communication in rural areas is restricted due to the lack of infrastructure and development in rural areas.
Television has more space if you have an appetite for stories. It is increasingly where audiences are moving towards, but the biggest audiences for the BBC are still on the radio, shortwave FM rural listeners across the continent.
“I think it is very easy to forget that those audiences are hugely important and central to the BBC’s role and are often overlooked when it comes to analysis of what the BBC is reporting. It’s not all about the internet even though most of it is,” he further added.
Radio sets can easily be operated on dry cell batteries and do not dependent on grid electricity for charging. The easily understandable simpler technologies and lower investment costs make radio one of the most accessible communication mediums to reach out to grass-root communities.
“There’s a systemic threat currently facing local journalism around the world. It is particularly problematic in the parts of rural Africa. I was talking about the radio and its importance, the role that it plays in terms of access to information to local communities. Local newspapers also play the same role as local radio stations; Climate news need to be in front lines on these local media outlets,” he said.
He further added that it is evident that support needs to be given to grassroots community, local, district, regional, and national journalism because, once you go above and beyond that, there are so many competing sources of information on the internet. There is so much noise out there. But there is still a huge struggle for people to find what they need.
“Civil society groups are doing work that needs to be highlighted by journalists because it is individual action that can snowball and shift behavior. And those behavioral changes could well prove to be crucial. There is need for civil society to play a role in holding their governments to account, holding power to account and holding them to account in climate policies,” Andrew said.
When we look at television and radio, one of the logistical struggles is the shared space. You have a 30- minute news bulletin, and the issues of the day tend to dominate, particularly in our world of COVID. There is normally a limited space for what you might call themed reporting, even though those themed reports are in many ways far more urgent and important than other stories because of the nature of them being themed and not having an even necessity to run on a particular day, not being absolutely defined by the sort of daily news agenda.
“This means they can often be pushed around or pushed off the airways; they don’t always get the prominence they deserve. Although I don’t think that’s completely fair,” he said.
“The biggest problem with climate reporting is fighting for shared space, with other important stories, some of them by-products of the climate emergency, others simply the daily news agenda. We need to get better at pushing these big stories about climate change into the headlines. We are not as good at it as we should be, but it is also about finding the balance between the daily onslaughts of other stories and picking your moments,” Andrew added.
“It is up to journalists to support all these voices calling for social justice. They need to invoke these conversations even in political spheres because politicians in South Africa never talk about climate change. There is often lip service given to climate change in political manifesto, but it’s never a priority,” he explained.
Media research has also demonstrated that a significant amount of news can be traced to the public relations activity of powerful corporate and state actors. In some cases, the news media’s over-reliance on corporate opinion has given undue prominence to organisations with a vested interest in playing down news about climate change. An article about how fossil fuels are driving increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide looks editorially problematic. Alongside, an article explaining the connection between global meat consumption and climate breakdown sits awkwardly and contradictory.
“The commercial nature of most mass media organisations means that they are reliant on advertising revenue to survive. They’re obviously being weakened by the lack of advertising by the dominant role of Google and other organizations that Hoover up advertising revenue and, help to weaken local journalism,” he added.
“The BBC needs to come up with a radical approach to keep viewers properly informed about climate change more especially in rural Africa,” Andrew said.
When it comes to African audiences’ climate reporting is often focused on good news or at least solution-based news or news that cuts against different traditional stereotypes. The most recent study into news values suggests that “bad news” and “magnitude” are two key elements in stories that become news. Researchers Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka set up an experiment run at McGill University in Canada. They were dissatisfied with previous research on how people relate to the news. Participants often chose stories with a negative tone – corruption, setbacks, hypocrisy, and so on – rather than neutral or positive stories. People who were more interested in current affairs and politics were particularly likely to choose the bad news. And yet, when asked, these people said they preferred good news. On average, they said that the media was too focused on negative stories.
The extinction of much of the life on earth certainly meets both of these criteria. But when it comes to climate breakdown, these important news values can clash with the values of what the same study describes as the “newspaper agenda” and “the power elite.” This means that power structures within the mass media prevent climate change from being covered as a topic of great importance.
According to Andrew, the BBC is trying to focus on tapping into positive climate reporting. Audiences are more likely to engage with stories on the climate that are not doom explaining pieces but pieces that can explain how society, grassroots organisations, and governments are finding their own solutions to address the climate crisis.
The role of the media is critical in influencing public concern; climate change remains the toughest, most intractable political issue we have ever faced. The media plays a critical role in educating, heightening, and institutionalizing democracy. Citizens need to be informed as nations take on new responsibilities in a globalized world.
Media also plays an important role in building an informed and resilient society. Citizens need credible information from the media that can skillfully moderate the debate and provoke meaningful conversations that can lead to transforming Africa. The media decides what the public should know and how and when it should know it and is an essential element of the global response to climate change. Giant media houses like the BBC have a crucial responsibility to create awareness about the threatening causes and impacts of climate change. Global media houses like BBC have the responsibility to create awareness about the causes and impacts of climate change.
“Given a scale of the calamity, we’re facing. I think one of the keys things to do is to make sure that we are giving space in newspapers for climate reporting. We need to insist forcibly and urgently that our editors run climate stories. This is something every newsroom in the world is, is battling with, and is aware of,” Andrew expressed.
Contributor: Orthalia Kunene
Orthalia Kunene is a mother, activist, feminist, and writer based in Soweto.
Her journey started as an activist fighting for service delivery issues in Soweto, with an Organisation called Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee/Operation Khanyisa Movement. Her writing gave her strength to not shy away from the truth; it gave her strength to hold local government accountable and to advocate for access to information and transparency through addressing socio-economic issues, inequalities around gender-based violence, and climate change.
She is currently volunteering for an Organisation called keep left; as a working group member, keep left is a revolutionary socialist organisation that believes in workers’ control of society and the means of production. She is also a volunteer at an Organization called Extinction Rebellion, a climate change Organisation that seeks to fight the climate crisis. Her main focus is on Climate change issues, gender inequality, and addressing issues of capitalism and how it feeds on inequality – particularly in South Africa.