The Sunday Magazine

Treat climate change like the crisis it is, says journalism professor

More Canadians than ever are troubled by the state of our planet. But Sean Holman believes the news media have been slow to catch up.

Sean Holman gives the Canadian media a failing grade for their coverage of the climate crisis

A wildfire burns on Eutsuk Lake in North Tweedsmuir Park in northern B.C. (Pondosy Bay Wilderness Resort)

There have been growing calls from climate scientists and environmental activists for the media to cover the climate crisis with the severity and urgency they say it demands.

Some news organizations have begun to make changes. The British newspaper The Guardian recently updated its policies to replace the term "climate change" with "climate emergency, crisis or breakdown." It also now favours "global heating" over "global warming."

In announcing the change, The Guardian's editor-in-chief Katharine Viner said that at a time when scientists are talking about a catastrophe for humanity, there is no place for passive terminology.

The CBC recently updated its language guide in response to inquiries from its journalists. The guide now says, in part:

Climate crisis and climate emergency are OK in some cases as synonyms for "climate change." But they're not always the best choice... For example, "climate crisis" could carry a whiff of advocacy in certain political coverage. 

Sean Holman, a professor of journalism at Mount Royal University, recently issued an open call to Canadian journalists to start reporting on climate change as an emergency. He spoke to The Sunday Edition's guest host Gillian Findlay about that call. Here's part of their conversation.

What do you make of the decision by The Guardian to change the way it refers to climate in its coverage?

I think it's both logical and truthful. The world is experiencing climate change. That has been proven beyond any kind of reasonable scientific doubt.

It's about being accurate in terms of the scope of the problem that we are facing. And in the media we, generally speaking, don't have any hesitation about naming a crisis when it is a crisis. Look at the opioid epidemic, for example. We call it an epidemic because it is one. So why are we hesitant about saying the climate crisis is a crisis?

According to recent polls, Canadians are increasingly worried about climate change. But journalism professor Sean Holman says the media have been slow to catch up (Laura Balanko-Dickson)

I just read to you the CBC's position on this. The concern seems to be that the word "crisis" in particular carries a whiff of advocacy. What do you make of that? 

I don't agree with it. And I think part of the problem is that journalists are being torn by two competing values right now. The first is our job to tell the truth. We are, over and above anything else, society's professional truth-seekers and truth-tellers. But the second value that we think is important is appearing unbiased, because if we appear unbiased then people will believe that we are telling the truth. 

I think what's happened here is that large swaths of society, including entire political parties and governments as well as voters, don't believe in the truth. And so by telling the truth, to those individuals we appear to be biased. 

For my own part, I think that the truth is a higher value.

I just want to make it clear that the CBC is not prohibiting stronger language. It says it leaves it up to individual journalists to make their own decisions about what words they ultimately use. Nor has it adopted The Guardian's position, nor have any other news organizations that I'm aware of. Why do you think that is?

Again, I think it's because of that tension between the desire to tell the truth and the desire to appear unbiased. Journalists receive a significant amount of pushback online, whenever they do report on these kinds of issues, from people who don't believe that the climate is in crisis or who don't believe in climate change. 

The question that we have to ask ourselves as journalists is how much do we go out of our way to cater to segments of our audience that don't believe the truth?

Your open letter is a searing critique of how the media has covered environmental issues. You say the failures are "unconscionable ... nothing more and nothing less." And you warn that if these failures continue, we as journalists will be contributing to the deaths of millions. That's pretty harsh. What do you base that on?

The scientific evidence. Our job as journalists is to provide the information necessary for the public to make the informed, rational and empathetic decisions that they are supposed to be making in the context of both the marketplace as well as democracy. And if we are not doing our job of providing that information in the most accurate way we possibly can, we indeed are going to be responsible for decisions that do not address this climate crisis with the urgency that it demands. 

Can you give me some examples of how we've failed to do our jobs? 

One of the things that really struck me last summer — the worst year for wildfires in B.C. on record — [was that] in both British Columbia and Alberta, where we were being choked by smoke from those wildfires almost every day, there was not enough of an effort to connect that particular event to climate change. 

I took a look at what the Canadian Press, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and Vancouver Sun wrote between August 15th and September 7th of 2018 — the period where there was a state of emergency in British Columbia. Out of the 182 unique stories that were published during that period about the wildfires, just 14 or 7.7 per cent of those items mentioned the connection between those forest fires and climate change.

So in other words, you could have picked up a newspaper on any day during those weeks and had really no idea why this was happening. 

A view from the city of Edmonton on May 30, 2019, when the wildfires burning in northern Alberta cast an eerie haze on almost every region of the province (Carissa Campbell)

I was looking in the comment section of the website where your letter was first posted and time and again people kept coming around to, "Well, it's corporate ownership. Journalists are being told by corporations not to do climate stories that might prove contrary to the owner's interest." Is there evidence to say that is really a factor?

I think that in general, the influence of politics and corporations over the media is somewhat overstated. But it does happen.

For example, at Postmedia they're currently trying to get work with the Alberta government to help support their energy war room. That's the war room that is designed to essentially suppress truthful information about climate change and the impact of the oil sands. A journalist working for Postmedia might think twice about going hard on that particular issue if their own company is trying to ally itself with people who don't believe that climate change is an important issue.

The question that we have to ask ourselves as journalists is how much do we go out of our way to cater to segments of our audience that don't believe the truth.- Sean Holman

The CBC doesn't answer to corporate interests, but from my own experience I can tell you that getting climate-related stories on the air here is also a tough slog sometimes. You are told it's too complicated or too depressing. 

What I think we're not doing is providing the kind of coverage that people actually need at this particular juncture in time.

People desire information because of the control that it's supposed to provide us in our day-to-day lives, and because of the certainty that it's supposed to provide as well. And unfortunately I think a lot of the climate change coverage that we provide doesn't provide any control and doesn't provide any certainty. And in fact it often does the opposite of that.

We should be treating this like the disaster and like the crisis it is. We should be advising people of what they can do to stop this crisis or at least reduce its impact. And we should be holding to account those organizations that are frustrating action on this issue, or not acting on this issue. 

Do you think we're getting better? 

I hope we're getting better. I was encouraged by the fact that the Canadian Association of Journalists, in response to my letter, issued a news release saying that we really do need to rethink how we cover the climate crisis, and as a result they're going to be referring the issue to their ethics committee, which will be developing some new best practices for that kind of coverage. 

I would like to see the ethics committee come down on the side of the truth, because nothing is more important in our industry. And if we're not putting that as the most important thing, I don't really know what we're doing.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity. To hear the whole interview with Sean Holman, click 'listen' above.


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