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Media Climate Change

Media Climate Change

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Risk Analysis, Vol. 25, No. 6, 2005
DOI: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2005.00693.x
Dangerous News: Media Decision Making aboutClimate Change Risk
Joe Smith
This article explores the role of broadcast news media decisionmakers in shaping public un-derstanding and debate of climate change risks. It locates the media within a “tangled web”of communication and debate between sources, media, and publics. The article draws on newqualitative research in the British context. The main body of it focuseson media source strate-gies, on climate change storytelling in news, and the “myth of detachment” sustained by manynewsdecisionmakers.Theempiricalevidence,gatheredbetween1997and2004,isderivedpri-marily from recordings and notes drawn from a series of seminars that has brought togetherequal numbers of BBC news and television decisionmakers and environment/developmentspecialists. The seminars have created a rare space for extended dialogue between media andspecialist perspectives on the communication of complex climate change science and policy.WhilethearticleacknowledgesthedistinctivenatureoftheBBCasapublicsectorbroadcaster,theevidenceconfirmsandextendscurrentunderstandingofthecareerofclimatechangewithinthe media more broadly. The working group discussions have explored issues arising out of how stories are sourced and, in the context of competitive and time-pressured newsrooms,shaped and presented in short news pieces. Particularly significant is the disjuncture betweenwaysof talking about uncertainty within science and policy discourse and media constructionsof objectivity, truth, and balance. The article concludes with a summary of developments inmedia culture, technology, and practice that are creating opportunities for enhanced publicunderstanding and debate of climate change risks. It also indicates the need for science andpolicy communities to be more active critics and sources of news.
KEY WORDS:
Climate change; news media; public understanding; sustainability; uncertainty
1. INTRODUCTION
Anyexplorationofthesourcesandsignificanceof thegulfbetweenlayandexpertunderstandingsofcli-matechangeriskislikelytosettleonthemediaasoneof its central subjects. Publics depend on news mediato expand their knowledge about the world beyondthe immediate horizons of lived experience; hencenotions of dangers associated with climate changeare to a significant degree mediated by news andother broadcast and published sources. This article is
Geography Discipline, Faculty of Social Sciences, The Open Uni-versity, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, UK; tel:
+
44(0)1908 659232; j.h.smith@open.ac.uk.
based on qualitative material drawn from a series of seminars that represent an extended body of inter-actions between media decisionmakers and environ-ment and development specialists. As such it takeson a different task to the discourse analysis that is atthe core of Burgess and Carvalho’s (2004) interven-tion and audience research (e.g., Glasgow UniversityMedia Unit, 2000; VSO, 2002; Opinion Leader Re-search, 2002) in this area. It throws light on mediadecision making by concentrating on key moments inthe process of mediation wherein the science, policy,and politics of climate change are transformed intothe broadcast stories that do so much work in publicdiscourses of environmental risk.
1471
0272-4332/05/0100-1471$22.00/1
C
2005 Society for Risk Analysis
 
1472 Smith
After locating the work within the critical socialscienceliteratureonmediaandsociety,themainbodyof the article explores media practices of sourcingand telling climate change stories, and the “myth of detachment” associated with media editors. It con-cludes with a discussion of some ways of enhancingpublic understanding and debate that have been as-sessed within the seminars. There is evidence thatwider changes in media culture and practice can openup new ways of exploring both “factual” and affec-tive dimensions of risk in tandem. However, one of the most easily addressed and significant conclusionslies in the hands of readers of this article: editors ac-knowledge that the climate change science and policycommunitiesneedtobemoreaccessibletohelpinthetellingofstoriesandmoreinsistentandaudibleinthereview of media performance.
2. METHODOLOGICAL NOTE
The argument in the article is drawn from abody of qualitative empirical evidence gathered be-tween 1997 and 2004. Recordings and notes weredrawn from the plenary sessions and working groupswithinaseriesofannualtwo-dayseminars.Thesehavebrought together senior media decisionmakers, pri-marilyfromtheBBC,andequalnumbersofacademicand policy specialists for two-day meetings. Thesehave addressed media performance on a range of en-vironment and development issues. It is importantto note that the BBC and other media participantshave been drawn almost exclusively from senior ed-itorial staffs that do not have specialist expertise orexperience in environment and development issues.They have in almost all cases been invited to attendby the BBC Director of News and are hence not self-selectingas“supportive”or“committedto”theissuesunder discussion. Indeed, media participants have onanumberofoccasionsexpressedskepticismabouttheneed to consider their performance on these issues inadvance of the meetings. With roughly 35 people at-tending each seminar, half media and half specialists,the total number of media participants in the sem-inars is just over 100. Only on rare occasions havemedia participants been invited to attend more thanone seminar.TheseseminarswereorganizedbytheCambridgeMedia and Environment Programme, co-directed bythe author and Roger Harrabin of the BBC Radio4 Today Programme. The seminars have addressedmedia performance on a range of subjects. The refer-ences in the text to workshop and plenary discussionsspecify which seminar the material was drawn from,using shortened titles, given here in parentheses, anddates: Sustainable Development: The Challenge tothe Media (Sustainability) 1998, 1999, 2001; WorldSummit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) 2002;Risk: The Challenge to the Media (Risk) 2003; andtwo meetings addressing British broadcasting’s rep-resentations of the developing world: the Real WorldBrainstorms (Real World 1 and Real World 2, 2004).The media participation at all but the last two semi-nars has been drawn from news and current affairs.The Real World Brainstorms were attended by awider group of BBC TV decisionmakers. The sem-inars were held under Chatham House rules; hencenone of the reported comments or quotations inthe text are attributable. In the case of quotationsfrom workshops and plenaries, informants are dis-tinguished as either media participant (MP) or spe-cialist participant (SP), and where necessary distin-guished by number (e.g., MP1). Some quotationsare included from supplementary interviews. Thesequotes are again not directly attributable, but wherethere is more than one respondent with the same jobdescription they are coded (i.e., journalist 1
=
J1).The author has worked to draft the participantlist, design, and implement the seminars with othercolleagues. While this fact allows for a depth of famil-iarity with the materials generated, it has demandeda degree of careful self-reflection in the handling of them.Another important contextual note regards theparticular nature of the institution that has providedthe vast majority of the media participants. The BBChas distinctive governance and funding structures,combining funding from an almost universally leviedlicense fee within the United Kingdom and an inde-pendentboardofgovernors,allworkingwithinachar-ter framework granted by the U.K. government. It isrecognized as an important reservoir of journalistictalent; it is both a training ground for the early stagesin many media careers and a destination for top jour-nalists and editors. These conditions have led to theBBC being widely seen as an international leader interms of balance, independence, and clarity.But it has also been criticized as complacent orinattentive in its coverage of complex issues, andas driven by narrow priorities (Nason & Redding,2002; Dover & Barnett, 2004; Peck
et al 
., 2004). Itis viewed as hegemonic within British broadcasting,helping to dictate the limits of what might be consid-ered “news” in mainstream reporting (see, e.g., Philo& McLaughlin, 1995). The support of the seminars
 
Media Decision Making about Climate Change Risk 1473
by the BBC, in the form of their contribution of sub-stantial senior management time and other resourcesreflectsarecognitionoftheresponsibilitiesimpliedbythesestrengthsandaneedtoconsiderandrespondtothecriticismsonthepartofseniornewsmanagement.The social definition and deliberation of risk anddanger, and the broadcast media’s role within this,have been persistent themes throughout the series,with one seminar focusing solely on the subject of thereportingofrisk.Climatechangehasbeenapersistenttheme throughout the series.
3. FROM HYPODERMIC MODELSTO TANGLED WEBS
The self-perception of news media is that theycast, direct, and stage-manage the public’s notion of life beyond immediate lived experience. Certainly,there is little arguing that the mass media are a keylocation for the social production—including the def-inition and evaluation—of risks. Hence the broad-cast media’s treatment of climate change becomescentral to any attempt to unpick risk communicationsurrounding the issue. This article contributes to thegrowing body of literature that seeks to explain thelinks between news media and public understandingand debate of climate change (see, e.g., Wilkins, 1993;Trumbo, 1996; Weingart
et al 
., 2000).The climate change science and policy commu-nity participants at the seminars have consistentlycharged the media with having failed in what theyview to be a duty to inform. They suggest the mediaare responsible for public ignorance of both causesand consequences of climate change. These partici-pants have tended to display what has variously beentermeda“hypodermic,”“transmission,”or“informa-tion deficit” model of mediation of knowledge. Inother words, they imagine an uncomplicated flow of data from experts, packaged by the media, to an un-derinformed, receptacle-like society. They feel thatthe news media simply need to recognize their re-sponsibilities as a mediating channel on the subject of climate change. This model of the role of the mediahas long been picked apart by media researchers, in-cluding in the field of representations of environment(Burgess,1990;Hansen,1993)andincallsformoreso-phisticatedapproachestounderstandingsciencecom-munication (see, e.g., Bucchi, 1998; Friedman
et al 
.,1986; Nelkin, 1987). Such work has demanded thatresearchers engage with the messy realities of the in-teractions between media, politics, and society thatproduce knowledge, debate, and decisions.In his weaving together of theoretical andempirical work on media, space, and democracy, Bar-nett (2003, p. 178) finds that “news is
. . .
constructedout of the complex mediation of knowledge, mean-ings, and performances produced and distributedby a variety of different actors with different inter-ests.” Krimsky and Plough’s (1988, p. 298) analysis of sources of risk messages finds that “risk communica-tions in their social context resemble tangled webs, incontrasttoaparallelseriesofsender-receiverinterac-tions.” The material drawn from the seminars informthisattempttothrowlightonthetangledwebofinter-actions that shape media treatments of “dangerous”climate change.
4. SOURCING CLIMATE CHANGE SCIENCE
Allan
et al 
. (2000, p. 13) argue that the “capac-ity to define potential risks and hazards is broadlyaligned with the distribution of power among ‘credi-ble,’ ‘authoritative,’ and ‘legitimate’ definers of ‘real-ity’acrossthemediafield.”TheroleofenvironmentalNGOs as sources developed in the British context inpart as a consequence of a vacuum in terms of theprofile of environmental issues within representativepolitics, but also as a result of their entrepreneurial-ism. Their role as issue entrepreneurs has been par-ticularly evident in their generation of media events(Smith,2000b,pp.168–185).Whetherthroughphoto-genicdirectactions,orthetimingofthepublicationof a report, adept NGO media handlers have designedactions with a close and trained eye on winning victo-ries in the discursive struggle played out in the mediaover an issue such as climate change. Campaignershave acknowledged that danger is a driving plot de-vice, in the narratives they put to news professionals(working groups, WSSD, 2002; Risk, 2003). However,theNGOsdonotworkwithrigidmetricsofrisk;theirclaims are fluid across time and space, allowing themtobeopportunisticandinnovativeinwaysthatsatisfynews needs and practices.In the small group workshops, where the spe-cialist contingent usually combines senior NGO fig-ures (in a minority) with scientists and policy actorsrootedinevidence-basedpractices,thelatterhavefre-quently bemoaned the media’s tendency to rely onNGOs as sources and voices in environmental newsstories. Yet the same discussions showed that thesespecialists generally had very limited understandingof news practices. However, the workshop discus-sions have shown that as scientists and policy spe-cialists have gained a better grasp of what might be

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