Let's not shoot the climate messenger

The press is accused of painting such a bleak picture of the planet's prospects readers believe noth

You may have noticed that there was another report the other day from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Then again, you may not have noticed.

The posher papers covered it, with the Independent and the Guardian giving it most space, as you might expect. But people who rely for their news on the Mail, the Express or the red tops will have been lucky to read anything on the subject - my search turned up just one fleeting mention, in the Sunday Mirror.

This is routine. A study last year by Futerra, an environmental consultancy, found that of all the stories about climate change in the national press, only 16 per cent appeared in the middle-market and red-top papers. In other words, three-quarters of all newspaper readers rarely see a story about the most important subject of our age.

Worse, it seems that even those of us who are reading the stories may be getting the wrong message. "UN unveils full danger of climate change", said the Sunday Times above its account of the latest IPCC report; "Amazon rainforest and Antarctic are being destroyed", warned the Sunday Telegraph; "The future is bleak", declared the Times.

A leading climate scientist, Professor Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia, has been studying the quality as well as the quantity of coverage of IPCC pronouncements, and he is not happy about this doomy tone.

"The representation of the IPCC climate-change assessment in the UK print media adopts an overwhelmingly alarmist repertoire," he has written. The subject is generally presented through "scary, and almost pre-determined, doom-laden scenarios saturated in the language of fear and disaster". This approach could lead to denial, apathy or "perverse reactive behaviour" (a national speciality, surely), rather than motivating readers to mitigate climate change or adapt to it.

You can see humanity's epitaph now, carved on our headstone for posterity to read: "They had a chance of getting through the climate crisis in their 21st century, but the bloody journalists, with their relentless negativity, threw it away."

To be fair to Hulme (whose research and views can be read at www.mikehulme.org), he doesn't quite say that, and where he offers a suggestion it is about how the IPCC might present its message better. He is more baffled than angry at the press. Those alarmist headlines, he writes, "may be as much to do with journalistic norms and practices in favouring bad news and melodrama over more nuanced and contingent interpretations of climate change, than they are the result of different newspaper ideologies".

Well yes, ideologies play their part in the way this phenomenon is reported - contrast the Independent's full-blooded coverage with the Telegraph's cooler approach - but as for those journalistic norms, they are not so perverse as they might appear. Of course journalists are drawn to drama, if not melodrama: they deliver news, not data. And negativity is in the professional viscera, and should be. I know there is a lot at stake here, with the end of the world and all that, but I recoil at the idea of journalists knowingly accentuating the positive. It isn't their job, and besides, other people are paid to hawk that particular commodity.

I have read the IPCC document, unveiled in Valencia, Spain, the other day. To my eye it makes scary reading, albeit containing some encouraging language about mitigation and adaptation. I don't blame any reporter who was there for dwelling on the grim side.

If Hulme wants people to receive a different message from the IPCC then he is right: the IPCC needs to tell its story in a different way. But will that really work? All the climate-change solutions on offer will be painful for large numbers of people, and it is hard to see how those people can be persuaded to accept them unless they are reminded that the alternative may be Armageddon.

Mystic Paul

A friend once turned on the BBC Wimbledon coverage and found himself exclaiming, in perfect unison with his wife: "What on earth has Sue Barker done with her hair?" The next morning the Daily Mail had exactly the same words above the masthead on the front page: "What on earth has Sue Barker done with her hair? - see page 14".

Say what you like about the modern Mail, it has an almost psychic ability to address questions, no matter how trivial, almost before they have taken shape in the readers' heads. And when it does address them, it does so with flair.

Rumour has it that Paul Dacre, the paper's editor, is about to step down, or up. If that is true, then it is his special mind-reading gift, and not his political instincts, that Lord Rothermere will find hardest to replace.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China