Is Mainstream Media Stepping up to Its Role in Climate Fight?

Is Mainstream Media Stepping up to Its Role in Climate Fight?

In the past, the choices that the media has made about what is considered newsworthy has been, well, revolting. Do we really have to watch OJ drive? Does my local news station really need to show a house-fire or shooting or shark attack -- no matter how tragic or how compelling the video -- on the opposite coast? Is it really worth the time on national news to highlight the latest rift in the Royal Family or Hollywood divorce? Sure, Americans lap up the salacious details but that doesn't mean the media has to dish it out.

In serious conversations with the media, when I would ask why they don't do more to educate the public, I was sternly told, in no uncertain terms, that it was not their job. Only a few years ago, journalists were plainly saying they couldn't use the 's word' (sustainability) in a column or it would put people to sleep.

I wish that's all they did. Are you familiar with the psychological term "learned helplessness?" That's what I worry about. Every time the media tells the public something is bad and then later that it's good for you; or that something that seems like the right thing to do really isn't; or that while things are getting better, they could turn around any moment; or the world is going to hell in a hand-basket and the problems are so massive that there's not much anyone can do; or lambasting actions that are in the right direction but not perfect solutions; all this breeds learned helplessness. As a society, we just curl up on our electrically charged rugs like the dogs in the repulsively cruel psychology experiments and resign ourselves to getting shocked, even though we have the ability to stand up and do something else.

I know it's not the media's job to be a cheerleader, and not all of this is their fault. Studies do come out that contradict others. Ethanol is not as rosy a solution as simplistic politians may have thought. But it helps if the journalists put the situation into context. In the past, in a twisted obligation to balance, the media for years felt obligated to dig up some naysayer meteorologist or scientist funded by Exxon or author of dinosaur stories to counter the warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

My, how things have changed! My wish has come true: climate change and other related sustainability issues have finally hit the mainstream press.

I want to credit The National Geographic for being the first mainstream publication I noticed that was taking climate change seriously, well before An Inconvenient Truth. And since then, they've done feature stories, for example, on The End of Cheap Oil (2004) and : The wrong way, the right way (2007).

Similarly, Time Magazine featured climate change with an eerie cover, a polar bear on a tiny ice floe, peering into a steely, oil-colored sea.

Now you can't turn on the TV or dump your recycling without seeing other articles on climate change: NBC's Our Planet series; morning show hosts shivering next to glaciers; globalization advocate Thomas Friedman's feature in the New York Times with a green American flag; Newsweek with Aaarnold on the cover; Business Week with what they probably thought was a controversial premise: "Imagine a world in which eco-friendly and socially responsible practices actually help a company's bottom line. It's closer than you think." No kidding.

The high-water mark for me recently was when the Wall Street Journal used the dreaded S-word and didn't even feel the need to explain it. November 5, 2007, in an article about socially responsible investing, they cite a Mercer Investments Consulting survey investment managers around the world felt that "governance, globalization, climate change, sustainability, and access to clean water" were top issues. I might quibble with their parsing, but there it is, in black and white, the S-word right next to others they know we'll recognize. No matter that they reported that Pax World is involved with SRI when they have long since moved beyond it to sustainable investing. Maybe that's a nuance the WSJ will get next time 'round.

All this is good news. But we have a ways to go, still. So I'm making a second wish. To all journalists: Don't just give us the scary facts; show us the path forward. We need to get beyond the little actions; I was so disappointed at the end of Inconvenient Truth that everything they suggested were the easy things to do (CFLs and the like). We need to give society a vision of how we can solve these problems- at scale; and we need to engender a can-do attitude, hopefulness and empowerment. That's what I liked about George Monbiot's book Heat: it's filled with intriguing ideas for how we can maintain a developed world lifestyle while reducing our carbon impact by 90%. Show us that. Not pie-in-the-sky Wait for the Hydrogen Economy to Save Us, like the ever-perky Popular Science likes to do. Make it urgent but make it empowering.

My third wish (you get three, right?) is don't just focus on climate change. No question, that's a huge issue. But if we're not careful, we'll solve that problem by creating equally terrifying ones (e.g., a nuclear power plant in every community or every bare piece of land planted in corn). We need help seeing a positive future, where we can be free of synthetic toxins in our breast milk, one-and-a-half hour commutes, and Katrina-like storms too. Don't just show us the puzzle pieces; show us the picture of how the pieces fit together.

Journalists have made great headway. As a colleague at the Associated Press told me recently in his characteristically understated style, "This [climate change/sustainability] is pretty important. We need to get it right." Many are now using their power and influence to educate us all. In an age when many adults don't read a book a year, the media is one of the few places people go for information.

So, to all those journalists who have been carrying the banner, thank you! Keep it up. Bring your other journalist friends to the party. We never needed you more.

Darcy Hitchcock, president of AXIS Performance Advisors, helps organizations implement sustainable business practices. Her latest book is The Business Guide to Sustainability.