Roger Harrabin from the BBC on risk, the media and climate change

February 10th, 2011 by

On February 9th, Roger Harrabin spoke at Jesus College, University of Cambridge on the challenges of reporting climate change. He is one of the world’s senior journalists and broadcasters on the environment and energy and co-wrote the BBC’s guidance on reporting on Risk with the Head of BBC Politics, Sue Inglish, which calls for news instincts to be tempered by statistical perspective.

After his initial talk, some very interesting questions were asked and revealing answers given in the remaining hour that the discussion was opened to the floor.

Roger said that it was very easy for journalists to fall into lazy narratives about climate change and that in general, higher profile issues were usually deemed more newsworthy even though those issues might actually involve incredibly small numbers of affected people. The challenge for a journalist, he felt, lay in deciding what really matters and the meaning of inpartiality versus what already might be already in the public eye. He said that in his analysis the key ingredients in a standard news item were novelty, drama, conflict, personality and pictures.

Realistically, a Radio 4 news bulletin may reduce a complex climate change issue into some 120 words. The media must make brief, often high-impact statements to first draw attention before any complexity can be appreciated. Often journalists are not happy themselves with the way things are oversimplified but they also cannot risk baffling the public. Simply put, old debates are not news and a fresh paradigm is often preferred to restatement. The media is often forced to entertain and simple phrases/small moments run the risk of fostering longterm bias.

Roger also expressed concern at the polarisation of climate change debates between a “yes it does exist”, “no it doesn’t” approach. It was interesting to discover that nearly half of the audience were not aware that rhetorics warning against climate change directives because they limit our freedom and civil rights are often generated by “libertarian right” speakers. Meanwhile Roger also referred amongst others, to a “green left” which has been slow to embrace technology and the blogosphere in presenting alternative narratives to the predominant polarised debate.

Climategate is not easily dismissed. As a result many UK newspapers are now climate skeptics. There is “green fatigue” which can also feed counter-narratives. Roger suggested it would be just as much a mistake to assume that fossil fuel companies are funding doubt – as assuming the libertarian right are correct to combat the control agendas of governments – without looking carefully at the underlying science. Meanwhile on careful examination, we see that science has great uncertainty about the future extent of climate change. Critically, the lack of an alternative thesis doesn’t mean that other theses are necessarily correct.

Perhaps the most interesting point however was made by a member of the audience who pointed out that not only does the incitement of fear generate the media but that it generates the economy too. Perhaps climate change narratives could usefully be viewed through this lens: one where discourses of anxiety about our environmental future may also serve economic agendas.

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