Climate coverage across cultures: 9 types of media narratives at COP21

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Blog by Dr. Sara Nofri

Before dealing with environmental news reporting academically, I was involved in the environmental movement personally, since back in the 90s.

I was, for instance, at the World Social Forum which took place during the now sadly famous G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001. I was volunteering as a translator and spent several days actively participating. While there, I had the chance to attend and listen to workshops hosting prominent figures of the so called anti-globalisation movement. Within the movement, at that time, concepts, issues and stakeholders of the sustainability question were defined for an increasingly broad public – an internet-connected public. The discussion was especially relevant for a development-critical, possibly de-growth-oriented perspective. The international and Italian media coverage of that summit in particular, and the discrepancy with my own experience of the events that took place, was one of my journalistic biggest lessons so far.

During that Social Forum I thought: “Environmental awareness, sustainability, climate change… whatever the talk, the kinds and patterns of stories told are still the same old ones: take the canonical narrative schema; substitute a couple of details; use the multi-syllabled neologisms of the moment; choose high fog-factor, when in doubt; and your climate news story is ready!

However, the question of humans and how they deal with their planet is no ordinary ‘story’. I wondered why this was so, and whether different ways of tackling the question and discussing it or reporting about it exist – beyond tackling it with bare facts, which is what really matters. Some time later, I investigated environmental associations and movements in Sweden and, carried out an in-depth multilingual comparison of environmental news reporting in different cultures. I found out that reporting was highly culturally mediated. Being as I am, immersed in my own culture, I assumed there had to be ways of looking at environmental and climate issues that I was not yet aware of.

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Text projected on the Eiffel Tower during COP21

I did not know enough of cultures or languages spoken in regions of the world very different from my own. I also didn’t have the possibility to live as nomadically and multilingually as I did in my youth. So I moved on to examine environmental documentaries and started to compare those. What interested me – was the ways the story was told: I wanted to find some ways that were new, at least to me.

So far for COP21, I’ve read random news on the web over the last week from at least a dozen Western countries (mostly Sweden, Iceland, UK and US, France, Canada, Germany and especially Italy). Remembering what I learnt about Greimas, Propp and Russian tales back at university, I have observed that media coverage tends to adopt a limited number of main narrative approaches to climate change. I qualitatively grasped this idea, but did not quantify nor investigate it thoroughly. Many climate stories follow the classic story pattern of a situation that encounters opposition; action follows; sanctions may occur; a new situation is obtained.

The stories don’t always follow this pattern however. Below I name 9 (for the moment) types of storytelling in the western media I observed. I have opted for humorous categories naming and filmic associations. Hence: allow me to share with you my proto-typology on climate stories:

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Type 1, the ‘famous’, or The Apocalyptic.

There are several scientific studies investigating this particular way of telling the story. Its biblical influences have been pointed out already. Stress is put upon the disasters occurring, the details of those, and how more or less subliminally the factor “guilt” plays a role. For humans being “guilty” of what is happening, global warming surely is anthropogenic (caused by humans). Risk communication is often influenced by apocalyptic storytelling. Newsworthiness itself can depend on the extent to which events can be presented as exceptionally destructive. The approach is usable in many other kinds of stories and in other kinds of media texts. Sci-fi film directors love it.

Type 2, the ‘seller’, or The Last Chance:

This narrative approach draws from traditional selling tactics by insisting in the now-or-never side of e.g. a reaction to global warming, a specific negotiation, a certain summit; it is wonderfully applicable to other subjects and relies on the extent to which an addressee can be manipulated into their being aware of an urgency. This way of telling a story is particularly privileged by romantic comedies. As a happy ending (after the movie/summit is over) is not guaranteed either for couples nor for climate agreements, the Last Chance approach is usually used in the coverage during the first part of, in this case, COP21. Its counterpart tends to be the bitter Could-Have-Been narrative approach, which typically ensues.

Type 3, the ‘wholistic’, or Humans play God:

This climate change storytelling style sounds at times arrogant, however it tries to focus on the forest and not just on the individual trees. News stories showing the connections between desertification and wars, resources distribution and lack of democracy or even terrorism, interconnections between companies’ interest and environmental problems belong to this type. The perspective is often that of the anti-globalisation movement approach “from-below”, and is often used in documentary movies that target internet audiences and aim at going viral. The tone may be sober, striving for – and in the worst cases being absolutely sure to obtain – superhuman objectivity.

Type 4, the ‘gamer’, or Sports News

Especially adopted by climate change stories in traditional Western style, it takes for granted the deployment of teams and shows power relationships and interest groupings among the stakeholders involved, often according a dichotomy of good-and-bad(-and ugly, in exceptional cases). This dichotomy can be explicitly mentioned, covert, or just implied (North vs. South of the world; industrialised vs. developing countries; companies vs. politicians; demonstrators vs. police; journalists vs. lobbies; science vs. all; etc.). If a clear-cutting delineation of good vs. bad is not possible, sometimes frustration occurs due to sudden lack of orientation: “Now, who is the bad guy?” The case of India and the reporting on its positions over the last days is a clear example. On the one hand they appear as ‘evil’ (“So many emissions! They do not want to cut them! They claim that now it is their turn to pollute!”) and on the other hand ‘good’ (“…exploited for so many years and now hosting over a billion inhabitants with a ridiculously low amount of CO2 emission pro capita compared to us, of course they have the right to get their share of the cake!”). No need to say that Western movies à la Sergio Leone best represent this storytelling approach.

Type 5, the ‘hopeless capitalist’, or the Emperor’s new clothes

Lobbies and companies mostly feed on, and subvention, this particular kind of storytelling: technologically optimistic in their core, climate stories presenting new inventions, production ideas or sustainability best practices rely on the fact that a strong emphasis on environmental friendliness will overshadow the consumption, pollution, product life-cycle and resource distribution aspects that often are not considered in enough detail. A bright future awaits us if we buy electric cars; if we buy organic food; if we decarbonise our societies (‘decarbonise’ meaning both 1. Decouple emissions from our energy consumption, e.g. use nuclear power or renewables AND 2. Change the relationship between emissions and a country’s GDP in time); if X, then Y. Y= everything’s gonna be alright. No media text expresses this approach better than TV advertisements. Ah, the everlasting charm of novelty.

Type 6: the ‘exotic’, or the Sigmund Freud

Have you ever noticed the schizophrenia behind some apparently awareness-raising stories? It reminds me of the principle according to which: the widest the green areas sacrificed to urban projects of no relevance to the local public sphere, but of great relevance to the local corporate avidity, the more non-grassroots environmental associations are likely to stress questions affecting a place/habitat/ecosystem geographically distant from the aforementioned project.
Questions whose decision-making process structures they are not likely to have direct influence on! Talk about the Galapagos turtles having their first babies again, ignore the fourth new gas station built on your way to work. Interview the inhabitants of Kiribati to get their opinion on climate change, but please do not dare ask a Nigerian immigrant who jumped off a boat and made it to Europe because he could no longer drink the polluted water our cars deprive him of – the latter is somehow less conscience-relieving.

Type 7: the ‘Franciscan’, or Mr. Terzani

Religion can choose another storytelling path. A few month ago during his second encyclical, Pope Francis highlighted a lesser known narrative approach to climate change. This approach was highlighted in Italy by late Der Spiegel Asia correspondent Tiziano Terzani during the last years of his life in the late 90s and early 2000s. Such an approach can be described as ascetic, more-is-less, essentialist and de-growth-oriented perspective. This perspective is very underrepresented in all kinds of journalistic storytelling about climate change, because its main assumption is that too much consumption is wrong and substantial de-growth is necessary. However nobody profits from this perspective – at least in the traditional, short-term-oriented meaning of “profit”. The media and news production industry is based on profit and soaked in the pursuit of growth like any other economy sector of most industries on the planet. The media as a whole cannot just promote non-consumption: it would result in an erosion of its own foundations. In short: you can’t promote fasting if you own a pastry shop.

Type 8: the ‘creationist’, or the Balanced

As I am not writing academically here, I refuse to make an effort and mention news stories types still insisting on giving the floor to the global warming negationists. To these eight types, thanks to the climate changed documentaries I watched and analysed, I was able to add another type:

Type 9: the ‘poet’, or More Than Words

Experimental cinema, as well as some more visionary kind of journalism, try to explain the problems, the debate and the causes-and-consequences correlations by non linear means. For instance, by asking childrens’ opinion without piloting their answers and interactions. Or by not privileging climactic approaches and asking open questions instead.  Or even by showing sides to the stories that really provide a new perspective of thinking about it. An article I read on Il Fatto Quotidiano in Italy, for instance, pointed out very interestingly and innovatively the different ways we react to predictions and figures concerning climate and forecasts regarding the developments of the financial markets. The former are much more exact than the second. However, the latter one concern us more, are reported much, much more on, and affects our actions much more. The author suggests questions, rather than providing answers, still the focus is on an innovative point of view.

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As for my initial question: are there climate change narratives I am not aware of, yet? In my recent impressions and past scientific investigations, I came to think that the more distance between a culture’s way of life and nature there is, the more anthropocentric a storytelling perspective is adopted. This may affect news, storytelling, media texts in general.

Western cultures have features that are peculiar to them and that they have tended to export to the rest of the world: the need for an evil/good dichotomy of monotheistic origin, which is much less present in Asian cultures, for instance, is an example. Anglo-Saxon cultures especially tend to privilege verbal messages, according to the purest Lutheran tradition of sola scriptura – I may jokingly add – and rely on the power of subtitles, titles, written messages in general.

Mediterranean cultures, instead, are more visual and prosody oriented and seem to adopt a more dramatic (in the theatrical sense of the word) perspective. For instance, a documentary film from Iran called Lady Urmia (2012) let the Urmia lake itself, located in the North of Iran and currently disappearing, ‘speak’ about the environmental problems affecting it – through a feminine voice. Humans were just background cast members. The spontaneity of this approach from a culture probably much less anthropocentric than mine really impressed me.

Last, but not least: science itself is immersed in its culture-specific narratives of climate change (incidentally, ‘climate change’ and ‘greenhouse gases’ originated from a deliberate, US-Republican ‘nicer’ wordings than the scary, more accurate ‘global warming’). The types mentioned above cover some of the narrative options available. Researchers have absorbed during their lives, investigations and journeys, specific ways of presenting stories and stakeholders, and have reflected (hopefully) on their more or less conscious ways of ascribing them values and relationships. Hundreds of thousands of members of the academic community, as a consequence, travel around the world from conference to symposium, back and forth, weekly or even daily, to talk about old and new inconvenient truths on climate change.

I think it is time for the academic community to take an inconvenient stand: there is no point in choosing to study climate change and at the same time choosing not to reflect it in any personal life choice, apart from the occasional organic food caterer for the next meeting.

So which typology to adopt?

I wish my typology was less humorous and more scientifically accurate. Observing the media reporting on COP21 until the end will help, and cooperation among researchers from different backgrounds and cultures may boost its – if ever there will be any – validity. For the moment, I already consciously adopted type 7 within the narrative style of my own article here. As I implied, we members of the scientific community should act locally and eco-friendly and perform global online-networking, instead of flying about the place, busy in, or only telling ourselves that we are, saving the planet.