Exclusive: Former correspondent and editor explains the drop in quality of BBC’s climate coverage – Shocker: For 2011, BBC has “explicitly parked climate change in the category ‘Done That Already, Nothing New to Say’.”
[Via Climate Progress]
This past Monday night, discussing climate change at a very poorly-attended (as usual, when the subject is global warming or peak oil) screening at the Frontline Journalists’ Club in London of the movie Collapse with Michael Ruppert — yes, flawed, but with much sound analysis about oil and energy — I heard from a former BBC producer colleague that internal editorial discussions now under way at the BBC on planning next year’s news agenda have in fact explicitly parked climate change in the category “Done That Already, Nothing New to Say.”
Deep in the comments for “Exclusive: Journalism professor Jay Rosen on why climate science reporting is so bad” was an amazing perspective by former BBC correspondent and editor Mark Brayne. It seeks to explain where the BBC is coming from on climate, though it applies more broadly to Western journalists.
Having been raised by journalists, I held the BBC in the highest esteem for most of my life. I suspect most CP readers have, too. Recently, though, the quality of their coverage of climate change has declined catastrophically, as I and others have noted (see “Dreadful climate story by BBC’s Richard Black” and links below). So I asked Brayne if he would revise and extend his remarks, and the result is below.
UPDATE: He adds more thoughts in the comments here.
His three decades as a journalist make this sobering analysis a must-read for anyone wondering why British — and American — reporting on climate change has declined in quality recently:
As a former BBC foreign correspondent (Moscow, Berlin, Vienna, Beijing) during the Cold War, and former World Service editor now struggling with the monumental failure of contemporary journalism on climate change (Nicholas Stern’s 2007 comments about the market are just as relevant for the news media), I have to agree with recent commentators on Climate Progress who see the roots of this failure more in newsroom culture and subtle peer expectation than in a direct and explicit response to political or commercial demands (although those play their part, of course).
My former colleagues at the BBC, including Richard Black and others whom I know as good men and women all, remain trapped like most Western-style journalists in the old paradigm of news as event, not process, always needing to be shiny, new and different.
As a correspondent, and later at every nine o’clock morning editorial meeting at the World Service on every weekday through the 1990s, I and my colleagues would grapple with this – how to tell a complex story in just a few lines, with enough of a news peg to interest our listeners. And listeners, viewers and readers have short attention spans – they’ll tune out if they sense it’s just the same old stuff.
So, in order to sell and appeal, whether public service or commercial, journalism needs events. We need clear causes, agents and forces to be visibly responsible. We need (not that we put it like this) a narrative of baddies and goodies. Where the climate is concerned, things are slow-moving, complex, and what’s more, we ourselves are the baddies. That’s not something listeners and viewers want or wanted to be told.
Given our human evolutionary need for primal reassurance that we are safe, and that bad things are happening over there and not here, the events that journalism reports tend to focus mainly on conflict, ideally involving stories of the dramatically dead. World Service news bulletins would often drip with blood, as do the standard news agendas of most Western media. If it bleeds, I’m afraid it does lead.
That’s factor one. Consider then how the editorial decisions of each news editor are taken in the context of those made by his or her immediate predecessor on the last shift, and by the shift and the week and the months and the years before that. As I know from my years in the field, it’s very, very hard to go against the received news agenda wisdom.
Add in, as a third factor, the post-1960s, post-modernist, post-Watergate (especially) but actually quite arrogant self-belief of Western journalists as brave, embattled warriors fighting for truth against devious authority, and I’m afraid it doesn’t surprise me that the news business finds the climate story so hard to tell.
The entire analysis provides real insight into why science journalism is so often crap. The business model for so much news today – as a profit center – prevents the objective examination of climate science, or most any science.
If the BBC is faltering under these pressures, how can lesser media outlets stand up? What is worrisome but, I think, true can be found at the end of the analysis:
As such, I often ask myself — and, obsessively, others — what it will take to get Western-style, ratings-and-profit-led journalism, reflecting as it does the emotions of politics, economics and public opinion, to take climate change and sustainability as seriously as it deserves, as a present, existential threat to the very survival of our species.
Putting it bluntly, I regret to have concluded that this will only happen once very large numbers of people start dying. As in, hundreds of thousands to millions, and quite clearly climate-change-related.
The mainstream news media will only become part of the solution after the damage has been done – and that is no part at all. So, perhaps we need to find new models and new outlets for real reporting that does not have the advertiser-driven pressure for bleeding ledes.
In the comment he left, Broyne suggests that they ‘constructively” work to frighten people. He describes the same sort of Cargo Cult Worlds problem I have – people simply ignore facts and retreat into models of the world that are comforting but false.
I don’t think frightening people will really work because people simply stop listening. I do think he touches one possible solution, one I think has to work. Climate change is a hugely complex problem. It is not one we can expect one group, journalists, to solve.
Climate change requires scientists, politicians, educators, social workers, doctors, environmentalists and also journalists to be involved. It requires the harnessing of our social media tools to leverage our social networks, in order to move the information around rapidly enough so that the diverse solutions can be found.
It may also require us to ignore those groups – or route around – which do not want a solution and want to gum up the works. These groups are maladaptive and slow to adopt change. Thus they will not be part of the solution and only will be part of the problem. But their inability to deal with change makes them unable to effectively stop our progress, if we properly harness our tools and diversity.