Imagine this: Meteorologists warn that a huge storm is poised to hit Humboldt County. We can expect howling winds to uproot trees and knock out power. The Eel River Valley and Arcata Bottom will surely flood. Driving to get food or other supplies will be foolhardy in such conditions. Without urgent action, hospitals will be left scrambling and death will most certainly visit the homeless, the elderly and the medically vulnerable. Once the storm passes, cleaning up the damage, repairing infrastructure, restoring power and helping victims will take months at best.
Now imagine this: The local media mentions the storm is coming but, in addition to quoting the weather scientists, reporters give equal weight to statements from an elected official who downplays the whole thing, saying, "Oh, we've seen storms before, no reason to panic, the weather people just like to make stuff up to sound important." The North Coast Journal, Lost Coast Outpost, Redheaded Blackbelt and various TV and radio stations run the storm stories, but as just one more headline in a string of drug busts, theater reviews, weed news, opinion columns, economic updates and random small town tidbits. (We don't know how the Times-Standard covers it because of that goddamn paywall.)
As a result, people fail to grasp the seriousness of the storm and don't prepare. Cars slide off roads, people find themselves without power and food, homeless people drown, as do livestock, and generally the county is in catastrophe mode for a long while.
To be fair, media has historically given adequate notice when extreme weather threatens. But when the pending disaster in question is a slow-moving one — such as climate change or sea level rise or the rollback of environmental regulations — the coverage typically lacks a sense of urgency. News stories are also more likely to do readers a disservice by including an "other side" that has no actual validity, thus perpetuating misinformation in the name of "balance."
Given this, it's no wonder that so many Americans underestimate — or don't believe in — the threats to our very existence. According to a YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project survey of 23 countries, the U.S. is, as the Guardian put it, "a hotbed of climate science denial." This matters because the lack of significant climate change action on the part of the U.S. has left us and the rest of the world with not a lot of hope for the future. The pending extinction of millions of species and mass suffering isn't all the media's fault, of course, but the failure of journalists along the way has certainly contributed to where we are now.
As reported in the New York Times' story "Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change" by Nathanial Rich, global momentum around reducing fossil fuel emissions essentially screeched to a halt when the press gave outsized attention to one speech by William Nierenberg, then-director of Scripps Institution of Oceanograpy, in which he summarized a report on climate change. The report identified the need for immediate action but Nierenberg argued for a wait-and-see approach. In response, the news stories in major newspapers conveyed to readers that panic was unwarranted and inaction just fine. Apparently, reporters considered the speech the definitive narrative, failing to inform the public of the report's actual findings or challenging Nierenberg's statements.
We're now scrambling to catch up.
The Guardian has updated its style guide "to introduce terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world." Instead of "climate change," the Guardian will now use "climate emergency, crisis or breakdown." The move comes, according to editor-in-chief Katharine Viner, because, "We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue ... The phrase 'climate change,' for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity."
Likewise, the Today Show offers frequent, regular segments about climate change, traveling to various cities around the country to show viewers firsthand the threats and impacts of climate change in their daily weather reporting, informing a multi-demographic audience about the facts and shutting down climate-deniers.
Humboldt County's local reporters have made questions about sea level rise a regular part of interviews about building projects in Humboldt's lowest-lying areas. Still, given the looming threat to property, livelihood, recreation and the county's economy as whole, combined with the ongoing apparent denial of the city of Eureka and county when it comes to development, more could be asked and harder.
In short, examples of stellar coverage abound — recently, Elaine Weinreb's "Flood Watch" in these pages and Ryan Burns' story on the Yurok Tribe's river restoration on Lost Coast Outpost — but giant gaps exist, too. One suggestion for reporters: Treat the environment as critical to our existence. At a national level we hear what the Dow Jones Industrial Average is doing every single day, sometimes every hour. What if we had daily updates about how many tons of greenhouse gases we're currently producing and how that number relates to keeping the planet from warming beyond 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit? What if every local story included the related short- and long-term environmental impacts of the subject at hand? What's the carbon footprint of the Trucker's Parade? Of NCJ Burger Week? How much could Humboldt County reduce our collective emissions if we had adequate public transit? When it comes to clean drinking water, do we put all our faith in our elected officials or is some independent research warranted? What are the top three environmental threats facing the county and what's being done to address them? Which elected officials and state, county and city staff are responding, and how?
More suggestions: Quit with false equivalency, stop saying you're just "giving the people what they want" and drop the pretense of objectivity. Every decision you make — what to cover, whom to talk to, whether or not to dig beyond a press release, which quotes you use and how — slants a story. Analysis and interpretation should be part of a news story, not a sidebar. And stop quoting people who clearly have no interest in telling the truth. Why do you give them airtime? It's a disservice to your audience. Finally, as far as what the people want, you're the ones who make that call. Collectively, media has great influence over people's choices. Feed people crime candy all day and sure, they'll keep clicking and scrolling while the world burns. Write, talk and show well enough, and your audience will care about your stories. Especially once they realize the storm is well on its way.
Jennifer Savage is a recovering reporter currently employed as the Surfrider Foundation's California Policy Manager and prefers she/her pronouns.