The apocalypse is nigh – Hyped up headlines and climate change

Discussions on climate change have a tendency towards the negative. It’s not uncommon to read titles which emphasis doom and gloom.

An example from earlier this year started with a press release from MIT entitled “Persian Gulf could experience deadly heat”. This release presented a simulation forecasting the impact of climate change if there is no change to current practices. The researchers believe that a business-as-usual approach could result in deadly heatwaves, which could be fatal for those in affected areas.

The resulting headlines were, as you might imagine, apocalyptic. Gathered by Eric Holthaus on Slate, they included “Could worsening heat make the Persian Gulf uninhabitable?”, “The Middle East Could Become Too Hot For Human Life Within the Next Century“, and “These Cities May Soon Be Uninhabitable Thanks to Climate Change“.

Holthaus had the opportunity to interview one of the study’s co-authors Elfatih Eltahir,  who said, “I’m learning my lesson in dealing with the media.” He went on to tell Eric that the issue probably stemmed from the word ‘habitability’. A public health term which some journalists seem to have misunderstood. Another problem was the conditions of the study which would be rare and not unavoidable.

Elfatih said, “These are heat wave events, this is not continuous heat… If people in these cities remain in an air-conditioned environment, then they will be safe.”

Framing science

As James Painter wrote in The Conversation, the climate change “mega-story” within the media is one of doom and gloom. The disaster narrative grabs attention easily but fails to create motivation for action or genuine engagement. In fact, appeals to fear are more likely to create defensive avoidance (‘This is too scary to think about’), reactance (‘They are trying to manipulate me’) and desensitisation.

Journalists adopt news frames to organise new stories and convey a central issue in manner that helps audiences know how to feel and think. Frames act as an aid for interpretation and a filter. Research in this field has previously shown that frames presented in press releases shift when stories enter the news cycle – often becoming more focused on inciting emotion. The way content is framed can influence judgements made by lay publics. That means the use of apocalypse-centric frames (or ‘mega-story) for climate change research poses a risk in the sense that negative, less useful reactions are created.

This is significant because, as Eric Holthaus notes, we do have a choice when it comes to climate change. We can continue on the current course, or we can review our current behaviour and change.

One thought on “The apocalypse is nigh – Hyped up headlines and climate change

  1. Sensationalising science is not new but it is definitely something all scientists need to be wary of. More than that though, we need to educate the media on interpretation and communication of information and keep calling out misleading articles!! Thanks for an interesting read 🙂

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