Media reform and climate action

Why the two causes need each other and deserve public policy support
July 1, 2016


Illustration by Jessica Fortner

For active citizens concerned about the climate crisis, democratic media reform may not seem like a priority. Likewise, media reformers might not think of climate activists as their most obvious allies. In fact both campaigns would be strengthened by working together. Because research shows that how climate change is reported determines how the public responds to calls for change. To the extent that change will require challenging powerful entrenched interests, for example by keeping some of Canada’s carbon-intensive fuels in the ground, it will be even harder to achieve if control of the agenda-setting media remains tied to commercial imperatives and concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

These conclusions are reinforced by a study for the CCPA’s Climate Justice Project in which I was a co-investigator. An initial report of our findings is available on the CCPA website as News Media and Climate Politics: Civic Engagement and Political Efficacy in a Climate of Reluctant Cynicism (September 2015). Members of the research team, which included Kathleen Cross, Shane Gunster, Marcelina Piotrowski and Shannon Daub, conducted focus groups with randomly selected individuals who claim to be worried about human-caused climate change but are not yet politically engaged. As expressed in the report’s introduction:

The overwhelming initial response of our participants to news about climate politics was cynicism. While there was a strong desire for more aggressive political action to address climate change, virtually all expressed considerable skepticism that governments, corporations or their fellow citizens could be convinced of the need to address the problem. Even more troubling was the tendency of many participants to dismiss collective action and political engagement as irrelevant.

These findings are similar to recent U.S. research by Anthony Leiserowitz and his colleagues at the Yale Centre for Climate Change Communication and George Mason University. Their 2014 study suggested that public opinion in the U.S. is divided into “Six Americas.” A substantial number (43%) fall into the two groups of people who say they are “alarmed” and “concerned” about climate change, and yet they are less vocal—in the news and in public engagement—than the much smaller group (27%) of Americans who are “doubtful” or “dismissive.” The political engagement of climate-concerned citizens could make all the difference. So what’s the blockage?

In part, coverage of climate change may be helping to breed apathy, cynicism and pessimism. Our focus group participants did not react well to most mainstream news on this issue, which in Canada typically focussed on the failures of conventional climate politics. (A Rutgers study of four major U.S. newspapers similarly found that pro-climate action tended to be portrayed as unsuccessful or costly.) 

For example, Gunster’s 2011 study, published in the Canadian Journal of Communication, points out how daily coverage in Vancouver’s mainstream media of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit highlights some of the characteristics that turn people off climate politics. Arguments in favour of political solutions were framed by the news as means to avoiding climate change’s damaging effects; little attention was paid to the positive impacts of environmental initiatives (e.g., green jobs). Most of the time, jobs were pitted against environmental protection, as if one sacrificed the other.

Abstract calls for pro-climate policies were counterbalanced in news stories with pessimistic and specific accounts of governments’ failures to enact them, and these failures were framed as the largely inevitable outcome of selfish and narrow political interest among governments and middle-class voters. Climate denialism wasn’t the problem—a cynical and pessimistic framing of the potential for political action was.

In interviews with the Climate Justice Project, Vancouver-area environmental communicators in advocacy groups and independent media expanded on these themes.  They found news to be compartmentalized, episodic and fragmented, failing to connect the dots between, for example, Canada’s breakneck exploitation of fossil fuels and global warming. Media rely on too narrow a range of institutionally located sources. Environmental conflicts are presented in disempowering ways, as a two-sided tug of war between competing elites in which average citizens are sidelined as spectators.

News focuses on disasters rather than positive change agents and creative solutions. When solutions are addressed it’s more about technology and voluntaristic green consumerism than collective approaches and policy options. There’s little attention to who bears responsibility for climate change, and critical analysis of the fossil fuel industries is in short supply. Overall our respondents said the editorial environment favours economic growth, consumerism and private sector interests. 

What does better news look like?

What kind of news would be more likely to engage people who are concerned about climate change, and to motivate them to take action? As summarized in the News Media and Climate Politics report, the focus groups offered important clues.

Pro-climate news would celebrate political action by ordinary citizens. Stories of entrepreneurial activism and everyday heroism provide concrete examples of the connection between individual and collective political action. News articles would tell success stories about climate politics—from citizen action to public policies that have worked in other jurisdictions—to counteract cynicism and counterbalance reports of the failures of conventional politics.

The focus of these stories would be strongly local. They might ask: how is our community connected with the causes, impacts and solutions associated with climate change? Political engagement would be normalized, treated as something that ordinary people do. Descriptive stories of neighbours doing climate politics provide an easier point of entry to political engagement than prescriptive injunctions that induce guilt or cynicism. And news could provide more concrete “procedural knowledge” about how to take political action.

Interviews with experienced environmental advocates and journalists in Vancouver add further nuances. Conflict can be presented in ways that evoke outrage and mobilization rather than paralysis and cynicism, for example by using the classic movement-building tactics of identifying grievances, enemies, allies and solutions. U.S. environmentalist Bill McKibben has used this strategy effectively, identifying the fossil fuel industry as the prime target for change, and launching, which has spearheaded the international divestment campaign. 

The concept of climate justice could provide a meta-frame that connects the dots for climate crisis reporting. It is based on the premise that those who have benefited the most from (or contributed the most to) atmospheric dumping should shoulder the responsibility for redressing the climate crisis—especially since those most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change had the least responsibility for creating them. 

Applied to journalism, climate justice suggests a reflexive and critical monitoring of climate policies and impacts. It invokes greater attention to climate disruption in the most vulnerable parts of the world, and raises the question of who benefits or suffers from high-emission economic development. It inspires linkage between events that conventional news often compartmentalizes, like free trade agreements and locally sustainable economies. And it posits climate crisis as an ethical question, not just another political controversy.

Again, the key problem is not climate science denialism or a lack of information about climate change. Simply shovelling more data at people won’t inspire them to act. Rather, the main blockage is a “hope gap,” a discrepancy between the scale of the challenge and the sense of efficacy that ordinary people need as a basis for real engagement. With these findings in mind, let’s now turn to the connections between climate activism and democratic media reform.

Why corporate media tend to be anti-climate

The contradiction between media commercialism and such democratic values as equality and informed participation has motivated media reform organizations in a number of countries. Prominent examples include Free Press and Media Alliance in the U.S., the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and the Media Reform Coalition in the U.K., New Zealand’s Coalition for Better Broadcasting, and OpenMedia here in Canada. Many of the factors that make for “bad news” on the environment reflect longstanding critiques brought forward by these groups and others.

Consumer sovereignty, the idea that media give people what they want, is a key rationalization for a commercial media system. But while good work is done in some corners of the corporate media world, mainstream news outlets generally embed biases that are inimical to environmental communication. Their primary market is traditionally advertisers, not media consumers. This generates pressure for content to be compatible with consumerism, and to appeal to appropriate demographics, privileging affluent consumers over the less well-heeled who are disproportionately the victims of ecological degradation. Market-driven media are not likely to give the latter group a prominent voice.

The evolving mediascape of online commercial journalism does not promise much better, despite the technical potential of the Internet for explanatory and solutions-oriented journalism. Editorial decision-makers can now instantly determine what type of stories attract the most “click-throughs” (unique visitors). Future content is influenced by running stories that will maximize “clicks,” typically celebrity gossip and sensational statements rather than more substantial news relevant to democracy and political efficacy. 

Given its complex and sometimes disquieting nature, climate policy journalism may be a
“merit good,somewhat like organic vegetables in that people may not be prepared to pay enough to finance its production even though they understand the long-term benefits. To be sure, crowdfunding through the Internet can help support individual bloggers and small-scale journalism organizations. But it is not clear that donations from already supportive individuals can expand climate journalism with the speed and scale needed. Besides, fundraising already occupies too much of independent media’s energies, according to Robert McChesney and John Nichols, coauthors of The Death and Life of American Journalism.

Scholars are increasingly arguing that news produced by the media has some of the characteristics of a public good—a good that is difficult to commodify because it is non-rivalrous (one person’s consumption of the news does not detract from another’s) and non-excludable (it is difficult to deny access to “free riders” who have not paid for it). Public goods are thus notably difficult to produce through market mechanisms. Textbook examples are roads, streetlamps and national defence. Consumers can obtain a great deal of news (from environmental blogs to advertising-supported commuter dailies and urban weeklies to word of mouth) without direct charge.

Moreover, quality journalism provides positive externalities—benefits that accrue to people and society beyond the buyers and sellers directly involved in the transaction. Suggestively, comparative research by Toril Aalberg, James Curran and their colleagues (How Media Inform Democracy) has demonstrated a positive relationship between the strength of a country’s public service (as distinct from commercial) broadcasting system, and the population’s level of political knowledge and participation. And yet, although society benefits from such engagement, there are no obvious marketplace purchases whereby individuals can help pay for the costs of producing it.

Like other public goods generating positive externalities, journalism has never been fully financed by direct market transactions. In Canada and the U.S., the news has been subsidized by advertising for much of the past century. Unfortunately, however, advertising helps create “a set of cultural conditions that makes us less inclined to deal with climate change,” so that “a media and telecommunications industry fuelled by advertising and profit maximization is, at the moment, part of the problem rather than part of the solution,” according to Tammy Boyce and Justin Lewis in Climate Change and the Media.

Moreover, that business model is in serious trouble as advertising and audiences migrate to the Internet. Marketers no longer need to subsidize journalism as a “free lunch” to attract audiences. Journalism is arguably becoming a case of “market failure,” a concept deriving from conventional neoclassical economics to describe a scenario, as Victor Pickard puts it in America’s Battle for Media Democracy, “in which the market is unable to efficiently produce and allocate resources, especially public goods. This often occurs when private enterprise withholds investments in critical social services because it cannot extract the returns that would justify the necessary expenditures, or when consumers fail to pay for such services’ full societal benefit.”

Beyond the crisis of journalism’s business model, however, climate crisis journalism faces additional barriers of institutional structure, class power and ideology that go well beyond conventional economic notions of market failure. As Naomi Klein argues in This Changes Everything, taking global warming seriously requires a positive role for government, a strengthened public sector and collective action, all of which is precisely why the neoliberal right-wing (especially in the U.S.) prefers not to take it seriously.

A similar ideological animus might apply to dominant media. After all, ecologically destructive capital logic fuels the need for the media to attract profitable upscale audiences, the commercial media’s symbiotic relationship with the growth of middle-class urban consumerism in global capitalism’s “emerging economies” like China and India, and the project of colonizing popular imagination with consumerist lifestyles. Sustained critical attention to overconsumption, especially from a climate justice perspective, is not exactly compatible with those logics.

In her book, Journalism in Crisis, Nuria Almiron sees a qualitative leap in the recent integration of news media with contemporary capitalism. As finance capital comes to dominate the industrial sphere, corporate media prioritize financial information and services at the expense of journalism, and become speculative actors themselves, desperate to increase profits and revenues. The growing concentration and globalization of news media ownership, and the expansion of a global public relations industry with sophisticated media strategies, are further structural barriers, yielding an emphasis on human interest, celebrity and entertainment-oriented reporting at the expense of complex issues like climate crisis, according to environmental communication scholar Alison Anderson (Sociology Compass).

Sociologist Wallace Clement’s landmark 1975 study of power in Canada suggested multi-level links between the economic elite (senior executives and directors of major corporations) and media executives and owners. Through old-boy networks, interlocking directorships, corporate-dependent media revenue streams, and shared political perspectives, social backgrounds and career patterns, media and economic elites are fused into a cohesive corporate elite that wields financial and ideological power. (Forty years on, the “corporate mapping project,” led by the University of Victoria, the CCPA and the Parkland Institute, is updating and expanding an important aspect of this work—the impact of fossil fuel corporations on Canada’s economy, democracy and culture.)

One relevant example of such influence is the reported backroom deal in 2014 between Postmedia, Canada’s largest newspaper chain, and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). Under the heading “Thought Leadership,” the plan was to yield advertorials focussing on fossil fuel energy. Topics were to be directed by CAPP but written by Postmedia staff, with 12 single-page “Joint Ventures” in 13 major Canadian newspapers. Tellingly, Postmedia readers found out about the proposeddeal in the small but groundbreaking independent Vancouver Observer.

Does such collusion between Big Media and Big Carbon really matter? Occasionally, social justice activists dismiss Canada’s major media corporations as irrelevant “legacy” media, believing everything to be fine because they have their own websites and digital networks. Would that it were so. Dwayne Winseck’s research on this issue demonstrates the continued reach and concentrated ownership of the major media (see his article in this issue). They may now share news dissemination with corporate-owned “social media” (better termed “digital connective networks”), but the corporate press continues to influence public policy discourse and agendas. Traditional media corporations have extended their presence onto the Internet, and they supply much of the information that is the basis for the blogosphere’s opinion merchants.

Conversely, the dependence of social justice groups on digital media makes communication policy principles (such as affordable, uncensored Internet access, as advocated by OpenMedia) directly relevant to their work. According to research by Thomas Poell and Jose van Dijck in the Routledge Companion to Alternative and Community Media, excessive dependence on social media leads social movements to reproduce some of the most problematic aspects of traditional media politics. Spectacle and event orientation take precedent over elaborated explanations, solution building and other aspects of pro-climate journalism as discussed above.

Alternative media for progressive climate politics

There are good examples of engaging pro-climate reporting in the for-profit media. For instance, in the city of Burnaby, British Columbia, the community paper Burnaby Now has provided fair and detailed coverage of the controversy surrounding the proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, storage facilities and tanker traffic, a project connected with the expansion of the Alberta tar sands. The community’s active engagement against the proposal was normalized and portrayed respectfully. (Disclosure: a neighbour and I were featured in a front page photo showing the beautiful landscape we considered to be at risk.)

But on the whole, journalism subordinated to corporate imperatives will generally be muted on an issue that implicitly evokes the need for collective action beyond the constraints of market relations, consumerism and property rights. Instead, effective climate justice communication is more likely to be nurtured in independent/alternative media. In addition to shared grievances, alternative media are a second point of connection between climate activism and media reform because they struggle at the margins of the mediascape. They would benefit from public policy that offset the systemic biases of market-driven media. And they can provide models of journalism that can influence larger media.

Fortunately, there are living examples of such media in Canada, particularly online. Nationally, has been offering moderately left-of-centre views since 2001. Vancouver is home to several outlets that emphasize pro-environment news. For example, The Tyee has offered investigative, analytical and solutions-oriented reportage on energy issues and much else since 2003, and competes well with the lacklustre corporate Vancouver dailies for readership. The Vancouver Observer, founded in 2006, provides bloggers and reporters with a platform on the environment and other issues, often telling stories from human interest and women’s perspectives, such as its series on life in the tar sands epicentre of Fort McMurray. is an online news magazine “dedicated to cutting through the spin clouding the debate on energy and environment,” challenging climate science denialism and Big Carbon’s public relations machinery.

There’s much debate about boundaries, purposes and even the label “alternative” media. Many journalists in non-corporate media prefer the term “independent,” with their role being not to promote social change as such, but to do better citizen-oriented journalism than is typically offered in conventional media. Whatever term you prefer, the research literature suggests that quintessential “alternative” media would have some of the following characteristics:

  • Oppositional or counter-hegemonic content, including alternative frames; coverage of issues, events, and perspectives that are marginalized or ignored by conventional media; and criteria of newsworthiness that emphasize the threats that the established order poses to subaltern groups (rather than vice versa);
  • Participatory production processes, such as horizontal communication (both within news organizations, and with readers and audiences); and communicative relationships that both reduce the gap between producers and users, and empower ordinary people to engage in public discourse;
  • Mobilization-orientation, or a positive orientation toward progressive social change, and productive connections with (but not subordination to) social movements;
  • Localism and engagement with communities whether defined in terms of shared locale or shared interests;
  • Independence from state and corporate control, and from commercial imperatives; and often under individual or co-operative ownership; and
  • Low degree of capitalization, i.e., entry costs are low enough to enable under-resourced communities to gain a public voice.

These characteristics mesh well with climate crisis journalism that would seek to inform and mobilize counter-publics, engage local communities and challenge entrenched power. While surprisingly little scholarship discusses the role of alternative media in climate change communication, some of the most relevant research has been conducted in Canada by Shane Gunster.

In his above-mentioned analysis of how mainstream and alternative media in British Columbia reported the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations, Gunster concluded that alternative media offered more optimistic and engaged visions of climate politics than the cynical, pessimistic and largely spectatorial accounts that dominated conventional news. While alternative media were deeply critical of the spectacular failure of “politics as usual” at that summit, they invited the public to respond with outrage and (collective) action rather than (individualized) despair and hopelessness. Informed by a deeper, more sophisticated and broadly sympathetic exploration of the multiplicity of climate activisms, alternative media (re)positioned political action as a meaningful and accessible response to climate change.

In a companion study of a year’s worth of climate change coverage in alternative media, Climate Change Politics: Communication and Public Engagement, Gunster argued that their more optimistic framing was largely due to consistent attention to inspirational stories and concrete examples of civic activism and engagement, political struggle, innovative and effective public policy, and transformative change in communities, institutions and governments. In short, alternative media ran stories of political success that can sustain and invigorate feelings of hope. 

Policy support for democratic media

The challenge is how to scale up the best practices and frames of such independent media to the point where they can influence “mainstream” public discourse, given that the economic forces noted above not only favour commercialized media, but also make sustainability difficult for independent, non-commercial, alternative media.

Neither the content nor the demographics of independents are attractive to advertisers. Politicians and other newsmakers often deny these media quotes or access to news events. Alternative magazines don’t enjoy much access to the semi-monopolistic distribution networks (you won’t often see Canadian Dimension at supermarket checkout counters). They don’t have the cross-media resources to promote their websites competitively with corporate media. They typically rely on volunteer labour, grants and donations, and de facto subsidization from institutional sponsors including foundations and trade unions. As York University’s David Skinner notes, even The Tyee, one of Canada’s most successful alternative independent news organizations, “still struggles financially.” 

While alternative media are economically precarious, they add diversity to the media system, fill the growing gaps in local news and provide public voice for groups, topics and perspectives marginalized in dominant media. There is thus a strong democratic rationale for public policy support for alternative and independent media. What might this support look like in Canada?

How about charitable status for non-profit news organizations? Or a Citizenship News Voucher, as proposed by U.S. economist Dean Baker, whereby taxpayers can contribute $200 toward the non-profit news outlet of their choice? International examples offer more inspiration for policy reform:

  • Facilitate the formation of trusts, like the one that publishes the Guardian in the U.K., a global leader in campaigning for climate action.
  • Achieve cross-subsidization within the media system to support non-profit public service media through small taxes on profit-oriented sectors like telecommunication services, cable television subscriptions or media advertising. 
  • Charge commercial broadcasters for their licensed use of the public spectrum.
  • Revitalize public service broadcasting, as the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting advocate. 
  • Remove community access television from the grip of the cable monopolies and instead require them to fund multimedia community access centres, as the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations (CACTUS) recommends. 

Such policies revolve around subsidies, incentives and infrastructure support. They need to be operated at arms’ length from government to avoid political interference. Canada, after all, has ample experience in supporting public broadcasting, magazines, the arts, and television and film production through public institutions or programs.

In the past decade, despite the bitter winds of a neoliberal political environment, media reform organizations in the U.S. and Canada have been able to mobilize people and win some regulatory victories, particularly in telecommunications. Starting almost from scratch, OpenMedia and Free Press have each attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters. A corporate-dominated media system is not inevitable or immutable.

But I’m not advocating for particular policies or organizations. Rather, the point is that media reformers and environmentalists could find common ground in favouring public policy support of alternative media and independent journalism as important pillars of democracy and climate communication. Through greener media, a greener planet.

Robert Hacket is a professor of communication at Simon Fraser University, a CCPA research associate, and a co-founder of NewsWatch Canada and the Media Democracy Project. 

This article was published in the July/August 2016 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.