The psychological mechanisms known to spur action in both people and groups are not activated by media coverage of scientific developments on climate challenges. An investigation by social scientists and geoscientists from the University of Lausanne (UNIL-Switzerland) came to this conclusion.
Human activity is causing the world to overheat, and the results will be disastrous for all living things, including humans. The media currently has the potential to expose everyone to this information.
But how do scholarly publications and the media present research on these topics? Is the information the media chose to broadcast consistent with the scientific focus of studies on global warming?
Geosciences and psychology experts from UNIL looked into these issues in a study that was published in Global Environmental Change. To determine whether this great corpus of information made it into the mainstream media, a study of roughly 50,000 scientific articles on climate change for 2020 was conducted.
The data revealed that the media favored the natural sciences over other fields of study in most cases. It was unduly preoccupied with future large-scale climate projections and a limited number of concerns, like polar bears, drought, and melting glaciers.
The study demonstrates that this type of narrative does not trigger the psychological mechanisms that would encourage readers to act in an environmentally friendly way. Contrarily, the way the media cherry-picks a few aspects of climate change research could backfire, leading to denial and avoidance.
Presenting the Problem, But Also the Solutions
According to the report, this globalizing strategy could cause the public to become more distant.
The individuals exposed to these facts, not feeling directly concerned by them, will tend towards a peripheral, superficial and distracted treatment of the information. Only a central, deep and attentive consideration will allow the public to transform what they know into mechanisms of action and commitment.
Fabrizio Butera, Study Co-Author and Professor, Institute of Psychology, University of Lausanne
Marie-Elodie Perga, Study Co-Author and Professor, Institute of Land Surface Dynamics, University of Lausanne, added, “If the goal of mediating research is to have a societal impact, then it seems that we are pushing all the buttons that don’t work.”
Fear can be induced by significant risks.
Butera added, “Research on human behavior shows that fear can lead to behavioral change in individuals and groups, but only if the problem presented is accompanied by solutions.”
The public will tend to disregard the issue, look for less tense information, and surround themselves with networks that depict a more tranquil world when presented with merely descriptive pieces that highlight only carefully selective aspects of climate change.
Research, Scientific Journals and Media
What can be done, then, to encourage society to participate more extensively in climate protection action through effective and uplifting communication?
Perga further stated, “The treatment of environmental issues in a transversal and solution-oriented way would be useful. It would show that climate change has direct consequences on our lifestyles, our immediate environment or our finances, for example.”
This strategy necessitates a shift in the attitudes and practices of communication managers at academic institutions, publishing companies, and the media.
“For the time being, the most renowned scientific publications favor end-of-century studies. Journalists then give very wide coverage to the publications of these journals, which are the most highly rated,” Perga added.
Perga concluded, “Instead, in France, for example, a group of journalists has drawn up a charter advocating the adaptation of media coverage of these issues, and calling for more cross-disciplinarity.”
A human being acting alone cannot make a difference, but group efforts have a big impact. There are answers, but they must be made public and go beyond local efforts.
Perga, M.-E., et al. (2023) The climate change research that makes the front page: Is it fit to engage societal action? Global Environmental Change. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2023.102675