Media quandary: Kardashians or climate change?

Posted by Christine, July 12, 2012

David Helvarg writes in the Progressive:

I wonder how extreme the nation’s warming winters, record-breaking summer heat waves, tornadoes, droughts, forest fires (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico), extreme weather events (DC, Maryland, Virginia, Florida) and other predicted impacts will have to get before the media use the word “climate” or “carbon” while reporting on the increasing number of weather related disasters.

Ice retreat in the Arctic this summer looks to be greater than ever before while a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study shows that July 2011 – June 2012 were the hottest 12 months in recorded U.S. history, though you probably never saw that stat.

There was a blip of recent reporting on projected sea level rise this century that’s expected to be greater on the Eastern seaboard around New York where much of the national news media is based.

And there are a handful of mainstream reporters like Anne Thompson of NBC who understand and try and report the science that links climate to weather.

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Still, a fairer indicator of media coverage was provided by the group Media Matters that put out a study in late June showing that the Kardashians received 40 times the coverage over the last 18 months as has ocean acidification, one of the major impacts of fossil-fuel fired climate disruption.

Newspapers had 41 stories and editorials, and television had 4 news stories, on how the oceans have become 30 percent more acidic since the industrial revolution as a result of added carbon dioxide from anthropogenic (human-sourced) deposits in the sea and how this is slowing the ability of shell-forming marine life—from certain plankton to clams to corals—to grow their protective surfaces. The head of NOAA, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, calls this “the osteoporosis of the sea.”

At the same time, there were 1,053 newspaper reports and 1,080 television stories on the reality-show celebrity family famous for being famous. Even I’ve heard about Kim Kardashian’s quickie marriage and divorce, though I’m unclear what impact it will have on future generations.

In his classic 1979 study of modern media, “Deciding What’s News,” sociology professor Herb Gans wrote that American media share a number of common, though unstated, values, including maintaining the social order and maintaining a strong national leadership.

That would explain, for example, why network television producers kept cutting away from shots of protesters lining the route of George W. Bush’s January 2001 inaugural parade after the Supreme Court mandated his presidential victory over Al Gore. Crowds carrying signs reading, “Hail to the Thief” and “Illegitimate” would not help restore faith in the established leadership after the long voter recount and controversial 5-4 court decision.

This media deference to power also reflects the failure of today’s political leaders to engage on an issue that is arguably one of the greatest threats to global security and stability. Neither President Barak Obama, who gave up on climate legislation in his first term and dumped his White House climate advisor, nor former Governor Mitt Romney, who, having first accepted the established science on climate, flip flopped to join his party’s climate science deniers, seems willing to engage each other on the issue, uncertain how it will play with the public.

And if neither party in power says this is a big issue, then much of the corporate media seem more than willing to give themselves a pass to keep running BP ads on the Gulf of Mexico’s alleged revival, American Petroleum Institute ads for “Energy Voters” who look like no one I ever met on an offshore rig, and coal industry promos for “Clean Coal,” between their ongoing coverage of wild fires, beetle infestations, dying crops, arctic drilling and coastal flooding—all reported and presented without any larger context of a changing global climate or commitment to the public’s right to know.

What’s the solution?

Bay Area radio DJ Scoop Nisker used to say, “If you don’t like the news go out and make some of your own.”

Occupy the Weather Channel!

David Helvarg is an author and Executive Director of the Blue Frontier Campaign, an ocean conservation and policy group, His next book will be “The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea,” coming out in Feb. 2013.