Let’s just admit that we are all scared and take it from there…
Yesterday I attended a talk where Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian newspaper, presented his new book (“Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now”) on the past, present and future of journalism. First of all, however, he was asked to discuss a tweet he had posted that day: “Most UK papers think a drunken snog at Strictly is the most important story today. More important than a terrifying new #IPCC report saying we have 12 years to stave off the catastrophic effects of global warming...” Rusbridger’s explanation for this unforgivable short-sightedness was the commercial pressures that newspapers are under, which lead them to chase after stories that ‘deliver eyeballs’, rather than those that really matter. Personally, I think the issue is much more complex.
Behavioural science would argue that we all, journalists and editors included, fall victim to certain biases and automatic responses that prevent us from connecting with important information rationally – in this case, that the clock is ticking and we only have about a decade left before climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible.
Below are three factors in play:
- The ostrich effect: Our negative emotions (in this instance triggered by our fear of death) get in the way of us absorbing information effectively: we experience the so called “ostrich effect”, meaning that we shut down (“bury our heads in the sand”) in response to deeply frightening messages.
- Confirmation and availability biases: Our cognitive biases impede our building a genuine understanding of the issue. According to G. Marshall in his book, “Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change” (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dont-Even-Think-About-Climate/dp/163286102X), we experience ‘confirmation bias’ – we cherry pick information that supports our views, beliefs and values. We also experience ‘availability bias’, only retaining the most easily digestible information.
- Overall confusion: Being rationally confused, we feel overwhelmed. according to Marshall, there is no common narrative in the way climate change is framed. Moreover, there is not even a consensus on the definitions of climate change, let alone the solutions to it. Faced with the enormity of the problem, people don’t know whether their attempts at recycling or any other individual actions they might take would have any impact at all.
Given the significant psychological barriers that we, as human beings, face in trying to connect with the issue of climate change - fundamentally important to our future survival as it is - maybe we need to acknowledge first of all that we are all scared.
Journalists, policymakers, ordinary people – we are all human and share the fear of becoming extinct.
What would happen if journalists acknowledged that fear in their reporting? Audiences might feel emotionally validated and would consequently become much more likely to engage rationally with the issue. And by acknowledging our shared humanity, we might just unlock our potential to find solutions which bridge the ideological differences.
If you would like to follow up on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Luba Kassova or Richard Addy on firstname.lastname@example.org