Let’s work with words to improve the climate change narrative

By Nikki Wright

Kiwis want to be shown more solutions regarding climate danger and less doom and gloom. It’s true, and we have the numbers to prove it.

New Zealand’s popular online and print news company Stuff conducted a poll about media coverage of climate change in June.

15,000 responses were received – an impressive number, considering many polls published by Newshub, 1News and Reid Research base their results on just 1000 responses.

Why such a large-scale response?

“The scale of the response – about 15 times more than we'd dared hope for – speaks to the depth of feeling,” Stuff news editor Patrick Crewdson said.

The survey was part of the new Quick! Save the Planet project. I love that Stuff carried out the survey. After all, running a successful business and publishing environmentally-helpful words aren’t mutually exclusive – something Wright Communications knows well, as a leader in publishing sustainability reports.

Big question, though: Stuff’s survey had some very bipartisan responses to issues which should be clear and simple. So how can the truth have two sides?

At the end of Stuff’s announcement of the survey results, Crewdson gives this note on ‘balance’ – and notice that balance is in quotation marks.

“Some respondents used the survey to deny the scientific consensus that climate change is real and caused by human activity,” Crewdson said. “Many objected to Stuff's refusal to give airtime to climate change denialists, accusing us of abandoning our journalistic principles by not giving ‘balance’ and showing ‘both sides.’

“But matching fact with fiction isn't balance. When we write about global air travel, we don't quote Flat Earth Society members who deny the planet is round. Fake balance – which puts reality on level pegging with nonsense – is dangerously unethical.”

The point Patrick makes is excellent. I don’t think it’s acceptable that nay-sayers in the New Zealand media have an unbalanced access to a huge audience.  

For example:

  • Magic Talk host Peter Williams called climate change “nonsense” this year
  • Leighton Smith called climate change a “hoax” last year.
  • Mike Hosking defending Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Accord on climate change in 2017, calling concerns ‘plastic alarm bells’ in 2018, and in July 2019 saying “zealots” are in charge of climate change reduction.

It creates confusion in the minds of the public at a time when we need to stop debating the existence of human-induced climate change and get on with sharing positive actions about what Kiwi households and companies are doing to reduce further global warming.

Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 per cent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organisations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

And the radio presenters are out of step with their listeners.  A recent ECCA survey of 1000 people conducted by TRA found more than 80 per cent agreed climate change is real, and about the same number agreed that we could all be doing more to combat the global rise in temperature, including individually and at the Government level.

But 88 per cent of respondents said companies needed to do more to reduce their impact on the environment.  So, what we need the media to do is commit to sharing more stories of businesses that are cracking this stuff and making dents in their carbon emissions so other organisations can learn how to tackle this very real business threat.

Stuff’s survey showed

  • Asked to rate on a five-point scale how important climate change is as an issue, most people (50.2%) said it was of maximum importance.
  • Younger people reported the most concern.
  • Only 1.9% of respondents said New Zealand media gave superb coverage of climate change. Over a quarter said our media gave terrible coverage. Also, coverage came with too many acronyms and not enough cut-through clear messages from scientists.
  • Some respondents felt farming was a sacred cow left unchallenged for too long.
  • Relentless negative news about climate change disasters made some respondents give up and switch off because they felt overwhelmed.
  • People said they were inspired by examples of 'good climate behaviour' stories and wanted more stories of relatable mainstream New Zealanders who are making real and meaningful changes in how they live and who “don't fit the mould of hippy”.
  • Respondents indicated they would like insistent and realistic reporting both of the challenge and of plans to combat it – without sugar-coating or greenwashing. This could help foster a sense of urgency without alarmism or hysteria.
  • Respondents also wanted reporting that made climate change feel tangible and achievable and coverage which details “the hip-pocket consequences of a changing climate and the effect individual choices have on the planet.”

Stuff is taking the survey’s results to inform new features and storytelling formats and pursue the best news stories. This is known in business as Testing and Measuring. You put out a product, you listen to what your audience genuinely thinks of the product, and you adjust accordingly.

As I said at the start, it’s smart to realise that branding in favour of sustainability will gain rather than lose business.

In my last blog, I discussed Auckland Council using the phrase “climate change emergency” because urgency gets results.

What brand could be more urgent than the brand Stuff has chosen: ‘Quick! Save the Planet.’

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