Avoid the News
This article is the antidote to news. It is long and you probably won’t be able to skim it. Thanks to heavy news consumption many people have lost the reading habit and struggle to absorb more than four pages straight - Rolf Dobelli, ‘Avoid the News: Towards a Healthy News Habit’, 2010.
If you have 20 minutes to spare, you should read the article for yourself. Your brain will thank you for it.
To synthesize some of my favourite points from the article, Dobelli argues that the news misleads us systemically, that it is irrelevant, changes the structure of our brains, makes us passive and that it's ultimately toxic to our bodies.
He writes: News constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocordicoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress.
I am interested in exploring the correlation between stress, aggression and climate reporting.
More specifically, I would like to explore how climate reporting contributes to raised levels of climate anxiety, climate miscommunication and climate miseducation.
All the points Rolf Dobelli made in his article also apply to climate news. The media haven’t made any real attempts to define the global economic, social and political impacts of climate change and they have done a poor job of curating and reporting climate stories.
The way language is used to misrepresent and underplay the urgency of the climate crisis has considerably limited, if not altogether halted, our progress. The bulk of the media’s climate focus is squandered on human interest pieces flaunting politicised and irrelevant narratives with little to no educational value. Climate science is barely covered, and on the rare occasions, it does feature in a news interview, heavily diluted.
It is now January 2020 and climate news still isn’t covered anywhere near enough and the stories that are covered aren’t reported well enough. Interviewees aren’t handled with the level of professionalism and respect that they and a crisis of such magnitude and global significance deserve. Climate news stories are consistently manhandled and communicated in a way that contorts and disregards their urgency and significance to our lives.
We need to get better at handling, processing and respecting climate facts and the interviewees presenting those facts.
We would also benefit from prioritising the significance of an emotional education, to help people process, prepare and ultimately adapt to global warming. A solid and consistent emotional education is an opportunity for us to define a collective climate conscience and approach. Emotional intelligence is a skill set, a skill set that needs to be prioritised and cultivated because it will pave the way and inform the escalation and enforcement of climate-adaptive strategies.
Risk communication is also an essential part of this process and a vital part of any crisis. Governments, cities and the media have a responsibility to communicate current and future climate risks.
All these variables have led to the confusion, repression and miseducation of the public about the immediate and infinite realities locked into the climate crisis. The way the climate crisis is reported has and will continue to affect how we understand, think and ultimately act or continue to ignore the issue. That’s why it’s so important that we get this right, that we learn how to think and talk about the climate crisis, because unless we learn how to do that, we won’t know how to act.
The press represents a concentration of power over public opinion unknown in history. They have a responsibility to be descriptive not interpretative in their handling of climate-related news and to reflect the entirety and the reality of the climate crisis.
No 1 - The New News
Alan Rusbridger, for twenty years the editor-in-chief of the Guardian, writes in ‘Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now’, There are not that many places left that do quality news well or even aim to do it at all.
In the last two decades, journalism - the way news is covered, reported, written, and edited - has changed. The news is now faster, edgier, angrier, and needier than it used to be.
Conglomeration has redefined the news industry. Facebook, BuzzFeed, Google Search and journalism job cuts have enabled the rise of fake news.
This is not an indictment about the relationship between business and journalism, it is a synthesized overview of the changing nature of journalism worldwide and the reasons it has found itself incapable of addressing the urgency of the climate crisis.
Conglomeration can be good for business, but it has generally been bad for journalism. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties big media companies kept getting bigger by swallowing up other media companies, suppressing competition and taking on debt, which made publishers cowardly and conformist.
We can and should acknowledge the new news for what it is at this stage in its evolution. I don’t know how to define its function and the role it can or should play in society, but I know that in its current guise, the news industry has been reluctant and shown itself to be incapable of reflecting the reality of climate catastrophe.
No 2 - The Interview
News interviews have become considerably less professional and considerably more political. More often than not, they are downright contentious.
Controversy has seemingly supplanted credibility as the new currency and that sugar rush might satisfy a short-term itch, but it malnourishes the viewer and undermines the issues that most affect us in the long term. Issues like the climate crisis.
At their worst, the style and substance of interviews about the climate crisis come across as superficial and combative in nature. Such interviews are blatantly billed as sparring matches. As spectator sport.
This is partly because interview styles have changed so considerably.
At some point, the spotlight shifted from the interviewee to the interviewer. Even news channel interviewers have started sounding and resembling entertainment talk show hosts as they openly and proudly take their cues from social media and push and prod their subjects for an emotional soundbite.
I would argue that such behaviour is unethical, unprofessional and unfortunate because the interview isn’t supposed to belong to the type of interviewer who deliberately, loudly and firmly imposes themselves into the narrative. The interview is supposed to belong, albeit momentarily, to the viewer.
No 3 - The Pace
There is a direct correlation between the 24-hour news cycle and how stressed out and angry we have become. Readers have become 24-hour consumers and we are being endlessly manipulated and shocked into vegetative submission.
I don’t see a single idea in the way that most media outlets deliver and social media dissects climate news.
What I am acutely aware of is how parochial and bullish the media is when it comes to defining the climate narrative and lingo. You are allowed, nay encouraged and celebrated for being a climate optimist. Extra points for being stubborn about it. But should anyone venture into the unchartered emotional domain existing between climate optimism and pessimism (whatever that is), you will be publicly charged and shamed for inciting mass panic.
Reality is hard to stomach and even harder to live with, but we can’t wish or shame it away without compromising and stunting ourselves in the process. The public will have better luck dealing with real-world problems if we approach them rooted in reality.
No 4 -The Social Media Recycle
Is social media driving the climate conversation or is it making the public tune out?
I would say both but what I want to focus on here are the kinds of climate change conversations social media is driving.
The media has never been a missionary or charitable institution, but a business that collects and publishes news which the people want and are willing to buy. Social media has further sensationalised our individual relationship with the news because it handles and promotes news stories in a louder and more reactive way.
Social media climate stories originate in and carry through to the news. If you’re wondering who decides what climate stories get covered, the answer is us. We, the masses decide, when we express outrage or fascination or contempt on Twitter. Those combative narratives, the incendiary rhetoric, the word limit induced misrepresentations are eventually recycled and replayed back to us by news anchors. That dynamic eventually trickles back into the news media.
The news increasingly serves as an echo chamber for whatever idea gains the most social media traction.
As a result, the lines between fiction and reality have become blurred and this is a problem because we cannot afford to let fiction outperform reality. We cannot afford to lose the public to a climate bubble, where the same tracks are replayed by the media, social or otherwise, on a loop.
No 5 - The Tone
Tone - this is where we’re going especially wrong.
It’s not enough to simply raise awareness. Conveying the right message and the right balance of risk i.e. tone, is key.
By adopting the right tone, we are in a position to implicitly substantiate the nature and urgency of the climate crisis.
Our regularly scheduled climate programming (media narratives, discussions and debates) are an arena in which glaring tone missteps are most evident.
Climate debates can be meaningful if they are produced thoughtfully and managed professionally. The ‘Is Greta doing more harm than good?’ debate is not the sort of conversation that is conducive to a meaningful discussion. It simply does not serve a purpose. It is a distraction. A cheap and irrelevant one at that.
There is something very disingenuous about watching Generation Xers criticise and discredit a young person on behalf of her peers for fear that she might scare them.
I don’t think Generation Z needs or wants to be shielded from the realities of climate change, they are leaning into it. They do however seem annoyed at Generation X and their predecessors, probably because while they’re foregoing school to march in the streets, the adults are clutching their pearls as they loudly fixate on Greta’s latest UN speech.
There is no hiding behind the ‘Oh! won’t somebody please think of the children?’ plea as a reason to disguise and downplay the climate threat. The children aren’t buying it and why would they? They have nothing to gain from being silent and everything to lose.
No 6 - An Emotional Education
There is public polarisation about climate change but it’s not between the deniers and the believers. The climate ecosystem is far more convoluted than that. Contradictory rhetorics are embedded within its seams.
So many of us are still responding and engaging with an abstract notion of climate change. In the space of the last 3 years, we have seen vocal enthusiasm and concern for the climate but not for real, meaningful change.
Even if we were to somehow fix the media, the news industry itself can’t fix the climate crisis. However, if we were to make the switch from knee-jerk reaction to reflection, if we were to start educating ourselves it would help us filter, comprehend, stomach and process the reality, the many realities, of the climate crisis.
When dealing with an existential crisis, all our emotions are understandably on the table and they will surface at some point. The objective here isn’t to be scared or to scare others. Fear will invariably be a part of the journey, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing and something we can or should seek to avoid.
The objective is to be informed and that is a process that requires and involves the use of our full emotional spectrum.
In fact, the objective is to be both informed (which requires overcoming an emotional impulse to reject what is overwhelming) and to receive information in a way that conduces to taking action.
The emotional valence of climate change puts us at risk of both ignoring information and becoming paralysed by what we do internalise. This is why we need to be taught how to think about the climate crisis.
A series of comprehensive, openminded, non-political and mature climate education campaigns (reports, long articles, podcasts, books) and movements, defined and lead by *experts, globally implemented across schools, and workplaces would be useful.
*By experts I mean scientists, academics, legitimately green businesses, legitimately green tech entrepreneurs and investors.
No 7 - Risk Communication
Risk communication is defined as an interactive process whereby information which helps people understand their risks is exchanged between experts and affected people.
Bad or superficial climate coverage easily translates as misinformation and this has contributed to climate confusion, politicking, stigmatisation and hysteria. It has also culminated in misplaced anger at activists and scientists.
If the key messages do not reach everyone, then people don’t consider the issue to be urgent and they lose trust in the experts who are there to educate them.
Surveillance technology offers us an advantage by helping us quickly identify and track the incidence and scale of climate damage.
The public should expect regular proactive communications from their governments, cities and municipalities, even when some variables are still unknown. They would also benefit from being told what is being done and why.
Social media feeds are tailored to the individual’s interests, which is why risk communication also needs to be targeted to the local community and expand from there.
No 8 - A New Global Climate Language
I would like to advocate for a new 18th SDG goal - the introduction of a new global climate language.
We would do well to redefine our relationship with the words we use, apply to and associate with climate change.
We also need to start using new words but more urgently we need to swap the words we are using for ones that better reflect the realities we face and the outcomes we are trying to achieve.
Let’s start with the two most obvious words, ‘climate’ and ‘change’. When married together, it sounds like they are describing a very natural, vague, and speculative condition.
Climate crisis on the other hand, alludes to the dangers of a post 2’C world, a world where all of us will bear witness to the devastating breakdown of the planetary ecosystems.
Until we use the right words, we’re going to continue to operate and speak to the margins of the problem. Once we start using the right words, we will be in a position to mobilise the English language, in all its clarity and descriptive might, and use it to alert the world so that it may adapt to the coming storms.
We owe that much to the villages, islands, cities, and countries that are having to contend with the worst impacts of the climate crisis, and we owe it to ourselves to confront what has already happened and what is at stake. By using the right words, we show maturity and mutual and self-respect and commitment to do what needs to be done.
To put it plainly, it is in everyone’s best interest to call this crisis a crisis because if we did, we might actually start treating it as one.
Incidentally, the mainstream media is quick to brand just about everything a crisis. Why make an exception here? An existential threat surely counts as a crisis, more so than London’s housing problem. London’s ‘housing crisis’ is no fun but it’s no crisis.
As such, the 18th SDG goal is a call for a new global language and consequentially a new climate centred global mentality.
No 9 - ‘Fight’ Climate Change
We have been using language to convey aspirational and combative climate game plans and narratives, but that kind of language doesn’t align with the nature of this problem.
When dealing with a crisis of such epic proportions, it’s irresponsible to frame the climate crisis as a survivable event because not everyone will survive.
It’s naïve to say that we will ‘solve’ or ‘stop’ climate change for everyone because that simply isn’t going to be possible.
We can adapt, we can mitigate but the suggestion that we can stop it, within our narrow time frame, without raising an alarm, is irresponsible.
It’s irresponsible to talk about climate change in fighting terms in general. It gives the impression that we’re winning the climate battle, that we are mobilised and ready to rebalance the scales. That as long as we believe that the climate crisis can be averted, it will be averted.
There is a lot of misplaced enthusiasm and ambiguity at play here but that aside, this is simply not the case.
I’m not convinced that there’s any place for aspirational and combative thinking and perspectives at the heart of the climate crisis problem. I understand that that’s how we want to feel, hopeful and in control, but that isn’t a strategy.
To borrow from Rolf Dobelli, The highly visible misleads us. The presence, repetition and frequency of the word ‘fight’ aligned with the words ‘climate change’ makes people think we are doing just that. Fighting (and winning) the war against climate change, which is no different than saying we’re fighting (and winning) a war against mother nature.
Mother nature is a serial killer, so I don’t see us coming up on top if we were to go to war with her. The planet isn’t here to support us, it’s fairly indifferent to our survival and general wellbeing.
We are responsible for our survival and general wellbeing and as such we have a responsibility to adapt, to mitigate, to make changes and that will require sacrificing and altering our previous modus operandi.
There is an inverse relationship between language about fighting and language about adapting and mitigating, for two main reasons. For one thing, our associations with fighting have to do with identifying an enemy outside ourselves who we either defeat or are defeated by, and secondly because fighting is associated with action taken to preserve our status quo, it ultimately works against us. ‘Innovate’ and ‘disrupt’ don’t blend with climate ‘fight’. They are proponents of two completely different mindsets and strategies that are at odds with one another.
If we were to supplant the word ‘fight’ for the words ‘think about’, we would have a seriously effective (and responsible) slogan on our hands.
No 10 - Climate ‘Engagement’
I have become very interested in how we mobilise language without actually mobilising it. As a society we place such an onus on innovation but now we need to find pride in new words that are even more important and more useful like ‘agility’, ‘resilience’, ‘adaptability’ being nimble and informed.
Up until this point, ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’ and ‘engagement’ have taken up much of our attention. These words get used all the time and are constantly floating around in the air, but they don’t seem to transition into other verbs or expand into relevant and implementable strategic phrases. Instead they seem to get lost into the abyss.
There is a difference between using words associated with action and escalating the call for action. A hallmark of this moment in history is our ability to telegraph a commitment to a set of values or actions without having to commit to them. Words like ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’, and ‘engagement’ simultaneously stand-in for action and are sufficiently vague enough to allow people to present themselves as action takers without actually disrupting the status-quo or committing to anything.
‘Innovation’ is too vague and impersonal to be useful. It’s been elasticated and deconstructed in so many different ways, it comes across as clunky and insecure.
Similarly, ‘engagement’ could mean anything, and it often does which is what works against it. Engagement has such a broad purview. It allows companies and organisations to obscure the tragically limited and impotent forms of climate action most companies are referring to/willing to take.
I am interested in deciphering the realities and limitations of the word ‘engagement’. I would like to understand what engagement really means, whose doing it well and for what purpose.
Most of the time when companies/ organisations talk about engaging with their audience, they have a very specific strategy in mind which involves them pushing out content on social media and creating press releases.
In this context, perhaps in all strategic contexts, specificity is useful. In the interest of being specific, in an attempt to be useful, it might help to swap ‘engagement’ for ‘escalation’.
‘Adaptation’ on the other hand is an inordinately useful word. We should be sprinkling it over everything like bright, floral confetti.
What to do instead (Excerpts from Rolf Dobelli’s Avoid the News)
• Go without news. Cut it out completely. Go cold turkey. Make news as inaccessible as possible. Delete the news apps from your iPhone. Sell your TV. Cancel your newspaper subscriptions...
• Read magazines and books which explain the world – Science, Nature, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. Go for magazines that connect the dots and don’t shy away from presenting the complexities of life – or from purely entertaining you. The world is complicated, and we can do nothing about it. So, you must read longish and deep articles and books that represent its complexity...
• Try reading a book a week. Better two or three...That way you’ll learn to understand the underlying mechanisms of the world...
• You will find that you have more time, more concentration and a better understanding of the world. After a while, you will realise that despite your personal news blackout, you have not missed – and you’re not going to miss – any important facts...
• Society needs journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is relevant in any society. We need more hard-core journalists digging into meaningful stories. We need reporting that polices our society and uncovers the truth...Often, reporting is not time sensitive. Long journal articles and in-depth books are fine forums for investigative journalism – and now that you’ve gone cold turkey on the news, you’ll have time to read them.
People are more curious, more alert about climate catastrophe than they are given credit for. The rudimentary and contentious nature of reporting turns that responsible curiosity into a divisive issue that you want to look away from.
We have a personal, social and economic imperative to educate ourselves about the various and every changing climate related risks and realities we face. That individual responsibility extends to social media as well. We have a responsibility to understand the content that we align ourselves with, by fact-checking before sharing and only sharing information from reputable sources.
We can’t look to the media for the answer. Lets instead focus on books, reports and long articles that synthesize important new information from experts with real experience and skin in the game.
Disclaimer (from Rolf Dobelli’s Avoid the News)
The above statements reflect the most truthful viewpoint I can achieve at the time of this writing. I reserve the right to revise my views at any time. I might even indulge in the freedom of contradicting myself. I have done so in the past and will most certainly do so in the future. The only reason I would change my views (a switch which would undoubtedly be noticed by the “consistency police” (usually journalists with good high-school degrees) is because the new version is closer to the truth, not ever because I would gain any personal advantage.