Climate justice this, climate crisis that! Climate change is in every nook and cranny of today’s media landscape. The sheer amount of content on climate change and its effects is so overwhelming that you or someone you know has probably experienced what psychologists call ‘climate anxiety’. Indeed, we journalists should pay special attention to recent academic developments on this matter because, despite our best intentions, we may have driven our audiences to the point of hopelessness and apathy. Fortunately, new perspectives, such as solutions journalism, can help us transform public distress into proactive environmental action.
There is currently no standardised definition or formal diagnosis for climate anxiety. However, this relatively recent phenomenon is attracting more and more research, and the findings are discouraging. According to a 2019 study by the American Psychological Association, 68% of adults in the US experience anxiety, worry or emotional distress associated with climate change and its effects.
Another study from 2021, this time focused on people from around the world aged between 16 and 25, painted an even worse picture. Fifty-nine per cent of the 10,000 participants reported feeling ‘very or extremely worried’ about climate change, and this negatively affected the daily lives of more than 45% of respondents.
Researchers are not just measuring how widespread climate anxiety is but also what causes it, and the evidence points the finger at journalism. For example, research published last August discovered a strong correlation between climate anxiety and exposure to information about climate change. Furthermore, a long-term study on climate change imagery in UK and US newspapers found that media coverage of the negative impacts of climate change far outweighed reporting on the solutions to the environmental challenge.
These studies confirm the uncomfortable fact that pessimistic coverage of climate change has a marked impact on audiences. However, they also suggest that this trend has been changing – a view shared by experienced environmental journalist Jan Berndorff.
“There’s this saying in journalism that ‘only bad news is good news’, but this is outdated: people nowadays don’t want to read only bad news. They want to be encouraged and motivated,” Berndorff told me.
Does this mean we should only write feel-good stories and ignore the harsh realities of climate change? Not at all! Enter solutions journalism, a promising catharsis for our climate anxiety. It is predicated on the belief that proactive environmental action can replace climate anxiety when people are presented with possibilities instead of pure doom and gloom.
Focusing on solutions
Berndorff, a former editor-in-chief at Natur Magazine and currently a lecturer at the Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg and the Deutsche Welle Akademie, believes that “good environmental journalism always puts everything into perspective, gives readers a background and alternative views, and provides the possible solutions that are there and can give you a reason for hope”.
Research backs up his perspective. The same study that connected climate anxiety with media exposure also found a correlation between climate awareness and pro-environmental action. Another study found that solution-framed stories evoked positive emotions, which, in turn, increased the readers’ intentions to take action, whereas catastrophically-framed news stories did exactly the opposite.
But how do you write a solution-framed story? And, more importantly, how do you inform audiences about the worrying consequences of climate change without making them worry so much that they give up hope?
According to the Solutions Journalism Network, solutions-oriented stories have nothing to do with sugar-coated facts, thinly veiled PR, or shallow, heart-warming stories. This non-profit organisation is dedicated to informing media professionals and educators about the benefits of this journalistic technique.
The network proposes the following four basic guidelines for writing solution-oriented stories. First, focus on a response to a problem rather than the problem itself; second, offer insights about why this response is relevant; third, provide evidence showing the effectiveness of that response; and last but not least, reveal shortcomings of your proposed strategy. Berndorff believes giving this technique formal recognition will “make it easier for new journalists and journalism students to be more sensitive”.
Indeed, both research and practice support the notion that solutions journalism can turn climate anxiety into positive environmental action. Furthermore, newsrooms are already using this strategy successfully to cover environmental stories.
“Student Perspective” is an EJO series featuring journalism students’ work. It aims to give students a platform to raise their profile and contribute to discussions on trends and other key issues in the media industry.
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