Journalists Should Talk About Climate Change More Like A Pension Policy, Study Suggests

When journalists talk about climate change, they usually focus on some sort of uncertain doom, rather than an explicit risk, according to a new study released on Wednesday by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. But talking about explicit risks, the way one would discuss an insurance or pension plan, might be more effective, it suggests.


The study surveyed about 350 articles from news outlets across the globe, with a total circulation of 15 million, and found that most discuss climate change as something that could or will happen in the future, and has some implied risks that go along with it. Eighty percent talk about this ‘implicit risk’ or uncertainty. Meanwhile, a startling 27 percent discussed the opportunity of a changing climate (it was very rare, the authors note, for the opportunity to be from action rather than inaction).

What was most exceedingly rare, however, was that journalists focused on an explicit risk, either to people or the environment.

Explicit risk, the study’s author, James Painter, advises, is actually a better way to discuss climate change because it puts it into a quantifiable, actionable perspective for a general public. “One of the arguments in favour of using the language of risk,” Painter writes, “is that it shifts public debate away from the idea that decisions should be delayed until conclusive proof or absolute certainty is obtained (a criterion that may never be satisfied), towards timely action informed by an analysis of the comparative costs and risks of different choices and options (including doing nothing).”

Another is that risk is an essential part of everyday experience, including the worlds of insurance, health, and investment. Many people have to deal with it daily and manage it in different ways: most people in the developed world take out house insurance against the low probability, very high impact event of a fire. Patients are increasingly familiar with the concept of the risks and benefits of different health treatments (though they rely on trusted intermediaries to help them to navigate the risk). And some of the risk assessments people make are on the same timescale as possible climate impacts – for example, taking out a pension policy into which they pay for 40 years.

The author gives some advice to journalists — and particularly American journalists, who the study pinpointed as being the second-worst on omitting risk (behind Australia) — on how to make this a reality. Largely, the advice is that journalists need to learn more about the topic, and understand how risk can be quantified. They also suggest “More (judicious) use of info-graphics to illustrate the concepts of risk and other aspects of climate change.”

One important thing Painter also advises is that scientists themselves “should stress early on during media interviews where there is broad consensus about climate science, and then later on where there are degrees of uncertainty.”

As the enormity of climate change becomes more and more apparent, journalistic ethics around the issue become vastly more important. The media here in the United States has largely failed to fulfill its responsibility to address the present and still-approaching risks of a changing climate, opting for silence or abiding by an ‘equal space’ principle that gives climate change deniers a platform. The coverage of major weather events also often fails to make the connection to the larger climate patterns that might worsen it.

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