Confronting the Climate Crisis in New Zealand: News Representation and Problems of Political Action
Te, Lee Saing
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In 2017, a series of events and publications affirmed that the world is no closer to averting a climate disaster and that the problems of global warming were becoming more entrenched. This reality leads one to ask: If social action is to stem the existential threat of a hotter planet, then how should the lack of political will and personal inaction be addressed? I argue that the failure to attend to the climate crisis is not merely due to inadequate governance but that it is also driven by vested interests and cued by ideological constructions that debase ecological perspectives. Therefore, the news media, a primary conduit for imparting and framing information, is a key area of critical inquiry. Journalism discerns facts from falsities and makes known to the public the prevailing state of affairs. In providing news audiences with information to help make decisions, news institutions can potentially highlight the need for fast system-level change to stem rising levels of greenhouse gases. However, journalists’ ability to represent the events and issues unfolding and their underlying causes is complicated by the growing impacts and potential consequences of a warmer world (as well as associated effects on an individual’s socio-psychological consciousness). So, how can the public debate about global warming be reshaped so that it catalyses solutions? In order to address the above question, this thesis considers the scientific evidence for, the economic causes of, the ideological struggle over, and the communication of, global warming in an international and local context. Then, it selects New Zealand’s two leading digital news publishers, Stuff and The New Zealand Herald, as case studies to analyse how journalists told the story of the climate breakdown in 2017. Using critical discourse analysis, it investigates whether news representations were effective in raising awareness of global warming and in facilitating change. The news analysis is supplemented by semi-structured interviews with journalists writing on the issue. The findings show that the two newsrooms failed to aptly depict the complex realities of a warmer world and the need for climate action. There were four key structural absences in the digital news reportage of the climate crisis: a long chronological view; the underlying causes of rising greenhouse gas emissions; differential suffering; and solution-focused approaches. So, I argue that journalists will need to expand their representation of the crisis beyond scientific facts. They can attest to the urgency of global warming by emphasising its historical context, scrutinising the economic and political power relations involved, and providing a broad picture of what it means to live in a warming world. At the same time, they will need to be wary about the audience’s level of exposure to negative stories and not overemphasise emotional appeals as this can lead to disengagement, distress, and dejection. Providing news coverage of global warming and climate change is not a simple matter, it is complicated by ever-increasing technical data, unequal harm, an unrelenting news cycle, and an uncertain future. However, if journalists can evoke more nuanced representations of the climate crisis, audiences will be in a better position to weigh its consequences and risks.