While the term “climate crisis” has been in use by media outlets like The Guardian and CBC since 2019, it has yet to be adopted by all major outlets—including the Canadian Press, where “climate change” is still the preferred descriptor in their industry-standard Style Guide. Yet a new first-of-its-kind survey has revealed that a majority of scientists and journalists believe the media should indeed be covering climate as the crisis it is.
“The world is warming. Humans are responsible. And climate change is already responsible for many disasters,” says Sean Holman, the Crookes Professor of Environmental and Climate Journalism with the Department of Writing, and co-lead of The Climate Coverage in Canada Report. “Scientists, journalists, and the public recognize these facts and want their news media to reflect them.”
The first Canadian study of its kind
Climate Coverage in Canada is the first Canadian study to compare the perceptions of journalists, climate scientists and the public and is part of a larger study examining the relationship between all three groups. The report found large majorities of each somewhat or strongly agree that there is a climate crisis—including 96% of scientists, 95% of journalists and 81% of the public—and that the news media should report on it that way (scientists 91%, journalists 95%, public 73%).
The surveys—conducted in October 2021 with the support of the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and CWA Canada, the country’s oldest and only all-media union—were completed by 143 scientists, 148 journalists and 1,006 members of the public. For Holman, it was clear that all three groups want to see more coverage on climate change . . . especially in the run-up to the recent federal election.
“When we asked scientists and journalists whether or not they felt the public in Canada knows enough about climate change to make informed election decisions, just 18% of scientists and 21% of journalists agreed with that . . . that’s really low,” Holman told CBC Radio’s Early Edition host Stephen Quinn—one of the journalists who responded to the survey, and one of over a dozen Canadian media outlets who covered the survey’s release in November.
Journalists are frustrated
The report—led by researchers at UVic, Mount Royal University and First Nations University of Canada—was released in the wake of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, and just ahead of the rash of flooding and landslides that have rocked communities on both coasts.
However, the public seemed less certain about the causes of climate change and its severity, suggesting a disconnect in how scientific findings and the overall story of global warming is conveyed to the public in the news media. The surveys found 73% of journalists and 63% of scientists agreeing that news outlets shouldn’t publish columns or editorials rejecting mainstream scientific findings of average global temperatures increasing due to human activity.
There was also strong agreement that stories about extreme weather events should include information about how scientists say the likelihood and severity of those disasters are increasing as a result of the climate crisis (94% journalists, 95% scientists).
“Scientists and journalists both prize evidence and facts, and both communities are really in favour of free expression and freedom of information—our careers are built on that,” says Holman. Yet 32% of journalists specifically noted frustration with their ability to communicate about climate change and its impacts‚ with 44% identifying lack of interest from news managers as a cause.
Democracy hinges on truth
Together, scientists and journalists contributed 175 recommendations on how reporting and their relationship can be improved—from providing daily climate coverage “like COVID” to letting climate change researchers “speak without editing.” And both groups (scientists 89%, journalists 82%) felt newsrooms should consult with climate scientists in their editorial decisions on climate coverage.
A majority of respondents (scientists and journalists 64%, public 59%) also favoured social media companies suspending or banning users who are climate-science rejectionists, while 73% of journalists agreed that news outlets should not broadcast or publish columns, editorials or guest essays rejecting mainstream climate science findings.
While Climate Coverage in Canada will release more survey findings in the coming months, even these initial results indicate a clear need to create a new evidence-based community that includes scientists and journalists working together, on a regular basis, to share factual information with the public and counter a media environment that is increasingly saturated by misinformation and disinformation.
“Democracy hinges on us using truthful information to make rational decisions, and misinformation and disinformation gets in the way of that,” says Holman.