The predominant media narrative around climate change tends to focus heavily on apocalyptic warnings, dire impacts, and doom-and-gloom scenarios. A growing body of research suggests this type of negative framing can promote apathy, denial, and inaction among citizens and policymakers.
And yet, in a 2021 study published in Nature Climate Change, Wang et al. analysed over 100,000 articles. They found that overly dramatic language decreased readers’ sense of hope and belief they could effectively address climate change. Other scholars have found negative messaging reduces people’s willingness to reduce their carbon footprints, increases fatalism, contributes to psychological distancing from the issue, and enables detachment behaviours.
Overly dramatic language decreased readers’ sense of hope and belief they could effectively address climate change.
Exposure to fear-based climate news makes people more pessimistic, less motivated to act, and more likely to dismiss climate risks as exaggerated according to a meta study in Science Communication Lab. Research by Climate Outreach showed apocalyptic coverage caused respondents to feel less empowered or personally responsible.
Scholars argue dramatic media portrayals depict climate change as an inevitable disaster rather than a preventable one that requires urgent action. This promotes a self-reinforcing sense of futility. In multiple studies, positive framing focusing on solutions increased motivation and policy support is far more effective than negative messaging.
The 7 negative ways media promotes climate inaction
- Doom and gloom narratives – Continuous warnings about catastrophic impacts and points of no return can seem exaggerated or numb people into a state of fatalism where they feel helpless to make an impact.
- Lack of positive solutions – The media focuses heavily on climate impacts and problems but gives relatively little coverage to viable solutions, innovations, and progress being made. This skews perceptions.
- Distancing effects – Dire warnings can make climate change feel psychologically distant, especially for those not yet experiencing major local effects. This reduces their sense of personal urgency.
- Creating controversy – Presenting climate change as an ongoing debate or controversial idea perpetuates the false impression that there is lack of scientific consensus.
- Enabling detachment – Apocalyptic framing lets people mentally detach from the issue as a form of denial and self-preservation against distressing emotions.
- Identity polarisation – Environmentalist identity gets politicised in media narratives. This further entrenches political divisiveness and tribal identities around climate.
- Overwhelming people – The scale of the problem as presented in media is so overwhelming it leads many to shut down rather than engage. They feel powerless.
Scholars urge more constructive coverage providing positive examples, appeals to ethics, and explanatory narratives. This drives broader engagement by giving diverse groups a sense of agency. As citizens we must take responsibility, but media should empower, not paralyse.
A consensus is growing that fear-based messaging backfires, breeding apathy and denial. People need hope most of all. Show how ordinary citizens, companies and communities are moving the needle through innovation and grit. There are countless stories of progress to tell.
It’s time for media to step up and be a driving force for climate progress. We need solutions-focused storytelling – not just apocalyptic warnings. Portray climate action as an urgent, unifying challenge we can and must overcome.
Balanced journalism requires clear-eyed warnings – but temper these with viable ways forward. Don’t just highlight obstacles, but guide society toward possibility. We face dire threats, yes, but we also possess immense capacity for change. Affirm this.
This is a generational test of moral leadership. Will media rise to the urgency of this moment?
Media have made errors, clinging to false balance and combativeness. But past missteps need not define the future. Lean into your extraordinary power to galvanize social movements. With purpose and clarity, modern media can help bend the arc of climate change.
This is a generational test of moral leadership. Will media rise to the urgency of this moment? There is no time left for cynical detachment or theatre. You have a profound choice – spread light or darkness. This is your climate reckoning. Lead us to hope and action. Humanity needs you now.