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Hold the front page! And don’t mention the climate crisis…

Powerful media organisations in Australia are continuing to fail the public interest when it comes to climate coverage, according to a Croakey investigation.


Melissa Sweet, Alison Barrett and Lyndal Rowlands write:

The past week has seen several major reports released on the climate emergency (this Twitter thread links to most of them). These reports sound warning, warning, warning – the world is on track for catastrophic climate change, and governments are not doing nearly enough to minimise the threat.

In case world leaders were not paying attention, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres did not hold back. “If we are not able to reverse the present climate trends, we will be doomed. I urge all leaders to bring back climate change to the centre of the international debate,” he tweeted on 28 October.

The following day he tweeted: “Climate commitments to net zero are worth zero without the plans, policies and actions to back it up. Our world cannot afford any more greenwashing, fake movers or late movers.”

Last week also brought the Albanese Government’s first budget, a significant moment for public debate about its climate policies given that so many voters clearly voted for climate action in May. It was released amid widespread flooding, emblematic of the escalating health, social, economic and environmental impacts of climate-related events.

So how did the major Australian newspaper organisations – News Corp and Nine Entertainment – cover these critical planetary health concerns at this critical time – even more timely with COP27 just around the corner?

This Croakey compilation of the front pages of these organisations’ newspapers from 23-29 October could not find a single front page headline on the climate crisis. By contrast, The Guardian and The Saturday Paper covered news from the climate reports.

Systemic silence

For physician Dr Arnagretta Hunter, the climate silence of so many of the country’s front-pages reflected in part the impact of the previous Federal Government, when even use of the term “climate change” was discouraged.

“We’ve had a decade of people being scared, being reluctant to use environmental framing and I’m sure journalists are not immune to that,” she said.

“So we’ve got to bring the media and the journalists along on the journey,” she said. “I don’t think we should have to drag them, they should be leading.”

Hunter said the longstanding climate silence also meant there was limited capacity in the health sector to engage with public debate. “There is a small group of people who are able to talk about it but it’s nowhere near as large as it should be. I think it will take a couple of years to develop.”

Hunter said the Croakey findings were a reminder of the importance of considering the media and information landscape – which is currently fragmented and siloed – when developing systemic responses to climate change.

She also stressed the need to increase media diversity, especially the importance of local news sources.

“If we’re looking for a better future, we are going to need to foster good quality debate,” she said. “Personally I don’t engage with the Murdoch media, I don’t talk to their journalists, I don’t buy their newspapers and I don’t share their content.”

Hunter said regional newspapers are an important tool for adaptation. “Local information, created and shared within communities, foster discussion and debate to shift adaptation from disaster response to more preparation,” she said.

“The community needs to demand better from national news and invest in local news; if we don’t, it will increase our climate vulnerability.”

A wake-up call

Dr Tarun Weeramanthri, President of the Public Health Association of Australia, said the media had a critical role in holding all parties, including governments, to account on climate promises.

“Coverage of COP27 in Egypt should be front page news for the next few weeks,” he said.

“A year on from Glasgow, we know that much faster climate action is fundamental to the public’s health, and planetary survival. The UN Secretary General has been saying all this loudly for months, and we need to start listening.”

Professor Nick Talley, Editor-in-Chief of The Medical Journal of Australia, which published its 5th annual assessment of health and climate change indicators last week, told Croakey:

“It makes sobering reading. In an accompanying editorial we said, ‘The latest MJA–Lancet Countdown report should act as a wake‐up call for Australia to abandon its reliance on fossil fuels and redouble efforts towards building resilience to the harmful health effects of the climate crisis’.

“This isn’t likely to happen fast enough here or globally.

“We said in our accompanying editorial: ‘The task now is to turn the electoral appetite for change into greater action by individuals, businesses, organisations and governments. Achieving meaningful progress will require, at least in part, breaking the hold that the fossil fuel industry has had on the policy process in this country for too many years…

“We also suggested: ‘The leadership of the health sector is fundamental to this endeavour and for achieving a more healthy, sustainable and just world’.

“The health professions can do more including leading by example in their workplaces and homes. The media also needs to lead and act responsibly in what is a world fractured by irresponsible social media commentators.”

Talley said that in July the UN Secretary General summed it up: “We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands.”

“He’s right,” said Talley, “but the message seems to still have not really gotten through.”

The tweets below are from an event in Canberra launching the MJA Lancet Countdown on 2 November.

Research on media coverage

Both The Lancet Countdown, a global view of progress on key health and climate change indicators, and the MJA-Lancet Countdown, an Australian-focused report, include sections on the media engagement indicators.

Both reports indicate that while the number of newspaper articles published about climate change and health globally and in Australia increased between 2020 and 2021, much more could be done.

In Australia, analysis of 13 national and regional English-language newspapers found that the number of articles on health and climate change increased one and a half times between 2020 and 2021 (from 124 articles to 186).

The newspapers included in the analysis were The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review, The Age, Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph, Sun Herald, Canberra Times, Courier Mail, The West Australian, The Advertise, Hobart Mercury and the Northern Territory News.

In addition, ABC online news and transcripts in Factiva media database were analysed – ABC content on climate change and health also increased in 2021, compared to 2020.

Indicating awareness of associations between infectious diseases and climate change, 71 percent of the articles in 2021 mentioned the term “pandemic”.

The analysis found that coverage of climate change and health varied by location – the biggest increase in coverage between 2020 and 2021 were in Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart and Brisbane. Since 2019, The West Australian has covered the subject the least.

The report concluded that media attention to health and climate change has increased – however, the authors noted the content of the articles about adapting to climate change to reduce health impacts were low.

One of the MJA-Lancet Countdown’s authors Dr Ying Zhang told Croakey that “the topics focused in these articles are mainly about mitigation (for example, energy policies, big events and publications) and storytelling on impacts”.

Interestingly, engagement on climate change and health topics on social media is not yet measured but may be included in the future.

Zhang (pictured second from left in the photo below) said they may try to include it next year if they have the capacity – it’s important for such an indicator to “be a measurable, tractable indicator to reflect what is happening on social media on the topic for Australia”.

Some gaps

In its seventh global progress update on health and climate change, The Lancet Countdown also found that media coverage on the topic increased from 2020 to 2021, reaching a record 14,474 articles, a 27 percent increase on 2020 coverage.

However, the report stated “this coverage only constitutes a small proportion of climate change coverage”.

The global Countdown analysed newspapers across 37 countries. In English-language newspapers, 20 percent of the articles that referred to both health and climate change also referred to adaptation and 48 percent referred to the pandemic.

Given how important misinformation and disinformation is for climate and health, it is also surprising the limited discussion about the issue and media policy in both reports, although The Lancet Countdown acknowledges that a multisectoral approach for “increased ability to address public health misinformation” is required.

Both Countdown reports also tracked progress on scientific engagement in health and climate change and similarly found that the number of scientific publications on the topic increased from 2020 to 2021 in Australia and overseas.

In Australia, most studies focused on health impact assessments, with heat and bushfire the “most focused exposures”.

Mental health and infectious diseases were the most studied health outcomes and 17 studies explored the link between environmental and climatic factors and COVID-19.

Consistent with Australian findings, 86 percent of the scientific articles in the global report were on health implications, with the remainder on mitigation and adaptation. The report acknowledged that the number of scientific articles on climate solutions is increasing.

Necessary and urgent

Dr Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, told a webinar about the report last week that the climate Countdown is expanding with six regional centres around the world.

He said this is important – “it’s necessary and urgent because world leaders have very badly underestimated the scale of the changes that they have to make, that we all have to make together if we’re going to limit the impact of global heating”.

“The reality is that the velocity of political change needed to meet the Paris commitments risk creating unprecedented geopolitical tensions in our World,” he added.

Horton introduced World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who told the webinar that “we must break our addiction to fossil fuels”, and that WHO fully supports the global call for the fossil fuel Non Proliferation Treaty.

“This latest edition of The Lancet Countdown report shows that health impacts of climate change are increasing globally, compounded by vicious outbreaks and global crisis in energy, food and cost of living,” Dr Tedros said.

“The burning of fossil fuels is one of the key drivers of both climate change and air pollution and is responsible for the deaths of millions of people each year.

“The Lancet Countdown Report is a sobering reminder of how much further we still have to go.”

Hold the front page.


More on climate and health, from Twitter

See the Twitter thread with links to the reports mentioned above.


Also, see this article published in May: Do better: an urgent message to Australian media on climate coverage, by Lyndal Rowlands.

Croakey will soon launch a series of articles on the COP27 meeting and health. Follow #HealthyCOP27 and this related Twitter list.


This article is part of Croakey’s contribution to the Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented global media collaboration that is putting the spotlight on the climate crisis. Croakey Health Media is a member of the collaboration, which was co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian.

 

 

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