photo: Elliot Brown/Creative Commons
With a new study just released revealing that half of Americans would get a failing grade if test on climate change knowledge and The Guardian reporting that the BBC blew its budget covering the Chilean miners' rescue and can only afford to send one person to cover the COP16 climate conference in Cancun, my initial reaction was one of righteous indignation. "Look at the sorry state of science reporting and shame on the BBC!" (pout, grimace and stomp fist on desk). A moment later though I wondered, is climate change really just too big a topic for television, as a medium itself, to cover?But first, a bit of The Guardian poking the BBC:
Guardian writer Damian Carrington got a leaked memo from the BBC which says, in short and paraphrased (the full is in the original linked above), "the cost of the Chilean mining spectacular means just one solo correspondent to Cancun will have to feed the many and ravenous mouths of the BBC's television, radio and online output."
Last year the BBC sent a reported 30 people to Copenhagen, and The Guardian sent seven. For the record TreeHugger sent two--yours truly and Alex Pasternack--plus pulled in coverage from other blog and NGO sources.
Certainly the political momentum has gone out of the climate talks after the Copenhagen debacle, which saw 120 world leaders turning up to sign a treaty which had yet to be negotiated. But sending just one correspondent to Mexico seems very underweight for one of the world's biggest newsgathering organizations. Shame on them.
Climate Talks Not Sanguinary Enough For TV
That shame on them part was what I first felt. Followed by a litany of variations on damning the "If it bleeds it leads" mentality that dominates all of media--let's be honest television isn't alone here, still less newspaper and online-only outlets; truth be told, this one's included (though we can throw lots of cute animals into the mix to lure you in that way too). We're all trying to lure your attention for a split second longer than other people covering the same event.
That's just media studies 101 though, a topographic description of the landscape. And most people are aware of it.
Climate Change Not Dramatic Enough, Yet, For Television's Strengths
But I still wonder if the BBC only sending one person--and I suspect they will manage to find the budget to send more than one person, in the end, especially after being shamed by The Guardian (well, I hope so)--really makes a a decisive difference in getting people to both pay attention to climate change or even disseminating quality information once they have paid attention.
After all, climate change is mostly only visible to the naked eye in reflection: In tangible effects that can only be partially attributed to it (massive flooding), in temperature measurements that only take meaning when plotted on a graph (even under the worst global warming scenarios there will still be warm and cold days), in slowly changing crop yields and precipitation patterns.
By the time the effects of the last two of these are dramatic enough to bleed and lead, doing anything about the situation is too late.
Television without moving visuals and dramatic images (Ken Burns' remarkable ability to make old letters and panned across photos compelling aside) is lost, is weak. In depth exploration of abstract concept, slow moving climatic trends, and nuanced possible future scenarios isn't television's forte.
Not to say it's not possible for a specific show, but as a medium, without clear good guy-bad guy dynamics television is particularly handicapped here. The rescue of the Chilean miners if far more suited in this regard.
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More on Global Climate Change:
On A Climate Change Knowledge Test, Half of Americans Would Flunk
Climate Change TV As Under Investigation for Scaring Kids (Video)
Television Weathermen Aren't Climatologists, Tell Your Friends
How to Debate Climate Deniers on TV? Simple: Don't