Challenging media to do better covering climate breakdown

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Photo by Brent Patterson.

The Extinction Rebellion chapter in Ottawa, inspired by the example of Extinction Rebellion in the U.K., recently called on the CBC to do better in its reporting of the existential issue of our time: climate breakdown.

That's because mainstream media plays a significant role in shaping public awareness as well as framing political narratives on key issues.

What media covers, what it chooses not to cover, how stories are reported, and the relative priority a story is given are all critical factors in public engagement.

On December 21, 2018, Extinction Rebellion organized coordinated actions at BBC offices in central London, Bangor, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Glasgow, Sheffield, Truro and the bureau in Berlin.

Their letter to the BBC stated that the national broadcaster should place "the climate and ecological emergency as its top editorial and corporate priority…"

It said the BBC should give climate change the same "level of urgency the corporation placed on informing the public about World War Two."

The letter also called on the BBC "to take a lead on encouraging other national and global media corporations to join the global efforts to save humanity/nature from existential crises."

Canada's national broadcaster

The action in the U.K. came a couple months after the CBC was criticized for running a piece by CBC News senior writer Chris Arsenault headlined, "What a far-right Bolsonaro presidency in Brazil means for Canadian business: Miners could benefit from relaxed regulations, as environmentalists fear growth plans will destroy the Amazon."

The last line in that October 2018 piece stated, "With nearly 60 per cent of the world's public mining companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, losses for the Amazon rainforest under Bolsonaro could spell big gains for Canadian investors."

In contrast, a National Geographic article on Bolsonaro quoted a Brazilian tropical ecologist studying the effects of climate change on Amazonian trees, with the warning: "We are already in a very critical situation in terms of climate change. If we mess up with the Amazon, carbon dioxide emissions will increase so massively that everyone will suffer."

And in a CBC News article last month with the headline, "Canada's forests actually emit more carbon than they absorb -- despite what you've heard on Facebook," CBC reporter Robson Fletcher wrote, "You might have heard that Canada's forests are an immense carbon sink ... so we don't have to worry about our greenhouse gas emissions."

Fletcher adds, in what sounds like a casual dismissal of the carbon impact of the tar sands and proposed pipelines, "This would be convenient ... if it were real. Hitting our emissions-reduction targets would be a breeze."

He then notes, "Trees don't just absorb carbon when they grow, they emit it when they die and decompose, or burn."

That is true. But while he acknowledges "forest fires and insect infestations" are largely to blame, he misses critical context in his report.

Climate change, drier conditions and higher temperatures have worsened wildfires and allowed beetle outbreaks in forests once too cold for them. As the National Observer reported last November, "These massive and growing forest emissions are a result of destructive logging, beetle outbreaks and wildfires."

"The growing loss of carbon from our forests is signaling how severely climate impacts are already damaging the natural life support systems we depend on," the article adds.

While the CBC likens this situation to a Facebook rumour, the National Observer concludes, "B.C. forest management is making climate change worse -- an alarming situation when our forests should instead be our best ally in the fight against climate change."

It is also notable that the CBC as a standard practice uses the industry-friendly term "oil sands" without quotation marks, but when it needs to reference the term commonly used by environmentalists, that appears in quotes as "the tar sands."

Payments from Big Oil

The CBC has also been criticized over several of its on-air personalities receiving payments to speak at Big Oil events in Canada.

In 2012, then-CBC News chief correspondent and national news anchor Peter Mansbridge spoke at a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producer (CAPP) event, reportedly for a fee of $28,000. There's even a photo of Mansbridge speaking at a lectern with a CAPP logo on it.

The Huffington Post has reported that Rex Murphy gave "numerous speeches at events hosted by oil and gas groups" when he was the host of a popular CBC Radio program.

And in February 2014, Vice reported, "Ian Hanomansing, another CBC News anchor, was a featured speaker at Oilweek Rising Stars alongside characters like Jim Carter, the former president of Syncrude Canada, and Doug Jackson, the Vice President of Gas and Mining Operations for TransAlta."

By April 2014, after a public uproar, the CBC prohibited its full-time journalists -- like Mansbridge and Hanomansing -- from accepting requests from "political parties or other groups which make a significant effort to lobby or otherwise influence public policy" and required that freelance contributors (like Murphy) disclose when they accept paid speaking engagements.

Mansbridge retired in July 2017 but now writes commentary for the CBC; Murphy (who is unabashedly pro-tar sands) is still a regular commentator on the CBC; and Hanomansing was named the co-anchor of the CBC's The National in August 2017.

'Our media can do better'

Last week, Green Party leader Elizabeth May tweeted, "I just went to @CBCNews website -- no mention of hundreds of thousands of Canadian kids marching. @globeandmail only mentioned other countries' #climatestrike. Our media can do better."

Yes, there were a few local stories and if you dug deeply enough you could find one overview story on the CBC website, but the point about relative priority and visibility still holds.

A study by non-profit aid organization DARA International has calculated that 400,000 deaths worldwide each year can be linked to climate change. The World Bank says climate change will transform more than 143 million people into "climate migrants."

Last year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said we only have 12 years to stop a global temperature increase at 1.5 degrees Celsius; otherwise the impacts of climate change on hundreds of millions of people will significantly worsen.

Surely an issue of this magnitude merits consistent, front-page, above-the-fold coverage that is thoughtful, critical and informative.

Brent Patterson is an activist-blogger who writes this monthly column on inspiring stories of global resistance to neoliberalism and climate change.

Photo by Brent Patterson.

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