(Geneva) Media coverage of climate change research is more likely to elicit “denial and avoidance” in readers than the “pro-environmental behaviors” needed to address the issue, a Swiss study finds.
It focuses mainly on long-term projections and on a limited range of threats such as the melting of glaciers or the disappearance of polar bears, according to a group of researchers from the University of Lausanne (UNIL) specializing in geosciences and psychology.
However, “this type of storytelling would not activate the mechanisms known in psychology to induce pro-environmental behaviors in readers. This selection could even conversely cause denial and avoidance,” they note, according to a press release.
To conduct the study, published in the scientific journal Global Environmental Change, the researchers analyzed some 50,000 scientific publications on climate change for the year 2020 and examined those that were picked up in mainstream media.
The analysis revealed that the media tends to report mostly research from the natural sciences, and focus on large-scale climate projections that will occur in the distant future.
“Individuals exposed to these facts, not feeling directly concerned, will tend towards a peripheral, superficial and distracted processing of information. However, only a central, deep and attentive consideration allows the public to transform what they know into mechanisms of action and engagement,” warned Fabrizio Butera, professor of psychology at UNIL and co-author of this study.
“If the goal of any given research is to have a societal impact, then it seems like we’re pushing all the buttons that aren’t working,” said Marie-Elodie Perga, co-author of the paper and professor at UNIL’s Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics, in the same press release.
Large-scale threats are known to instill fear, and when faced with descriptive stories, the public will tend to ignore the problem, researchers say.
“Research on human behavior demonstrates that fear can lead to behavioral change in individuals and groups, but only if the problem presented is accompanied by solutions,” Butera pointed out.
“Faced with purely descriptive articles, the public will thus tend to hide the problem, seek less anxiety-provoking information and surround themselves with networks that present them with a more serene reality,” notes the press release.
“Treatment of environmental topics in a transversal and solution-oriented way would be useful” to elicit reactions from the general public, according to Marie-Elodie Perga. “It would be a question of showing that climate change has direct consequences on our lifestyles, our immediate environment or our finances, for example”.