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Climate change journalism: Green shifting the news cycle
Journalists tend to focus on immediate events, yet climate change is an ongoing process. By covering the 'green shift' instead, journalists can drive the news cycle.
Sometimes the seed for a research topic lies dormant for years, waiting for the right conditions to germinate.
Professor Andreas Ytterstad of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at OsloMet says that his interests "gradually morphed into climate change communication."
"Coming from an activist and socialist background, I always felt that the analysis of the media was too crude [...] although I agree that it is skewed towards power, I also think that the media in some instances can challenge power," Ytterstad reflects. "Journalism is one key site where the understanding of the gravity of the climate crisis, but also the limits of that understanding can be both analysed and perhaps pushed."
His colleague, Professor Henrik Bødker of Aarhus University’s Department of Media and Journalism Studies, has written extensively on the time perspectives of climate journalism. Their collaboration was a case of perfect timing.
Climate change journalism, a tricky undertaking
The effects of climate change can be as gradual as the slow expansion of a desert, and as drastic as a wildfire raging in the Sierra Nevada forests of California.
Yet, while climate change operates on various spatial and temporal scales, journalism tends to focus on immediate news and tangible events. And therein lies the rub.
"How do you deal with a process on the one hand, and an event on the other?" Bødker asks. "Climate change journalism has had a problem with time. Events happen. You react."
The word journalism has its roots in the Latin "diurnalis", or daily.
Fitting climate change into the daily news cycle, outside of reporting on spectacular crises such as wildfires, or specific events like the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COPs), is therefore tricky.
How do you describe incremental changes to the Sahara Desert, a desert that has expanded by 10 per cent over the course of a hundred years? How do you tell the story of the slow trickle of sand?
Frequency drives the news
Back to Ytterstad’s seed, and the problem of time, which has captivated him since his undergraduate days 25 years ago.
"I thought: Oh no. Is it that simple? Is the world really going asunder just because of a frequency problem, just because the rhythm, the normal everyday practice of journalism, the deadlines, the need for events, are such an objective mismatch to the processes in nature?" he says.
For Ytterstad, this explanation felt simplistic and gave journalists no accountability or agency.
"Journalism as an institution has its own timescape," Bødker says.
It is these paces and rhythms, and the frequency by which news is generated, that challenges climate change journalists, and, in Norway, led to a process-driven creative solution known as the 'green shift'.
Ytterstad and Bødker investigated the usage of this term by three Norwegian media outlets: Energi og klima (Energy and Climate), Naturpress (Nature Press), and Harvest.
The 'green shift' offers a solution
"A lot of journalism is wedded to the status quo," Bødker explains.
Yet, in 2013, the Norwegian media atmosphere changed; journalist and editor Anders Bjartnes coined the term "det grønne skiftet", or the “green shift” for the magazine Energi og klima "as a tool for their own journalism," Ytterstad says.
Bjartnes defined the green shift as "a continually ongoing, inescapable and unstoppable process, involving reduced climate emissions and improved resource productivity."
The term was quickly picked up by Norwegian media.
"What looms in the background [...] is the feeling that Norway as one of the largest exporters of oil and gas needs to undertake some kind of green shift," says Ytterstad.
By 2021, green shift usurped climate change in media usage, perhaps, Ytterstad reflects, because it is an all-encompassing term.
"There is still no precise definition of the green shift," he notes. This opens for both possibility and challenge.
By shifting focus, media outlets such as Naturpress have tapped into different stories linked to climate change and the "need to make the green shift for market reasons, primarily," Ytterstad says.
An outlier, though, is Harvest, where focus lies on the mental and lifestyle shift needed to combat climate change, the "anti-commodification of nature."
Ytterstad is critical to what he terms the "deterministic flavour" of the green shift as it is often employed by journalists.
Too frequently it is assumed that shifts in markets towards greener solutions are unstoppable, for example that solar power will outcompete the oil and gas industry.
"But if you look just at the few last years, what are some key events here?" the journalism professor asks. "You have the COVID-19 crisis, the war now in Ukraine […] this market-driven process where demand for fossil fuels is replaced with a demand for renewable energy does not, to me, empirically seem as unstoppable or unavoidable as the definition would have it."
Disrupting institutional rhythms
Critics might detect a whiff of greenwashing in the use of the term, yet Ytterstad underscores that the three Norwegian media outlets studied are allied with climate change research centres in Norway.
Moreover, all of them are critical of the slow pace at which the green shift is occurring. The three outlets share a common understanding of the urgency of the climate crisis, and the need to address it.
Ytterstad and Bødker unpack the different timescales connected to media coverage and the climate crisis.
They contrast market demand time, determined by investors and not necessarily favoring greener solutions, against climate emergency time, a timescale set by the urgency of the natural world.
The green shift offers the chance for journalists to disrupt the paces and rhythms of the institution of journalism, setting and seeking events themselves rather than passively allowing events to drive the news cycle.
This allows journalists agency over the news, to "make climate change something that is here and now and not something that is happening at a different place in the world at a different time," Bødker says.
An inspiration and a warning
"The green shift illustrates how climate journalism can work with the frequency of the news cycle, work with the ways in which you communicate climate change on a broader scale," Ytterstad says.
On an international level, this Norwegian concept can both inspire and warn.
The way in which societal debate revolves around the need for change can serve to inspire. It can also help ground debate in popular sentiment rather than market demands, Ytterstad concludes.
A. Ytterstad and H. Bødker. Climate Change Journalism in Norway—Working with Frequency Around the “Green Shift”, Journalism Studies, vol. 23, 2022. DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2022.2084143
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