Climate News or Climate Conflict?

“I’m in the conflict business. I’m not in the radio business or the TV business. I create conflict. Conflict sells.” — Collin Cowherd, ESPN Radio, June 15, 2012

You can’t put it any more plainly than that. If you ever wondered how the American media works these days, now you know.

Collin Cowherd is a sports talk show host, of course, not a reporter. Programs like his are such fun because they create a lot of buzz around the news. They dissect athletic performances, trades, rumors, off-the-field antics, and anything else that fills the airwaves.

It’s commentary. The news is different, right?

Not so fast. Have you ever wondered why so many discredited arguments and bogus science reports keep popping up on news and talk shows? They don’t go away because, as Cowherd says, talk shows are in the conflict business.

I once had a conversation with Bud Ward, who directs the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. Bud noted that not so long ago, reporters were under tremendous pressure to create conflict in stories about climate science.

Some reporters said they had to include contrarian views whether these arguments made sense or not. Conflict sells and, for a while at least, it sold climate change news too.

In a crowded marketplace, where consumers have so many outlets to choose from, reporters needed to capture our attention. For a while, they did it the same way talk show hosts do: they created controversies rather than simply report the facts.

Climate reporting has improved a great deal since then. Still, consider now little of what we get from 24-hour news stations is actual news. Most of every news cycle is built around a few juicy stories, and most of the airtime is devoted to speculation and opinion. Strong opinions generate conflict, and conflict sells advertising.

So where do most Americans go to get their information about climate change? Some public opinion researchers tell me that a lot of it comes from TV meteorologists. Unfortunately, the information is not part of the weather broadcasts themselves. Instead, it‘s contained in the back-and-forth joking and banter between weather reporters and news anchors. This banter is not designed to deliver information; it is designed simply to hold our attention.

I remember when 24-hour sports talk radio stations first appeared and I wondered what they would do on slow news days. The answer seemed obvious: something would have to seem important every single day. Otherwise, why would we listen?

The same goes for politics and science news—something has to seem important and controversial every single day. As a result, even the smallest disagreements and gaffes blossom into major news events.

We don’t expect to hear the truth from the mouths of salespeople, yet a great deal of time and energy goes into measuring how we respond to the things hear on the radio and see on TV. “Objects in your mirror may be closer than they appear,” or, more to the point, “Issues on your screen may be less important than they seem.”

That’s great when we’re talking about whether Tiger Woods will return to form or the NFL will return LA. When the stakes are small, entertainment is great fun.

But the entertainment model doesn’t mix very well with genuine threats to our economy, health, and natural resources. Speculation, chitchat and manufactured conflicts don’t really cut it.

We need to hear from other voices. The less seriously our politicians and pundits seem to take the climate crisis, the more we need to hear from people who have taken it upon themselves to do something about it.

We don’t need to hear from them all day, every day. A little bit of reality goes a long way.


About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.