Free media: issues, challenges and proposals

The role of alternative media for climate justice

, by SALAMAND Bernard, VARIN Viviana

In the process of raising collective awareness of issues linked to climate change, we are now facing a major problem: what is the right way to approach the connection between the global scale and the local scale (or even the individual one) when talking about these problems and their solutions? The approach of “mainstream” media is quite convergent and consensual as it highlights “best practices”, and is in opposition to that of alternative media and citizens attempting to repoliticize the issue. Here are some thoughts drawing on the situation in France.

Media coverage that responds to information industry needs

In a concentrated media system that is dependent on advertising resources, the first question is whether it is possible to report freely on climate change, a topic which is directly connected to the economic model, to the impact of large industrial groups’ activities – whether they are media owners or not–, and to the consumption of their products. On climate, as well as many other issues, it is very difficult to know precisely what is the impact of this systemic conflict of interest on editorial content. Even though the recent dieselgate scandal [1] in Europe raised serious suspicions of blackmail of the advertising sector by car companies, the impact is generally diffused and largely results from self-censorship. Indeed, as was shown by the lasting conflict at I-Télé after interference from shareholder Bolloré [2], journalists’ associations care about their independence.

The topic of climate change is not excluded from reporting. On the contrary, since the 2000s a specialization in environmental journalism has emerged, with a certain institutionalization of the topic in reporting. [3] This specialization led to the creation of a community of information mediators who are knowledgeable on the content and influential on social media. Unfortunately, the increased skills in media coverage of the topic has not only resulted in compartmentalizing a topic of broad implication in specialized columns, it has also failed to overcome several obstacles that are inherent to media.

The obsession with division: Since 2006, the French media, invoking scientific controversy, has given disproportionate space to climate change sceptics even when their influence in the scientific community was beginning to disappear. The same can be said for the American media, which puts the scientific community on the defensive and makes it respond to attacks and find strategies to re-establish a space for scientific expertise on climate change so that the issues are understood. [4]

The timing of media coverage: The eternal race for current events that characterizes all traditional media and focuses on half a day is not compatible with the temporality of climate change whose impacts are only measured over the medium- or long-term, that is, over decades. Climate thus becomes a topic handled through the prism of live news, for instance when it is linked to the national or international political agenda, such as during the United Nations Climate Change Conferences (COP), and especially when the impacts are (finally) felt through a hurricane, a drought, typhoon, or even a flood.

A narrative focussing on the consequences

These natural disasters, largely portrayed in the media, are some of the signs of climate change. The scientific community, starting with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has shown the causes to be anthropogenic. In other words, the fact that the mark made on the environment by human activities is such that its impacts are being felt, and are materialized through natural disasters, the growing rise in global temperatures, and even the extinction of animal species.

These impacts, which make the planet increasingly less hospitable for life forms, result from political and economic decisions, a fact that mainstream media coverage does not make clear. Few articles or reports point fingers or describe political alternatives and options. Instead, there is a focus on the symptoms.

In addition to the above-mentioned reasons (pressure induced by economic concerns, compartmentalizing climate in specialized columns), this focus on the impacts is also explained by a desire to reach the “general public”, that is, audiences of non-specialists that are the primary target of mass media. For this “general public” climate change remains a vague concept having no link with daily life, and whose tangible consequences are not widely felt. To make these consequences more palpable these media outlets choose instead to highlight extreme weather events and extreme natural phenomena, with a heavy reliance on images.

The main response: individualizing solutions

By illustrating the reality of climate change using dramatic examples, the media raise public awareness of the seriousness of the issues, while also creating the conditions for dramatization that may lead to the public distancing itself from the problem because it will be perceived as inevitable and, therefore, insurmountable.

Alongside the focus on the consequences, there has been the dissemination of a positive narrative around every individual’s ability to act. Numerous reports foreground the paths taken by average individuals who have decided to consume only local and organic products, reduce their car travel or even switch to completely renewable electricity sources. By lauding these “conscious” life choices because they are more respectful of the planet’s limitations, media aims to convince the general public that they can do the same. This approach values individual processes of commitment without pointing to those who are responsible for the problems and against whom citizens also need to mobilize themselves. It allows individuals to quickly feel they are taking action by opting for choices that are easy and do not inconvenience either their immediate environment or their quality of life.

This dual perspective – on the one hand, an anxiety-inducing warning of the dire consequences and, on the other hand, an incentive to virtuous individual practices – is taken up by many civil society associations and initiatives whose success is exemplified in the French documentary film, Demain. Despite the upsurge in climate change scepticism, this approach, which avoids assigning guilt and questioning lifestyles, is on its way to permanently inscribing climate change in the collective consciousness.

Depoliticizing the climate debate

Nonetheless, the effects of this global media coverage of climate change raises several issues: this coverage helps hide the systematic causes of climate change; it drastically simplifies international relations by making all human beings equally accountable; and it makes citizens responsible for taking on the impacts of climate change by acting virtuously.

Yet all human beings cannot be held equally responsible for contributing to climate change; we know that the wealth of eight individuals is equal to that of the poorest half of the world’s population. [5] Moreover, this narrative does not recognize the collective responsibility of governments, banks or corporations. Meanwhile 90 corporations currently account for two thirds of the world’s CO2 emissions. [6]

In the book Climate Wars, social psychologist Harald Welzer states: Such [environmental strategies] not only fall grotesquely short of the scale of the problem, but by individualizing it, grossly understate the level and complexity of the responsibilities and obligations in relation to climate change. The false, but highly attractive assumption that social changes begin with the little things in life becomes ideological if it frees corporate or political players of their obligations, and irresponsible if it claims that the problems associated with climate change can be tackled at the level of individual behaviour… in a global context of pollution and resource consumption in the growth-oriented newly industrializing countries. [7]

What part can alternative media play?

Less susceptible to political and commercial pressures, and less constrained by the imperatives of the media industry, many alternative media and many citizens who are sensitive to social, economic and environmental questions might be able to propose a different analytical framework.

Having undertaken to weigh in on the public debate by publicizing and defending the actions and values of associations, collectives, and groups of engaged citizens, alternative media can question the limits and contradictions of the production system, particularly its consumerist approach that is poorly aligned with the need to keep a sound environmental and climatic balance. The challenge for alternative media is to focus on the systematic dimension of climate change in order to contribute to a heightened collective awareness.

Participating in awareness-raising by breaking down the consensual public debate

The temptation to take an approach that is defined solely by its opposition to the mainstream (or the system) is certainly strong for the alternative media. It sometimes leads to simplification or to Manichaeism (with innocent citizens on one side, and governments and their guilty private sector allies on the other), ignoring the complexity of power relations, the geopolitical game, and the responsibility of each individual to actively avoid being complicit in a predatory economic system.

What makes alternative media interesting is their capacity to complement, and sometimes contradict, the binary narrative (catastrophes and good practices) that the mainstream media outlets convey. Alternative media then produce a more complex narrative of more nuanced, yet more disturbing accountabilities since they call into question the lifestyles of a minority, and the feasibility of perpetuating these lifestyles through minor adjustments. Armed with facts and figures they point fingers and set targets. This is a necessary step toward establishing resistance and creating alternatives for climate justice.

Serving a popular climate education with specialized media

Alternative media have the opportunity to free themselves from the constraints related to producing scoops and infotainment, and reproducing news agency dispatches. Since they are not constrained to presenting the latest news, alternative media can produce more detailed information and more thorough analyses, much like specialized sections in mainstream media.

Alternative media also play a role in popular education since they provide citizens the keys to understanding complex topics and situations. On one hand, they democratize scientific reports and data on climate change and, on the other hand, they are a bridge between the general public and activists, local collectives, whistleblowers (who also create information through websites, blogs, etc.) by placing these activist battles in their contexts. [8] In other words, they go beyond awareness based merely on the idea of “proximity” to the climate change problem. Their contribution may allow citizens to understand why certain people choose more radical advocacy options by blocking climaticide projects.

Questioning power relationships through citizen control

When mass media report on a protest against a useless large-scale project, on a demonstration against a nuclear power plant or even on a blockade of a meeting between large oil companies, the emphasis is put on extreme behaviour or confrontations between activists and law-enforcement. Activists are characterized as rioters and considered instigators of violent conflict. In this era of smartphones and social networks, many activists film and photograph these protests with the goal of providing proof of repressive and sometimes violent policing. Alternative media relay these testimonials. 

Whereas mass media reduce the most engaged citizens to their role of opposition and discredit their ‘activist talk’, alternative media focus on allowing the expression of true citizen expert opinion. Their role is to question the relationship with authority based on substantiated information from activist sources in the field, as well as on the vital verification and cross-checking of information.

COP 21, Place du Trocadéro, Paris, December 12, 2015. Photo : Julien B.

COP 21 and a State of Emergency: Confession by François Hollande

At the time of COP 21, which was held in Paris, in December 2015, the city had been under a state of emergency since the January 2015 attacks, and emergency measures had been further reinforced after the attacks in November. Some citizen mobilization activities were prohibited and some environmental protesters were prevented from demonstrating, placed under house arrest and punished, sometimes violently. [9]

In the book Un président ne devrait pas dire ça, published in October 2016, which contains five years of president François Hollande’s intimate thoughts, the French President admits he used the state of emergency to keep environmentalists in line during COP 21. [10]

Making the link between environmental issues and social battles

Climate change primarily points to methods of production and consumption. The risks associated with climate change are not the same for everyone. This is why alternative media take on the task of showing the links between environmental issues and social issues.

Social activists and environmental activists can come together within a broader international movement for climate justice that emerges at mobilizing events such as COP 21. In the fight against the Grand Ouest Airport in France, the last mobilizations were called to act against “Vinci and his world”, appropriating the opposing parties’ slogan to underscore the local fight and the global logic of destructive growth. The slogan also echoes other activities of the construction multinational Eurovia Vinci, such as the destruction of the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais in October 2016 to drive out the 10,000 migrants living there, and the construction of a parking lot and a wall to replace the camp. These two battles targeted the same logic of profits. In the United States, the recent election of Donald Trump has brought together civil society organizations that know they will have to face policies that are racist, homophobic and sexist and deny climate change. [11]

By relaying the activities and proposals of these movements alternative media make the link between environmental struggles and social struggles, and set the conditions for sustainable societies based on social justice, that is, on equality and access to the same rights for all.