A Q&A with UBC Sociology Prof. David Tindall on his presentation at Congress
By April van Ert, Faculty of Arts
Are national newspapers giving Canadians the information they need to make informed decisions about climate change?
New research by the University of British Columbia and Memorial University on how Canada’s media reports on climate change suggests that our national newspapers – the Globe & Mail and National Post – are failing to provide their readers with a complete picture of global warming and climate change issues in Canada.
Sociology professors David Tindall of UBC and Mark Stoddart of Memorial University studied the papers’ reporting on climate change issues from 1997 and 2010. In addition to stark editorial differences, they found that both outlets underemphasized climate change impacts and responses at the local, provincial and non-governmental levels. That’s a problem, says Tindall, as local successes and challenges play a key role in motivating people to take action on climate change.
Tindall, a participant in former U.S. vice president and Nobel laureate Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, spoke with ArtsWIRE writer April van Ert ahead of presenting the research at Congress, Canada’s national humanities and social sciences conference, which takes place in Victoria from June 1 to June 8.
AE: What was the motivation for researching how the Globe & Mail and National Post are covering climate change stories?
DT: The paper we’re presenting in Victoria will be presented in one of three different sessions on climate change at Congress. With this paper, we want to contribute to the sociological understanding of climate change by focusing on discourse and what is more or less likely to make it into the media.
AE: What were your findings in researching how these two newspapers cover climate change?
DT: The Globe & Mail tended to focus on issues like government responsibility for dealing with climate change while the National Post has been more likely to focus on those who challenge the science behind anthropogenic climate change. The National Post also is more interested in the economic cost of tackling climate change. However, both newspapers focus mostly on the national level or even to a certain extent the international level. The result is that progress happening at local levels is underplayed.
When people don’t hear about the progress being made on provincial or local levels, they tend to become more pessimistic about getting involved in environmental groups or changing their own behavior. I think if we emphasized what was being done locally and provincially, that might lead to more optimism and a greater willingness to become involved in the environmental movement as individuals.
AE: What is the significance of looking at climate change policy and adaptation from a national or international perspective?
DT: The truth is that in Canada, we really haven’t made much progress at all nationally in terms of policies to deal with climate change. Canada initially embraced the Kyoto Protocol but didn’t really implement serious policy measures that would allow us to deal with carbon emissions. The Conservatives then made Canada the first country to reverse its support for the Kyoto Protocol. In contrast, there has been quite a bit of progress at provincial and local levels. By focusing on national policy, these newspapers are not presenting a complete picture of climate change adaptation in Canada.
AE: Is newspaper coverage contributing to climate change cynicism?
DT: Because there has been little progress on the federal level, the reporting is accurate but it does neglect progress at other levels. This certainly can contribute to cynicism but also shows the media isn’t capturing the complexity of climate change governance and policy, which calls for responses at the local and provincial levels as well as at the national and international levels.
AE: Are our attitudes towards climate change impacted by whether we get our news from traditional media or social media?
DT: This content analysis project hasn’t formally considered social media but in another paper I’m working on I found that people who got their information from the Internet were actually more likely to participate in the environmental movement relative to other types of media. I think that is part of the interactive nature of social media. It seems to have a positive effect on their concern and participation. That being said, people concerned with getting “serious news” still turn to traditional sources so outlets like the Globe & Mail and National Post play a key role in influencing our perceptions of climate change and what can be done to slow it.
AE: In light of Canada’s failure to enact meaningful climate change policy, are you becoming cynical about our potential to tackle human-made climate change?
DT: We can’t afford to be cynical about climate change because that implies we’re ready to give up and that’s not an option. I think that if the media emphasized successes at the provincial and local levels, there would be a lot more optimism about addressing climate change in general.
For more on this topic, read UBC Geography Prof. Simon Donner study on U.S. media coverage of climate change: Blowing hot and cold: U.S. belief in climate change shifts with weather.