Covering the Heat

Photograph by Nora Hollstein / Connected Archives

 

The climate crisis is creating a situation where more and more people are experiencing extreme heat. The Frontline dives into the media’s responsibility to cover the impact on the most vulnerable.

It seems like nowadays, no matter where in the world you are, the temperature is rising. Heat waves are hitting regions that have historically been known for their cool and cloudy nature. Spain even went ahead and named a heat wave for the first time last week. However, there’s rarely much outcry in the media when already hot regions experience even more severe temperatures. 

 

That’s exactly when the media should freak out, though. Heat waves are among the most deadly form of extreme weather. When continents like Africa, South America, and Asia break records, you know there’s something terribly wrong. Unfortunately, the media has a habit of ignoring the most vulnerable. After all, the Global South experiences higher levels of extreme poverty and extreme heat. Air conditioning is a luxury for the privileged—even in countries that are hot year-round. 

 

Welcome to The Frontline, where no one’s safe from the heat. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. In order to build a climate just world, we need to read, hear, and watch stories about the injustice that still afflicts millions. Most urgently, we need to empathize and humanize cultures and peoples we’ll never know. They deserve our attention and compassion, too. To better understand the media’s failure here, I spoke to Evlondo Cooper, a senior writer and researcher with the climate and energy program at Media Matters for America, which researches the U.S. media. He breaks down how the corporate news media can do better.

YESSENIA FUNES

So, who is Evlondo Cooper—and what exactly do you do at Media Matters?

EVLONDO COOPER

I am a native New Orleanian who was living and working in New Orleans and had to leave my home because of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It was a long path to get back on my feet and land in a place where I have the privilege to write about climate issues, climate justice, and environmental justice. And that is what I do at Media Matters.

YESSENIA

I didn’t know you lived in New Orleans and had to leave after Katrina. I’m sorry to hear that, Evlondo.

EVLONDO

Yeah, my family and a lot of my friends moved back after, and I’m actually going down in September to visit.

YESSENIA

Oh, that’s amazing. And, luckily, it’s been a pretty quiet hurricane season, so far.

EVLONDO

Knock on wood.

YESSENIA

Yeah. Hoping that this lasts the rest of the summer. Where are you based now? I’m curious if you’ve been feeling the effects of the latest heat waves.

EVLONDO

Yeah. I live in the Pacific Northwest, and the climate here is largely temperate, but we are in the midst of a heat wave. It’s supposed to be close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit this weekend in my town, Tacoma, Washington. We can clearly see the effect that climate change has been having on the area. It affects the lives and livelihoods of so many people in my city. It has a material effect on people’s pockets. Half my neighborhood hadn’t owned an air conditioner before the awful heat wave of last year—and many people do now.

 

I was shocked growing up in New Orleans, where everybody has AC, that very few people had them out here. But as the climate has been changing and giving us increasingly longer extreme heat days, people have been installing them in mass, especially since last summer.

YESSENIA

Mm-hmm. And that’s driving up their energy bills, I’m sure. But also an air conditioner purchase is not a cheap one.

EVLONDO

No. And then we have a big unhoused population. We’ve been trying to get the city to do a better job of keeping the cooling centers open longer and informing people about the effects of heat, making sure that people have water and shelter. Although, personally, I’m insulated from the worst effects, you can definitely see its effect on the larger community.

YESSENIA

Funny enough, the latest heat wave I’ve been reading about is the one in the Pacific Northwest. I saw that Oregon declared a state of emergency. There’s also that heat wave going on in China, where temperatures even forced a bridge to collapse. I’m curious: why haven’t we heard anything about the same catastrophic heat levels in, say, the Middle East or Africa. I’m reading that Tunisia in Northern Africa broke a 40-year heat record, but I got that information from NASA, not a news site.

 

You’re an expert on how media covers climate change. Why haven’t we heard about heat waves happening elsewhere?

EVLONDO

Yeah, it comes down to the fact that the stories that corporate news media chooses to tell or ignore, especially when it comes to extreme climate events, especially among extreme climate events that impact poor people and people of color, indicate a specific choice about whose voices matter and whose voices should be heard. And, unfortunately, for much of the media class, those voices only matter in as much as they affect the lives of people in Western nations.

 

The media in America is very U.S.-centric, but when it does tell stories about things happening to people in other countries, most of that’s going to reflect people in Western nations, not people who they may view as more disposable or whom they don’t have that same kind of connection to.

 

Even if the media were covering what was happening in African nations, that wouldn’t be enough. What we want them to do—what we think needs to be done—is every climate segment about an extreme weather event should connect that event to the burning of fossil fuels and to the industry that is actively seeking to thwart climate action and deepen our reliance on fossil fuels. The importance of media coverage isn’t just to say, This is happening. 

 

If people are informed, they have a clear understanding of the stakes, the villains, and the path forward. You could see the public being galvanized to demand and to take meaningful global climate action.

“If people are informed, they have a clear understanding of the stakes, the villains, and the path forward.”

Evlondo Cooper
Media Matters for America

YESSENIA

I’m curious if any of your data with Media Matters has indicated that some parts of the globe, in fact, receive more media coverage during these events.

EVLONDO

We don’t have any specific data on this particular trend. We have published a couple of extreme heat pieces. The fact that the media covered Europe at all was a big deal. I can say that I think they extend this coverage to European countries because they view them as more simpatico. This could be an indication of conscious or unconscious bias.

YESSENIA

Right, so what role does the media play here? I’m thinking both of the individuals like myself who cover stories but also the players behind these media institutions, especially when we’re talking about corporate news media. What is the role that they play in perpetuating this?

EVLONDO

I can give you an example from our review of coverage of Hurricane Ida. Last year, when Hurricane Ida devastated southern Louisiana, which has a large number of communities of color and poor communities, corporate news coverage largely followed the standard procedure. The storm was reported as an isolated meteorological phenomenon. It was defined by statistics and the usual disaster imagery. Now, what this does is it disconnects these events from the climate crisis. It allows the systemic failures and racial and economic inequalities exposed by these events to go unchallenged, and it often casts these communities as helpless victims.

 

Now, when the remnants of the storm made their way to the East Coast and flooded large parts, including New York City, where much of the media class resides, you saw an intense focus not only on the storm’s devastation, but you also saw demands that something be done in a way that you don’t see when these extreme weather events impact other parts of the country, particularly poor and more Black and Brown parts of the country.

 

The news media struggles to humanize and contextualize the stories of people who don’t look or act like them. I think you can extrapolate that coverage in America to why we don’t see the same type of coverage of extreme weather events in places like Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Global South at large.

 

We have also seen an uptick in right-wing media covering the unrest in foreign countries like Syria and the Netherlands and Ghana. They’re trying to tie very complex geopolitical events, including some that are driven by climate change, to American climate policy. It’s obviously disingenuous, but when mainstream news networks leave a vacuum in coverage, right-wing media is almost always ready to fill that gap.

“The news media struggles to humanize and contextualize the stories of people who don’t look or act like them.”

Evlondo Cooper
Media Matters for America

YESSENIA

What about the countries themselves? I saw that Spain recently named a heat wave for the first time: Heat Wave Zoe. How do you think that leaders in countries can do a better job of raising urgency around what they’re facing so that the media may give them more attention?

EVLONDO

It’s a challenging question because I think so much of the media discourse reflects the lead opinion and concerns. Vulnerable countries can’t even get rich Western nations to accept culpability for driving the climate crisis and pay them compensation for sustainability and mitigation policies. One thing the leaders can do is be willing to call out other leaders who are not doing enough to address the climate crisis. That could maybe garner some media attention.

 

Another thing they can do is to connect the effects to the cause, which is something we rarely see in corporate news media. These events are being driven by a global fossil fuel industry and a reluctance of rich countries to institute an immediate transition away from the fossil fuel economy. They need to start connecting cause and effect and letting the media know that this isn’t an isolated event that’s happening. This is a direct result of actions taken by countries and industries that are having a detrimental impact on their people.

YESSENIA

I feel like so many of us, especially those of us in the Global North, forget how many other folks face the immediate risk of living in uninhabitable places. It scares me to think that there are people who are OK with the idea of vast swaths of populations dying. What worries you given this climate reality and media coverage?

EVLONDO

Just what you said—that it’s gonna have geopolitical ramifications. Much of the world will become sacrifice zones. Climate migrants will be demonized. Then, ensuing civil unrest will lead people to turn toward authoritarianism and reject the common plight and humanity of others. Countries will retrench and not coordinate on the global efforts needed to actually address climate change or at least mitigate its worse impacts. By failing to help people understand that a small slice of humanity—a very ultra-rich slice of humanity and those that they’ve bought and paid for—is perfectly willing to drive humanity off a cliff for profit. Our news media is complicit in our fate, and I think they need to do whatever it takes to be able to begin telling the story with the truth and urgency that it deserves.

YESSENIA

On the flip side of that, what is keeping you going? What inspires you in the face of these unimaginable obstacles here?

EVLONDO

I just take inspiration from people. A lot of my work is focused on media, but in my personal life, a lot of the work I do is at the grassroots level. I’m seeing people in America and abroad take ownership. I think we must demand from the people we put in power that they do the job we sent them there for, which is to mitigate this crisis. It inspires me to see people standing up and demanding their voices to be heard, implementing solutions at the community at the local and regional level, and just trying to do a better job of taking care of each other.

 

Climate change is a global crisis—and it needs a global solution—but I’m inspired by the fact that everyday people are standing up and trying to get it done themselves the best way they know how.

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