Article 25

Following the News

In Uncategorized on 06/20/2016 at 5:46 pm

Media column

Harbingers and Sofbingers

By John Nerone

This spring the news briefly elevated two stories about “climate refugees.” In one, Native Americans living on Isle de Jean Charles, La., received a $48 million “climate resilience” grant from the federal government to relocate their entire community in the face of rising water levels. The New York Times, NPR, and others have called them the first U.S. climate refugees.

In another story, the entire population of 90,000 of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, evacuated in the face of raging wildfires.

Both stories were widely reported as harbingers of things to come. What’s a harbinger? I don’t know. It’s a word journalists use when they predict the future.

Framing climate change

The term “climate refugee” isn’t all that new. It’s been used for at least half a decade in discussions in international forums like the United Nations. The usual climate refugees are people such as the inhabitants of small Pacific island nations like Vanuatu, soon to be submerged. These refugees are exotic. Miami can’t be far behind, but its inhabitants, are, well, people like us.

The Fort McMurray story shows that even Canadians, the most civilized and least tropical people in the world, can be climate refugees. I find this exciting, not because I resent Canadians, but because it means a “frame” might change.

Frames are the ways journalists make sense out of the news. A frame is a big story that journalists fit little stories into. When I was growing up, all international news in the West had to fit into the Cold War frame: An election in Chile made sense because it was a little story in the big story of U.S.-Soviet superpower competition. Stories that don’t fit frames don’t get told. Congressional action that can’t fit into a story of Republican vs. Democratic competition isn’t news.

So frames are really important because they make news stories visible.

They also make the news memorable. People forget the stuff of news. They remember the frames. They internalize the frames. It’s how they organize the world.

A frame will usually assign stuff to a domain. It’s important for stuff to have a domain, and even more important for the domain to be appropriate. I often point out that labor news tends to be assigned to the business section of the newspaper. That’s not its best domain. It signals the reader that the important thing about a strike is how it will affect investors first and then consumers second. Workers come third, at best.

Back to climate refugees. What domain will climate change occupy? The climate refugee frame assigns it to the domain of disasters – the sorts of unintelligible chains of events that drive other waves of refugees, like tsunamis, earthquakes, ethnic cleansing or shit that happens in the Middle East.

The problem with disaster news

Disaster news is the most frustrating for those of us who think that the point of news is to empower citizens to act to change the world. Disasters come from the stars – that’s the etymology of the word. Disasters make us lament the cruelty of the universe when we should be pondering our cars. Our cars have everything to do with the climate refugees from Fort McMurray. Those people were there to produce oil out of tar sands because growing demand had made it profitable to do so. Tar sand oil is the dirtiest fossil fuel you can find. Producing it and then consuming it makes the world heat faster, which makes the northern forests drier for longer periods of time, which makes forest fires more common and more severe. These forest fires reduce the capacity of the forest to capture carbon; they also coat glaciers with soot, which makes them absorb more heat and then melt more quickly, which raises sea levels and produces climate refugees in Louisiana.

The same climate dynamic leads to longer and more severe droughts. We had a great deal of reporting about the current one in California. There has been much less reporting about a longer and even more severe drought in parts of the Middle East. That drought was one of the triggers of unrest in Syria that led to the civil war there that has produced 4 million refugees, not climate refugees, I suppose, but refugees from shit that happens in the Middle East.

Framing Donald Trump

Speaking of news that makes no sense, Donald Trump. A presidential election is itself a frame, and much of the reporting about Trump is framed entirely as “presidential contest”: how this or that primary or debate or tweet or gaffe makes him more or less likely to win. This is journalism in the future tense, in which a reporter predicts an effect on the basis of that reporter’s expert insight into how things happen in presidential contests.

Of course, most reporters have no more insight into these matters than that fellow over there, and, because you can’t see me right now, let me say that I’m nodding at a homeless guy sleeping at a bus stop and wearing a Winter Park Colorado baseball cap.

Trump sewing up the nomination made a lot of journalists publish confessions about how shortsighted they’d been. The implication is that they’ve learned, and they’re not shortsighted anymore.

Here’s what they’ve learned: Working-class Americans are angry and frustrated. And white and male.

Reporters still don’t seem to have grasped Trump, mostly because they have been focusing on Trump the TV show, or Media Trump, instead of Mogul Trump or Politician Trump. If you treat Trump as a politician, the correct question is this: What would President Trump do for working people? Here’s the correct answer: diddly squat. Here’s how you can find this out: Listen to him. I challenge you to find a tangible practical policy proposal that would help working people.

Why would working people support him? Another wrong question. The correct one is why would Republican working people support him. And the answer is in the alternatives.

Trump won the nomination over 16 representatives of the political class, people who mostly have been associated with the Republican Party as it has actually governed. Working-class voters have chosen Trump over Cruz, Kasich, Rubio, Fiorina and another dozen forgettable candidates. It’s hard to second-guess them. It’s not like Trump beat Abraham Lincoln. More like Chester Arthur.

Changing the climate

Is there a way for journalists to frame climate refugees so that Donald Trump would have to respond with tangible, practical policy proposals?

It’s not really Trump. It’s the entire Republican Party. Trump has tweeted that climate change “was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” but that’s just pandering to the party faithful.

Here’s a great opportunity. Republican voters have just shouted “bullshit” at their party’s leadership. Journalists can’t quite make that out, though, and believe those voters are shouting “Trump,” even though a lot of them voted Cruz and Carson. They are also shouting “bullshit” at neoliberal trade policies and crony capitalism. Is it too wild a dream that now is the moment when they begin to shout bullshit at climate denialism? If journalists want to write in the future tense, let them try that story on for the time being.

John Nerone is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

 

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