The Issue of Clickbait and Exaggeration in Environmental Journalism

Humanity has 20 years to shape up or face mass extinction.  Sounds scary, right?  If this headline popped up on your news feed, it would be next-to-impossible to ignore your curiosity and not click.  However, once you dive into the article written by the New York Post, check a few sources, and compare them to other publications, you would discover that this headline is the epitome of the modern phenomena of clickbait.

The internet has been an instrumental tool in communicating and educating environmental issues to the ears of the masses.  However, with any internet entity comes the potential for clickbait, which – put simply – is hyperbolic (often false) content designed solely to manifest clicks.  Online environmental news is no stranger to the problematic consequences that come along with it.

Last October, Outside Magazine, the New York Post, The Independent and other media outlets released an “obituary” for the Great Barrier Reef, causing an backlash from both journalistic and environmental organizations.  These articles ignored the actual work, progress, and agreed-upon science about the reef’s health.  A CNN article written by Sophie Lewis simply titled “The Great Barrier Reef is Not Actually Dead” fired back quickly. Responding to the pseudo-death, Lewis stated, “there’s a difference between dead and dying.”  And that’s where the issue of clickbait and exaggeration lay.

Lewis’ piece criticized the carelessness and unsupported claims of the original post, citing prominent members of the scientific community who work tirelessly to help protect the reef.  Lewis stated that scientists are increasingly worried about exaggeration when it comes to sensitive topics like climate change.  As Lewis cites, “Professor John Pandolfi from the ARC Centre at the University of Queensland has expressed hope. ‘It is critically important now to bolster the resilience of the reef, and to maximize its natural capacity to recover.’”

Some might argue that making these bold, eye-catching claims are progressive and essential for environmental science to engage the public.  However, by over exaggerating and overlooking real science, true progressive action cannot be achieved.  Take a look at New York Magazine’s cover story, published just a few days ago.  “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells tells stories of imminent doomsday scenarios that will destroy us in a fiery blaze or a suffocating tidal wave.

Not unlike the backlash to the Great Barrier Reef “death” last year, the scientific community was quick to respond.  An article published by Climate Feedback employed 16 research and university scientists to dissect the New York Magazine piece, which came to the conclusion that the scientific credibility was low.  The climate professionals explained the dangers of overstating the science of our planet to the public.

There is a scientific consensus that our climate is undergoing rapid change. However, clickbaiting and over exaggerating a narrative of hopelessness is just as dangerous as ignoring the issues completely.

As scientists, educators, environment leaders, and conservation professionals, we need to hold our selves to a higher standard.

Washington Post journalists Michael E. Mann, Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles dissect the issue of “climate doomism” in their article responding to Wallace Wells’ piece.  They summarize the type of work and narratives environmental professionals need to do in their closing remarks:

“It is important to communicate both the threat and the opportunity in the climate challenge. Those paying attention are worried, and should be, but there are also reasons for hope. There is still time to avoid the worst outcomes, if we act boldly now, not out of fear, but out of confidence that the future is largely in our hands.”

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