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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Op/Ed: Is Clickbait Hurting Our Chances for Success at COP28?

The use of negative terms that incite anger is proven to draw clicks and traffic for news stories, and there's no shortage of headlines like these when it comes to coverage of the COP28 global climate talks.
By Mary Mazzoni
The Blue Zone at COP28 in the UAE

The use of negative terms that incite anger is proven to draw clicks and traffic for news stories, research shows. Sometimes referred to as "rage-baiting," negative and controversial headlines are amplified by social media algorithms and activate threat responses in our brains that naturally drive us to pay more attention. And there's no shortage of headlines like these when it comes to coverage of the COP28 global climate talks, which kicked off in Dubai last week.

"Al Jaber's no good, very bad week," reads a newsletter headline from the Guardian, referring to Sultan Al Jaber, the president of COP28 who also serves as CEO of the United Arab Emirates' state-owned oil company and chairman of its national renewable energy firm. "What do you expect when an oil executive runs the climate talks?" asked an op/ed headline on CNN. Another from Politico reads simply, "COP Out." 

Albeit sensationalized, this reporting is fully accurate. A recent analysis indicates more fossil fuel lobbyists are present at COP28 than any of the talks before it. Another shows more than 80 percent of corporate advocacy on carbon capture and storage is out of line with climate science. The corporate watchdog InfluenceMap even published a "fossil fuel narratives fact-checker" to bust common lies, myths and misrepresentations put forward by the industry at COP28.

But beyond making people aware that the fossil fuel industry is up to its old tricks, something many implicitly know, how is this coverage helping us? How is it getting climate finance to vulnerable countries, passing the mic to impacted people, or moving the world any closer to reducing greenhouse gas emissions? 

One could certainly argue that it's not a journalist's job to do any of those things, only to expose the truth and tell people what's happening. But what we decide to cover matters. If all readers see are news stories about how much of a failure COP28 is when it's barely started, that's the impression they'll be left with — and that's not a complete picture, nor does it reflect the tireless efforts of millions of people around the world to counter climate change. 

It may not even result in the collective outrage and push for action some would expect, as studies show that continued exposure to negative news coverage may actually desensitize us to unethical behavior

In our solutions journalism coverage of COP28, we're hoping to do things a bit differently. While solutions journalism doesn't mean putting our heads in the sand or covering only the positive, it looks to establish a new normal in which solutions to challenges are also newsworthy — even if they're not as inflammatory as something that engages anger. 

This is purely subjective opinion, but the way I see it is: Yes, the fossil fuel industry has done untold damage to the earth and the people who live here, and evidence suggests they'll continue to do it if we let them, but we also have a finite amount of time to do something about a threat that could decimate humankind as we know it. The time we spend talking about what's gone wrong should be reserved for impacted communities seeking justice, and the rest of us should ask ourselves some questions. Do we want to spend the time we have left talking about who the bad guys are, or do we want to lift up (and learn from) what is actually proven effective for the crisis we face? 

We as writers can jockey for position on who has the most clever prose to indict [insert bad actor here], but couldn't we channel our collective brilliance toward something that is more productive? 

Stories of the people and communities acting today to address climate change are languishing on the vine and left on the cutting room floor in favor of what's deemed more "important," more "newsworthy" or more likely to drive traffic. 

As a result, around 70 percent of Americans say coverage of climate change makes them feel sad, while only half say it makes them want to take action and 38 percent say it makes them optimistic we can address the problem, according to October research from Pew.

Some newsrooms are beginning to push for change in partnership with Covering Climate Now and the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing solutions coverage.

Over the past year, nine news outlets including Grist, The Sacramento Bee and The Washington Informer moved to fully integrate solutions reporting into their coverage of climate change under a program called Climate Beacon. Resulting stories highlight how Washington’s cap-and-invest system raised $300 million from polluters to fund climate programs, ways farmers can protect pollinators from climate disruption, and how Colorado is navigating challenges to deploy federal funds to expand clean energy

These stories aren't breaking news. They represent long slogs that unfold for months or even years outside of the mainstream public eye. They don't bleed, so in many newsrooms, they don't lead. But they could, and that shift could begin to transform public perception of our ability to move the needle on climate change, as research indicates that solutions coverage leaves people feeling more energized and motivated to take action.

Make no mistake, we are nowhere near where we need to be in order to cap global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which climate scientists agree is a crucial tipping point. The way we're going, experts estimate the world will cross the 1.5-degree threshold by the 2030s or sooner. The ongoing denial and delay tactics perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry got us there. And that has continued at this COP, including the push to water down COP28 policy language around a global "phaseout" of fossil fuels to a more loosely worded "phase down" or no mention of fossil energy at all. 

But if we only tell the story of fossil fuel companies, their executives and their decades-long legacy of environmental destruction, we leave little space to tell the story of those who are impacted by that destruction — and those who are pushing back against it. 

In our coverage of COP28, we'll touch on smallholder farmers using nature-based techniques that allow soils to absorb more carbon, we'll explore how Indigenous wisdoms can inform climate policy, and we'll speak with some of the policymakers, scientists, advocates and business leaders who are pushing for a decisive outcome around a fossil fuel phaseout. 

The Solutions Journalism Network will begin accepting applications for a second round of Climate Beacon newsrooms later this month, and as we continue to develop our own solutions reporting of climate change and the other issues core to the sustainability and social impact space, we at TriplePundit will be watching closely. We encourage our community of readers to share your feedback about our new approach with us here

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni