Keeping it real?: Media and public concern with climate change on the Great Barrier Reef

19:00 Tuesday 28 May




Erin Bohensky (Australia) 1; Maxine Newlands (Australia) 2; Ally Lankester (Australia) 2

1 - CSIRO Land and Water, Australian Tropical Sciences and Innovation Precinct; 2 - College of Arts, Society and Education, Division of Tropical Environments and Societies, James Cook University

Recent widespread coral bleaching has shone a new light on the severity of climate impacts threatening the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), an iconic ecosystem and World Heritage Area. As the region’s scientists, managers and citizens deliberate over possible adaptation options to avert further catastrophic outcomes for the GBR, the news media are often implicated in the failure of the GBR to attract a higher level of public and political concern. At the same time, the media are looked upon as a vehicle for shifting attitudes and catalysing action on the GBR. In this paper we interrogate relationships between media and society around the contentious, complex issue of climate change and adaptation on the GBR. Our aim is to draw attention to these dynamics for communities of practice wishing to better evaluate and ultimately shift public opinion. We utilise a two-part longitudinal data series including surveys revealing perceived threats to the GBR and media coverage over a 20-year period as a point of departure to illuminate these complex relationships.

We also situate media in a more nuanced web of actors and power relationships by identifying ‘third party effects’: key events, or critical discourse moments, that can influence both public opinion and media. Public threat perception of climate change and media attention spiked in 2007 and 2008 respectively, with a second spike in 2017, but were decoupled at other times. Since 2010 climate change has competed for media and public attention with dredging, port development, and shipping, but received the most media coverage of these issues over the twenty-year period. This clarifies the limitations of communications models that propose a linear relationship between public perception and media, and argues for an examination of a full suite of underlying drivers of media and public concern about the GBR. Two media trends are pertinent: the continued propagation of dualistic narratives that pit the environment against the local economy, and the rise in civic and alternative media spaces that make mainstream media interest less relevant.

The recent upturn in public and media interest in climate change on the GBR offers a new opportunity to catalyse broad support for progressive adaptation pathways. Our analysis points to a need for GBR scientists and managers to shift away from public engagement based solely on improved science communication, and instead initiate new modes of engagement aligned to the urgency of the climate crisis the GBR faces.