Why doesn't the media cover biodiversity?

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This week, the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a summary report on biodiversity that states some alarming facts about the state of our planet. The key takeaway is that one million species risk extinction worldwide, and the rate of extinction has not been seen in 10 million years. Sir Robert Watson, chairman of IPBES, said humans have been “eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The major driver of the change is land use change. We are transforming luscious rainforests into cattle ranches and swampy wetlands into urban areas. Next, we also directly hunt, poach and overfish through direct exploitation. Climate change makes species migrate in search of food or suitable temperatures, while industrial pollution and consumer waste have created dead zones in the oceans. Finally, invasive species can ravage new ecosystems when they don’t have natural predators. So there we have it. These are the reasons one million species are bidding us farewell.

While I should be depressed about this news, the report made me excited in a way. It felt like a glimmer of light after a long media blackout on biodiversity. This issue finally got some coverage. Or so I thought.

This is what happened media-wise:

Only three of 26 prime-time news programs on major networks covered the report. — Ted MacDonald in Media Matters for America

In case you wonder why no one acts on the reports put out by the UN, the media could be the culprit. Research in a paper titled “Our House Is Burning: Discrepancy in Climate Change vs. Biodiversity Coverage in the Media as Compared to Scientific Literature” states that climate change got up to eight times more media coverage than biodiversity in 2016 and three times more coverage on average since 1996.

Meanwhile, until 2007, when publications on the two topics started to converge, the number of scientific publications on the topics were neck and neck. In total, there are still two-thirds as many scientific publications on biodiversity topics as on climate change topics. So the media discrepancy doesn’t match the scientific output.

The authors of the paper speculate that one of the reasons may relate to the lack of benchmarks in place to get biodiversity back on track, while Climate Change has traditionally had clear targets like the current 1.5 degree Celsius target. It’s also possible that reporters and journalists may have been covering biodiversity topics, but they have not linked them to the larger worldwide push to reduce mass extinction. From another perspective, at least there has been no biodiversity loss denial campaign by major corporations as there has been for climate change (yet).

Extinction and endangered species are an issue that the public grasps with relative ease, thanks to the Endangered Species Act, but the term “biodiversity” stirs up a level of abstraction that should be broken down by the media. People may lack an awareness about the interactions of species and the relevance of biodiversity in our lives. We can’t go on speaking of the token poster children of the rainforest like the snow leopard or the orangutan in isolation.

Former BBC environmental correspondent Richard Black points out that the term “biodiversity” is commonly used by high level policy makers in the UN, but it doesn’t have much traction among laypeople, where people use even less distinct words like “nature.”

Because so few of the television media outlets covered the IPBES report, for now we are waiting with bated breath. John R. Platt writes in The Revelator: “Will leaders hear the call? I’m actually a bit heartened. This report was front-page news on The New York Times and hundreds of other media outlets. The news was shared widely on social media. People got angry. And scared.”

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What should we do to improve biodiversity media coverage?

Firstly, apart from the lack of coverage, the media also doesn’t bring reports like the IPBES summary down to earth. It leaves these mind-boggling figures in the text, without giving enough context or pinning these concepts to particular local events, as the authors of the biodiversity media paper indicate. It doesn’t give us any hope to actually comprehend the report as a call to action with practical steps in place. We need to do better.

Moreover, our own position within ecosystems may baffle people. We so often view ourselves as having “conquered nature” that many readers may not conceive of biodiversity as a tangible, immersive phenomena. Birdlife International points out “the vast majority of people do not realize how much they rely on the web of life.”

Meanwhile, media coverage on individual species doesn’t help our understanding of biodiversity. Stories on individual species don’t emphasize the specifics of regional habitats, interconnected communities of organisms, or processes like natural succession, which get almost no media coverage.

Some missed opportunities to highlight biodiversity

Sometimes journalists miss the opportunity to really draw connections where there are plenty to be made.

  • For instance, this story on the return of wildlife to Chernobyl directly points to the troubling fact that species may only thrive in the total absence of humans, even in dystopian backdrops. This means we have to return some of the agricultural land space to the animal kingdom. The IPBES report indicates that three quarters of the global landmass is used for agriculture. We should probe how to highlight the importance of this article in the context of the biodiversity conversation.

  • Another fascinating article that seems like a missed opportunity to link to the biodiversity discussion is this coverage on how Wildebeest deaths in the Serengeti feed the surrounding web of life.

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What biodiversity topics are available to cover?

Apart from the fact of biodiversity decline, there are so many interesting topics to explore. These are just a very limited set of possibilities:

  • There have been some exciting discussions around indigenous knowledge and leadership by indigenous communities in media conservations related to biodiversity lately. Let’s continue these.

  • We’ve spent so much time debating our apathy, when many of these changes derive from industrial producers and economic systems in place, not individual choice. The IPBES report points its fingers at global decision makers to step up on biodiversity as well as climate change.

  • Since the IPBES summary report explained how saving biodiversity will impact economies, it is important to link the notion of biodiversity to business. Many media outlets have started using the phrase “natural capital” to make this link. More should be done to reveal how business depends on biodiversity.

  • Another important connection is the theory and attempts at degrowth economies. Connecting these stories to biodiversity could help bring the looming mass extinction threat to the fore.

  • For those of the tech persuasion, loads of data science projects related to biodiversity are underway. Those are ripe for coverage.

  • We should discuss how scientists are preserving seeds in seed banks (ex-situ conservation), when they should be conserving land (in-situ conservation).

  • Or how grocery store marketing of produce limits our range of biodiverse edible fruits and vegetables to just a handful of species grown as monocultural crops.

  • Biodiversity topics also have fascinating historical links to the outmoded form of layman’s science known as naturalism. We can talk about how naturalist literary figures celebrate the natural world—like Thoreau, who wrote Walden and also discovered an important ecological phenomena related to tree succession, and Nabokov, who wrote Lolita and also discovered a previously unrecorded species of moth as a lepidopterist.

What first made me interested in biodiversity

You may be wondering why biodiversity matters to me. Let me explain. A couple of years ago, I started a biodiversity and conservation blog called Biodivvy to develop my writing skills and explore a niche interest of mine—biodiversity. I had been reading various books that addressed ecology and environmental systems. As I dug in, I realized that biodiversity and the related field of ecology are rich subjects with lots of nuance, dilemmas, and room for discussion and debate.

How can I learn more about biodiversity media coverage?

Firstly, you can register your blog, website, or journal with the Biodiversity Media Alliance. Next, spark a discussion. Ask around. Dig in. Find definitions. Ask questions:

  • What are the main pillars of biodiversity topics?

  • How do they connect to people’s daily lives?

  • What is the human dimension of a natural community?

As someone who loves reading about biodiversity, I can only hope we’ll start to see more meaningful conversations highlight our world’s fascinating biological systems, communities and interactions. I especially look forward to a mainstream shift away from the extractive logic of engineered solutions that don’t connect the dots to the existing natural paradigm.