Media and the doomsday narrative: we risk paralysing young people with fear

Garrett O'Reilly
Garrett O'Reilly

Cautious optimism, not anxiety, inspires the greatest proportion of people to act, writes Garrett O’Reilly. It’s vital this message takes root in our climate change narrative.

A global survey carried out by the University of Bath recently asked 10,000 16- to 25-year-olds about their attitudes towards climate change. Regardless of where people lived, or their economic circumstances, the results were the same: young people think humanity is doomed, with more than half feeling hopeless and three-quarters saying the future is frightening.

Little wonder, then, that some climate researchers have now taken to sharing emotional support alongside their papers. Young people, deluged with terrible news, are struggling to cope. It has even spawned its own moniker: "eco-anxiety".

The question for us as professional communicators is what role the media, in all of its various forms, plays in this? And once we’ve wrapped our heads around that, what role might it play turning feelings of anxiety – which are entirely natural and justified – into something less harmful to mental health, and more useful in tackling the problem?

It’s a moot issue because, while some people will compute what they hear and feel compelled to act, many others will do the opposite. As a 16-year-old said in a 2019 BBC documentary examining eco-anxiety: “You just feel a bit powerless”. Others, shockingly, liken it to having a terminal illness, going so far as to seek therapy. 

As an industry, whether through the media we own or fund, or through the messages and content we produce, we have always had a responsibility to support the facts and promote the truth, however unpalatable, whilst discouraging lies, misinformation and subterfuge. 

Perhaps we should add to this a new responsibility that ensures young people are not left paralysed by fear, and instead offer cautious optimism and solutions within a framework of objective truth-telling. Young people must feel empowered if they are to enact change, but that is unlikely to happen if they believe there is no hope. And there is.

To that end, we should begin challenging and influencing the language some leading climate voices use. Here, I sense many valiant efforts fall into the trap of catastrophising to the point that audiences are being left shell-shocked.  

Take the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, Roger Hallam. When he tells young people – as he does through YouTube – that they “face annihilation”, my instinct as a marketer says the language is too strong. It might shock, and it might rally some people to action. But it probably makes many others feel utterly despondent and alienated. 

I speak from experience. Hearts & Science once carried out work for The Gates Foundation, encouraging support for one of the organisation’s humanitarian appeals. While testing messaging, we discovered that "cautious optimism" had a special currency of its own, and that there was a sweet spot that compelled people to act. However, if we overplayed the language or imagery of despair, people began to mentally shut it out – and failed to act. People, we proved, are more inspired to act if there is a sense of positivity or progress.

Let's bring back nuance

It’s a nuanced balancing act, certainly, but the more we understand it, the more we can use it to inform our efforts to help, and build the case for cautious optimism over total despair. I’d love to call upon the industry’s behavioural and neuroscience experts to reveal more about how this works, and how we can refine its deployment.

We could use similar approaches for the problem of cynicism too, which I suspect we will see more of as businesses long held as environmentally problematic – car manufacturers, fast-food restaurants – now start "going green". 

Despondent cynics, judging the scale of the problem as too mighty, will perhaps label such attempts as greenwashing, but we can’t knock businesses for trying, even if such attempts seem small-fry. Building cautious optimism means applauding even the smallest steps in the right direction. Radical solutions won’t happen overnight, and given cynicism stands very close to pessimism, our efforts to shift one should not neglect the other. And over time, those small steps will look more like giant leaps, allowing optimism to grow.

Lastly, the Bath study notes young people feel betrayed and abandoned by governments and adults. Looking at our own industry, that means – among others things – we must use our own businesses as tools of empowerment. 

We’ve already made an excellent start by building cross-industry green alliances, and personally, at Hearts & Science, we’re changing the DNA of our own business to support net-zero targets. If young people leverage the power of business to do more than an individual can achieve alone, and we successfully facilitate that, we really can make a difference in people’s lives, and to the environment.

All of these ideas are ripe for development, and should feed into the growing body of largely collaborative work our industry is carrying out. Media and advertising will play an enormous role as we strive to meet net-zero. And as we have already learned from the climate emergency, lots of small actions, at scale, do amount to real change. But it will only work by ensuring people are not so consumed by anxiety they fail to see what good they can really do. 

Garrett O’Reilly is managing director of Hearts & Science

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