Representation of Indigenous peoples in climate change reporting includes lack of substantive discussion of colonialism or marginalization and limited media portrayal of the structural roots of vulnerability

Ella Belfer et al. Representation of Indigenous peoples in climate change reporting, Climatic Change
DOI 10.1007/s10584-017-2076-z Author(s) 2017. This article is an open access publication

Abstract:  This article examines how newspapers reporting on climate change have covered and framed Indigenous peoples. Focusing on eight newspapers in Canada, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand, we examine articles published from 1995 to 2015, and analyze them using content and framing analyses. The impacts of climate change are portrayed as having severe ecological,  sociocultural, and health/safety impacts for Indigenous peoples, who are often framed as victims and Bharbingers^ of climate change. There is a strong focus on stories reporting on the Arctic. The lack of substantive discussion of colonialism or marginalization in the reviewed stories limits media portrayal of the structural roots of vulnerability, rendering climate change as a problem for, rather than of society. Indigenous and traditional knowledge is widely discussed, but principally as a means of corroborating scientific knowledge, or in accordance with romanticized portrayals of Indigenous peoples. Widespread disparities in the volume, content, and framing of coverage are also observed across the four nations.

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Limited reference to colonialism, marginalization, and the history of Indigenous communities in the articles reviewed decontextualizes Indigenous experiences and silences the role of broader sociopolitical factors within which vulnerability to climate change is created and sustained (Cameron 2012; Ford 2012). This omission narrows the types of responses discussed in articles and frames, with articles rarely highlighting the importance of addressing underlying structural root causes of vulnerability. In this way, climate change is constructed as problem for society as opposed to a problem of society, mirroring broader scientific discourse around Indigenous peoples and climate change (Ford et al. 2016a), and obscuring colonization’s tangible impact on mitigation and adaptation responses (Callison 2014; Marino and Lazrus 2015).

The lack of substantive consideration of legacies of colonization may further result in an implicit devolution of responsibility onto Indigenous communities. For instance, articles which merely note that communities have built permanent settlements in remote, fragile locations, or which discuss the pursuit of additional government funding without historic context, omit critical historical context and therefore promote interpretations that place blame on Indigenous communities. For example, where expensive capital-intensive adaptations are discussed in media articles focusing on the Arctic, the focus is typically on the unrealistic high costs involved but rarely on the re-settlement that in many instances that forced communities into inhabiting such vulnerable locations (Marino and Lazrus 2015). In the USA, the common characterization of Indigenous communities as “nations” without acknowledgement of colonization implicitly characterizes impacts and responses as localized problems, with no substantial linkages to broader US policies or emissions (Barringer 2007; Krauss 2013). In New Zealand, though political controversy explicitly revolves around treaty negotiations, accusations of “special interests” pursued by Māori are bolstered by a failure to address legacies of colonialism (e.g., Trevett 2009). Such insinuations may be reinforced by the widespread use of frames that delegitimize Indigenous actors in broader media coverage across all four nations studied (Drache et al. 2016; Lam et al. 2015; Leavitt et al. 2015; Rankine et al. 2014).

Thirdly, while IK/TK is frequently discussed in the articles reviewed, it is done so within a narrow context. For example, IK/TK was mainly documented where it easily corroborates scientific
knowledge, or when the impacts it identifies are sociocultural, and thus beyond the purview of research considered scientific. In such interpretations, complex knowledge systems are reduced to simple
observations, valuable because they originate from regions where scientific data is sparse or confirm scientific findings. A focus on Indigenous belief systems, cosmologies, and alternative ways of
knowing and interpreting climate change, are largely absent from the articles reviewed, with similar observations made for incorporating IK/TK intoWestern systems of knowledge (Ford et al. 2016a; Smith and Sharp 2012). Moreover, IK/TK is predominantly valued where it reinforces the romanticized notions of Indigenous peoples present in broader environmental coverage (Walter 2012). Where individuals conflict with such stereotypes, they are implicitly rendered less Indigenous, and in cases where conflicts between science and IK/TK are documented scientific knowledge is framed as more impartial and trustworthy (e.g., polar bear controversies in the Arctic).

Fourthly, the differences in volume, timing, content, and tone of coverage across the four nations are striking. Disparities in volume of coverage, and particularly the lack of Australian coverage,
could be indicative of differences in the journalistic norms of national newspapers, or of national interest in the subject (See Supplementary Information). However, higher volumes of Canadian
coverage may also be consistent with findings that Canada has one of the highest national news shares for climate change coverage as a whole (Stoddart et al. 2015), in addition to the higher
relevance of Arctic impacts as the region most dramatically impacted by climate change. Interestingly, the tone of coverage is drastically different in coverage of foreign communities. In New
Zealand and Australia, coverage of Inuit experiences of climate change is much more sympathetic in tone than in domestic coverage, and coverage of Indigenous communities in the Amazon by
American newspapers discussed the need for greater incorporation of Indigenous peoples in climate negotiations, a claim that is never made in American domestic coverage.

Cross-country comparison also reveals tensions in the understanding of the citizenship of Indigenous peoples.With a strong focus on community-level responses by Indigenous nations, the impacts experienced within the continental USA are portrayed as localized issues, rather than the responsibility of the broader American populace or the federal government. Discussions
of sovereignty occur most prominently when responsibility for climate impacts is assigned to Indigenous communities, such as the state’s inability to prevent the Navajo nation
from building a coal plant (Barringer 2007), or allegations that the Māori Party manipulated treaty rights to strike a political deal (Oliver 2008). In New Zealand, criticism of the Māori
Party and of initiatives to includeMāori in government decision-making reveals a predominant journalistic discourse portraying Māori as Bordinary^ New Zealanders seeking special benefits
from government. Indeed, the existence of the Māori Party allows journalists to frame discussions as conflicts between two political parties, while avoiding substantive discussions
of marginalization.

Climatic Change

While the impact of media coverage on specific communities impacted by climate change has been well-documented (e.g., Callison 2014; Marino and Lazrus 2015), this paper is one of the first to examine the framing and content of reporting on Indigenous issues in national climate change reporting over a broad scale and timeframe. While journalistic norms may have impacted the number of articles returned by the search terms—which focused on the headline, section, and column of the article (See Supplementary Information)— this study is a key in developing baseline insights. Key areas for future research include expanding the scope of the search terms; broadening the focus to examine how Indigenous issues in a changing climate are captured in media from low and middle income nations, in media with diverse political leanings, and in local/regional media; examining in greater depth the link between media representation and the perception of the public and decision-makers on Indigenous issues; and focusing more broadly on coverage of environmental issues in general. As the discursive space around Indigenous peoples and climate change continues to grow, and calls for inclusion of Indigenous peoples and perspectives into climate policy-making increase, it is critical to understand the role that the media plays as a Bpublic arena^ in shaping these discussions.

Acknowledgements This work was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, FRSQ, and ArcticNet. The authors thank Edward Park for providing support with graphic design, and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript.

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