conflict & communication online, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2018
ISSN 1618-0747




Robert A. Hackett, Susan Forde, Shane Gunster & Kerrie Foxwell-Norton (2017). Journalism and climate crisis. Public engagement, media alternatives. London and New York: Routledge.
ISBN 978-1-138950-38-2.

Global warming is one of the most serious problems facing the contemporary world and the future of our planet. “Millions of people are concerned about climate change, but they do not know what to do about it” (p. 7). Since “journalism plays a key role … in shaping more effective responses to climate crisis” (p. 2), its responsibility is “to inform, motivate and empower citizens to engage with the problem” (p. 2). “Conventional journalism,” however, falls vastly short of confronting the causes, scale, consequences, urgency and complexity of the challenge (p. 3). So what should we do? What can we do?
Understanding alternative journalism as a form of “active citizenship” (p. 8), the present book’s goal is the “empowerment of people to understand issues and actually do something about them” (p. 8). The “key deficit of conventional media … is not a shortage of information,” but “one of agency, hope and efficacy” (p.7), and the key questions to be solved are “how journalism presents (or should present) the issue, and what kinds of responses it generates in audiences/publics” (p.3).
The book’s problem area is thereby clearly defined. However, it is unable to contribute to solving the problem. The necessary intellectual penetration is all too lacking.
The current state of research in the relevant social-scientific disciplines (e.g. social psychology, conflict research and/or media effect studies) is simply ignored. Basic concepts remain undefined and lack any differentiation (e.g. “conflict”) or they are quite incorrectly understood (e.g. “peace journalism”). Even the repeatedly attempted differentiation between a “facilitative approach” that “emphasizes solutions and strengthens participation in civil society outside the state and the market” (p. 89) and a “radical approach” which “has its place, in actively advocating and mobilizing for fundamental change against the resistance of hegemonic institutions” (p.43) exhausts itself in an idealization of the latter as based on the moral impetus “that no injustice is ever tolerated” (p. 90) – as though constructive conflict resolution meant the acceptance of injustice.
The area of tension between the two approaches and their implications are not illuminated, though if need be it is mentioned that it “can easily become a resonance in which the conceptual and affective force of one frame resounds to the benefit of the other” (p. 139). The “diversity that exists in environmental protest” and the imbalance of power “between the key players – politics, the public and the media” is noted (p. 77), but its implications for dealing constructively with the problem of global warming are not worked out. Contradictions are ignored. And where they cannot be entirely ignored, they are minimized as “not to be exaggerated” (p. 111).
There is no analysis of the challenge’s complexity. Neither an analysis of the complexity of global warming in terms of causes, causers, remedies, agents, interdependencies and conflicting interests, etc., nor an analysis of what can be done about it. As well, the range of psychological, cultural, social, institutional and structural variables “which shape how people make sense of information, respond to it emotionally and use it to inform their behavioural choices” (p. 51) is to be sure mentioned but not more closely examined. And the initially so urgently formulated question of what kinds of responses environmental journalism generates in audiences/publics is not further pursued, but replaced by a naive identification of the “probable outcome” with the “desired outcome” (p. 8).
The challenges of the climate crisis would have deserved a better-grounded discussion. And this all the more so as the few empirical findings reported in the book lead us to suspect that from the expertise, practice and experiences of environmental activists and alternative media one could have learned more, if one had only engaged with them seriously and not simply subsumed them under a preconceived ideology. Thus, however, the question arises of whether this book is really about the responsibility of journalism in the face of global warming, or not primarily intended “to escalate conflict in order to challenge business as usual” (p. 110).
This is what results if one confuses conflict with antagonism, and conflict analysis with the search for enemies, if one exaggerates resistance against a failed policy as a struggle for moral principles and if one covers up one’s own perplexity with pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric.

In view of the thoughtlessness with which (namely in Chapter 4, the other authors are not that naive) conflict escalation is advocated, the reader cannot help but recall the excesses of violence occasioned by protests against the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. Naturally these excesses only occurred after the book’s publication, but with a minimum of critical reflection one could have foreseen what can happen if one – instead of calling for problem solutions – adopts a “radical” position marked by “a view of society as characterized by fundamental antagonisms and by governing logics” that “can only be challenged and reversed through resistance to identifiable enemies” (p. 112). And one could also have foreseen what will happen if resistance against identifiable enemies gets out of control: that the object of protest disappears from the media, and public discourse turns solely around violence. Hamburg was indeed not the first time this has happened.

Wilhelm Kempf



The author: Wilhelm Kempf is Professor emeritus of Psychological Methodology and Peace Research at the University of Konstanz, Germany. Since 2002 he is the editor of conflict & communication online ( His fields of research include quantitative and qualitative research methodology, nonviolent conflict resolution, peace journalism and the construction of social reality by the mass media. He currently works on a research project on “Criticizing Israel, coming to terms with German history and differentiating aspects of modern anti-Semitism”.

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