Media Coverage of Indigenous People and Climate Change in the Arctic
The way Arctic regions are portrayed in mainstream media is seldom accurate. Exoticism and conflicts bring more clicks than in-depth stories about life in the North. The growing dialogue around Indigenous peoples and climate change is uneven by region and population, however reflecting different national political circumstances, the nature of the risks posed by climate change, and the extent and nature of engagement by Indigenous Peoples Organizations and communities in climate advocacy.
Mainstream media also likely influence national and international discourse on Indigenous issues in this context, establishing the salience of climate change as an issue, influencing how the public and policy makers understand and engage with it, and making visible Indigenous experiences of climate change.
Consequently, the role of the media is particularly important for Indigenous peoples—who in many cases are geographically isolated and often have less access to institutional power—serving as an important forum from which to broadcast alternative narratives and generate public pressure.
Media coverage of climate change has also demonstrated to materially and economically impact Indigenous communities, including access to funding streams. However, studies reveal pervasive under-representation of Indigenous issues within mainstream media coverage in high-income nations, and the widespread use of frames which perpetuate racist tropes and delegitimize Indigenous actors while masking socio-economic legacies of colonization.
There is a well-developed scholarship examining portrayals of climate change in the media, yet very little of this work has focused on newspaper coverage of Indigenous peoples. In light of this scarcity, this article identifies and examines the coverage and framing of Indigenous issues in climate change reporting in mainstream newspapers in high-income nations.
Arctic Versus Antarctic
At a glance, Earth's polar regions seem like mirror images, located some 12,000 miles apart. Both are vast, icy regions covering opposite ends of the globe. Closer examination reveals differences as well as similarities. However, to the south, the continent of Antarctica is roughly the size of the United States and Mexico combined. A few thousand scientists and support personnel, the continent's recent and only human inhabitants, live at a handful of research stations across the continent, of which the U.S. runs three, according to the National Science Foundation.
Meanwhile, to the north, the Arctic Circle defines the area surrounding the North Pole, a point in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. The region inside the Arctic Circle covers vast swathes of the northern reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States (Alaska), Canada (Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut), Denmark (Greenland), and Iceland (where it passes through the small offshore island of Grimsey). The Arctic is home to human populations of varied size and complexity. There, scientists have begun collaborating with indigenous people, who have lived and subsisted in the region for millennia, on observations of sea-ice thickness, animal populations and other natural factors to build a holistic view of the Arctic climate, past and present. Hence, these misconceptions of the Arctic versus Antarctic also have repercussions for the general public who is consuming the media regarding these issues.
The Role of the Media in Public Disengagement on Climate Change
Indigenous peoples are widely acknowledged as uniquely sensitive to the impacts of climate change; many Indigenous communities inhabit regions that are already experiencing rapid changes in temperature, weather patterns, and species distributions, with impacts exacerbated by legacies of economic, social, and political marginalization and colonization.
Efforts to address climate change through adaptation and mitigation are essential, yet there is concern that such actions could perpetuate marginalization and increase vulnerability if they do not reflect the worldviews, needs, and rights of Indigenous peoples. Such concern is underpinned by an absence of Indigenous voices in research, policy, and decision-making around climate change at local to global scales.
Despite this neglect, in recent years, there has been increasing recognition in the global arena of the unique sensitivity of Indigenous peoples, the need to respect Indigenous rights in climate policy, and the importance of Indigenous knowledge systems in responding to climate change, evident in the text of the Paris Agreement and discourse within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, according to the Journal of Environmental Science & Policy.
The repetition of narrow narrative in national and international media for more than ten years has not resulted in a groundswell of support for mitigation or adaptation. Nor has it resulted in public policy at the state or federal level. It may have even undermined the ability of these coastal communities to help themselves. In their early reporting of the science, journalists helped to establish the concept of human caused climate change in the public mind.
Over the past several decades, as media coverage of climate change has grown, so has academic research of the coverage. Lauren Feldman, of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, said,
“while it might seem contradictory to provide information about mitigation or adaptation in a story about climate change impacts, it is standard procedure in the coverage of public health. What reporter covering a flu epidemic wouldn’t think to provide information in the same story about the availability of a vaccine or how the disease was being transmitted?”
Elizabeth Arnold, a Joan Shorenstein fellow at the Media, Politics, and Public Policy center at Harvard, led a study analyzing stories containing the key terms “climate change” and “arctic” in prominent print, radio, and television news outlets over a five-year period, from March 2013 to March 2018.
This analysis included the years before, during, and after President Obama’s high-profile visit to Alaska in 2015 as the U.S. assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Most news stories during this time period focused on the science of climate change with no human subject.
According to Arnold, even when these news stories did include people’s voices, they were overwhelmingly “experts,” including scientists, policymakers and advocates with very few including the voice of actual residents or indigenous peoples. Of the stories that do involve local people or a community, most are about indigenous people facing difficulty, with most of these stories framing local communities as endangered, threatened, facing losses, and incapable of responding. Likewise, none of the them use words such as “strong,” “capable,” or “empowered” to describe people. In fact, “strong” often describes the forces of climate change, as in “strong storms” or “strong resistance in Congress.”
Of the 1,450 stories analyzed in our survey, ice is mentioned 4,559 times—an average of more than three times per story. Polar bears and walruses are mentioned nearly as often as Alaskans: Polar bears are mentioned 260 times and walruses are mentioned 206 times, while the word “Alaskans” comes up 289 times. Strikingly, the term “polar bears” is twice as frequent as the term “indigenous,” which only appears 118 times in the stories analyzed. A second trend is that, of the stories that do involve people, the majority are scientists, policymakers, and advocates. “Geologist(s),” “expert(s),” “scientist(s),” or “doctor(s)” are mentioned 3,681 times in the data set, an average of nearly twice per story. Whereas, “indigenous” and related terms such as “native” are mentioned 472 times in the data set, an average of 0.25 times per story.
An American Case: Alaskan Climate Refugees
While accounts of climate relocation in the American Arctic and sub-Arctic are written and printed recurrently, most readers will never physically visit eroding edges. Rather, they come to know the story of relocation through visual media narratives.
Images of eroding shorelines and sea level rise found in news articles enable both the general public and policymakers to examine, order, and evaluate the plight of relocation. But visual storytelling isn’t an objective reflection of reality or truthfulness. Journalistic images are engendered by their creators’ biases and patrons’ desire. They present a subjective, curated narrative produced to buttress broader strategic political initiatives and themes. By choosing what to represent, how, and who, journalists allow a limited and specific kind of understanding of climate relocation in the Arctic, with very real political and ethical consequences.
Journalistic storytelling of sea level rise and relocation has employed a formula of crisis, ‘othering,’ and victimization in representing the nexus of environmental change and culture in Alaska Native communities.
“President Obama traveled to Alaska to shine a spotlight on what Alaskans in particular have come to know: Climate change is one of the biggest threats we face, it is being driven by human activity, and it is disrupting Americans’ lives right now,” said Victoria Hermann, author of America’s First Climate Change Refugees.
Shishmaref is located on a barrier island in the Chukchi Sea, Sarichef Island, north of the Bering Strait and five miles from mainland Alaska. Population: 600 people, mainly Inuit Native Alaskan, have lived a subsistence-based lifestyle of hunting marine and land mammals and berry picking at the current site as a summer camp for 400 years. The residents of Shishmaref have seen erosion on the island since it became a permanent settlement in the 1950s.