Extreme weather images said to desensitize media viewers

New research has shown that images of extreme weather in the media create negative emotional meanings and might lead to disengagement with the issue of climate change.

Reporting on extreme weather has increased over the last few years. In the past, social scientists, and media and communication analysts have studied how climate change is depicted in the text of media and social media. While researchers have become increasingly interested in climate change images, they have not yet studied them with respect to symbolizing certain emotions.

The International Panel on Climate Change published a draft report on extreme weather and climate change adaptation. The report was covered in the news and illustrated with images. Some of these depicted extreme weather, in particular with relation to floods, droughts and heat waves, hurricanes and ice and sea-level rise.

The study by Brigitte Nerlich and Rusi Jaspal was published in Science as Culture,

Researchers studied images published in the news to illustrate their coverage of the panel report. They used visual thematic analysis, examining the way they might symbolize certain emotional responses, such as compassion, fear, guilt, vulnerability, helpless, courage or resilience.

Results showed that images of flooding in the developing world portrayed individuals accustomed to flooding and that they can overcome the extreme weather. The images showed cheerful behavior of those who are affected by flooding, lack of victimhood, engagement in their day-to-day activities and communal aspects of coping with flooding.

Images of extreme weather in the media symbolized fear, helplessness and vulnerability and, in some cases, guilt and compassion. Appealing to fear of disaster can lead to denial and paralysis rather than positive behavior change, according to the study.

The research confirmed: “There is no indication of victimhood or desperation, but rather a mundane sense of routine. Crucially, these images represent flooding as a distant phenomenon, with which viewers are not invited or necessarily encouraged to identify. For readers in the West such images may not symbolize, or indeed convey, compassion”

It added: “In particular, might not encourage reflection upon one’s own environmental behavior, and how this might contribute to climatic change and/or the apparent prevalence of extreme weather, unlike images of floods closer to home.”

The visual images show Westerners as less able to cope with extreme flooding and that their homes are susceptible to widespread damage as a result of flooding.

Further results revealed: “It shows human beings could disappear between the cracks of a dried-out earth; extreme heat is too unbearable for human life to sustain and the planet and vulnerable islets are gradually being engulfed by hurricanes and rising sea levels. This essentially does bring extreme weather ‘closer to us’ constructing it, in many respects, as ‘alarming’.”

Images give the impression that man-made industrial activities have contributed to climatic change, resulting in extreme weather events. This includes cars as the cause of extreme heat; modern high-rise buildings, industrial buildings and power lines. This in turn may link these images to emotions of guilt and blame.

Unlike the guilt-inducing visual representation of people in developing countries, images of human-induced extreme weather encourages individuals to reflect upon their role in causing extreme weather.

Visual elements show the earth as being slowly engulfed by flooding and hurricanes. The earth is prematurely aging due to a deathly lack of water. The landscape is barren and infertile. There is an absolute absence of human and animal life, and ice sheets are deteriorating.

In addition, analysis found subtler ways of representing extreme weather as a threat by positioning it in familiar settings such as architecture and modernity.

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