Thought lost but rediscovered: can good news be bad?

By Joern Fischer

I have noticed a curious kind of paradox. Reading scientific journals, I get a strong sense that lots of bad things are happening to biodiversity. We’re on the verge of a mass extinction event, caused by our own activities. Habitat loss and now climate change are threatening huge numbers of species. We don’t really have a firm handle on how many species are affected, but the scientific consensus is pretty clear among biodiversity scientists: we’ve got a massive problem. Moreoever, unless we dramatically step up efforts to stop biodiversity decline, the current trend is likely to continue. And finally: those dramatic efforts don’t appear to be forthcoming.

But if it’s the popular media you look at, a rather different image appears. For example, we hear of species that have been rediscovered. There are many examples of those, like Leadbeater’s possum in Australia (rediscovered in the 1960s; see video below) or more recently, the Rainbow Toad in Borneo.

What should be the place of good news stories in the media? Clearly, they inspire people, and they give us hope. And hope is what we need if we are to put in effort into something, like saving biodiversity.

But at the same time, I fear that too much of a good news spin — for example, on species being rediscovered — masks the abysmal state that we actually brought onto the world’s ecosystems. Sure, every now and then a species gets rediscovered. But for many, many more species, the story is one of regional decline and local extinction; and ultimately extinction. Extinction being the final state of irreversible, eternal loss.

Two things come to mind in this context. One, my criticism mirrors the criticism that others have expressed towards the media: namely that the media tends to ‘balance’ news stories, even when there is a vast majority of evidence for one side of the story, and only a small amount of evidence for the other side of the story. That’s why deniers of climate change have had so much media coverage.

The other point that comes to mind is this raises questions for what then is a good state to get people engaged. I am against blind optimism that is not based on facts — making people feel good when things are bad is dishonest. But just bad news stories … well, they will mean people shy away from looking for answers and give up. Problems end up being put in the too hard basket.

My sociologist colleague Bob Brulle from the USA has argued that we need to tell people that things are bad, while also explaining how things could be better. If we just emphasise that things are bad, they’ll stop listening. If we pretend things are good, though, they’ll think it’s all okay, when actually, it’s not.

This leads to to conclude that there’s a fine line between being too optimistic and too pessimistic in communications about sustainability with the public. So good news stories about species being rediscovered are worth reporting; but I believe they ought to be balanced by contributions that show that for many more species, things are going in the opposite direction — towards extinction. What can be done to reverse extinctions, in general terms, is reasonably well known. So perhaps it’s those kinds of messages that ought to be communicated alongside the good news stories of species being rediscovered.

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