The Power of Media and COP21: A Reflection

By Jenna Farineau

“The media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty look innocent, and that’s the power. Because they control the minds of the masses” – Malcom X

Because they control the minds of the masses.


The existence of COP21 stands tall upon the shoulders of the negotiators, Heads of States, the French government – but especially the mainstream media. Within the COP space, it was hard to miss the constant flutter of people with large cameras, often standing on the shoulders of others to capture the best moments – the ‘key’ moments that would grab the attention of the general public to make them a part of the conversation. The role that the media had at COP21 is arguably almost as important as the negotiators; they made the two weeks accessible. They simplified the issues and produced the best headlines to make sure people were paying attention to what was going on in Paris.

After COP21, we saw headlines such as “A Single Typo Nearly Derailed the Paris Climate Talks” and “Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris.” Mainstream media outlets like the New York Times and The Guardian provided the strongest narratives of the negotiations through articles like the ones mentioned above. Pictures of our world leaders throwing up their hands in celebration painted a picture of success. However, these articles lacked one of the most important narratives of the negotiations – that of technicality and process.

As I scrolled through my newsfeed this past Saturday, I saw friends and peers sharing these articles championing the agreement and that brought on a powerful feeling of frustration. How could people be celebrating this? Do they not understand that the agreement lacks a strong loss and damage mechanism? How do they not understand that the U.S. didn’t save the deal in the last second, but that they actually weakened it?

My frustration comes from a place of privilege simply because I have been in Paris for the past three weeks following the negotiations; I have been able to witness first hand what is actually happening, and I’m surrounded by experts and extremely involved people that provide some sort of transparency. Unfortunately, the people who aren’t in Paris only have the media to rely on. We saw journalists claiming that this was the first ever global agreement on climate change – and this narrative spread like wildfire.

FACT CHECK: A little thing called the Kyoto Protocol happened in 1992. Remember that? 192 countries gathered – that’s only 4 less than this time. So no, this is nothing new.

I believe in the importance of media and journalism, but I also believe in the importance of truth and authenticity. Using buzzwords like ‘landmark’ and ‘first time ever’ ran rampant across Facebook, phone updates and emails – but what was greatly lacking were the buzzwords ‘failure’ and ‘climate justice.’ Words carry heavy weight, and when talking about the issue of climate change we must be frank.

Articles like the one from the New Internationalist entitled “Paris Deal: Epic Fail on a Planetary Scale” really highlight the human and environmental reality of what was decided in Paris. It presents a ‘People’s Test on Climate’ with the criteria: did the agreement catalyze immediate, urgent and drastic emission reductions; provide adequate support for transformation; deliver justice for impacted people; and focus on genuine, effective action rather than false solutions. And this agreement failed to address all of those criteria. That is HUGE…and the mainstream media did not cover any of that.

New York Times and The Guardian – you have left me distraught. I want to believe in the media, but I don’t want information to be sanitized. However, I also don’t want to be told, “well just don’t trust the mainstream media, they’re controlled by other entities, they only report on what people will listen to…” So what’s the point? Where do we go? And HOW do we go?

We need to restructure the narrative of what is creating our narrative. We need to raise the voices of those speaking the truth, like those from the New Internationalist, and incorporate those voices into the mainstream media. We also need informed reporters. It is one thing to simply cover a major event – but it is another thing to translate the deep contents of that event. We can’t afford the basics anymore, at least not with climate change.

Paris didn’t save us, so we must save ourselves – and we need to make sure the media knows this.

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