Owrite a UK newspaper as a heatwave looms and you’re likely to see headlines about the unprecedented nature of the heat to come, the cost to lives and livelihoods, and even deaths caused by extreme heat . But accompanying the same story, you’ll likely also see images of people having fun in the sun – children splashing in city fountains, crowded beaches, blue seas, azure skies, and holiday bliss.
The way the media communicates about climate degradation reflects and shapes the way societies approach the problem. Behind every image that makes headlines is a person reflecting and perpetuating the way society thinks about climate breakdown. Images are a key part of any media communication: they are often vivid and colorful, drawing readers in and helping them remember a story.
They also shape news production: engaging visuals help stories get onto the media agenda. Think of the image of the man blocking a line of tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, a young girl fleeing her village after being burned by napalm during the Vietnam War, smoke billowing from the Twin Towers. These images are part of our collective psyche – through them we remember the power of protest, the horror of war and times when everything changed. Images of the climate crisis can hold the same power, which the Guardian acknowledged in its industry-leading 2019 editorial decision to rethink the images accompanying climate stories.
Our new research, led by the University of Exeter, highlights a distinct problem with how European media visually represent extreme heat news. We looked at media coverage from the UK, the Netherlands, France and Germany during the summer of 2019. It is important to note that we have only included stories that mentioned at the both the keywords “heatwave” and “climate change”, believing that if we were to see responsible and accurate reporting of heatwave risks, it would be in coverage that at least hinted at the growing risk of heat waves becoming longer, more frequent and more intense in the event of degradation of the climate.
We found two distinct themes in visual coverage. The former used images of “fun in the sun” that portrayed heat waves as pleasant. In all four countries, the majority of these images showed people having a good time in or near water. This was particularly significant in the UK, perhaps revealing something about how British culture recounts the experience of very hot weather in our historically mild climate.
The second theme we found was “the idea of heat”, represented by the colors red and orange, which are (in Western cultures) commonly associated with heat or danger. People were largely absent from this visual discourse in photos such as generic photographs of thermometers against a blinding sun. When people were photographed, they were depersonalized by cutting them out against the sun so their faces were not visible.
In all four countries, there was a discrepancy between the text of the articles and the visuals that accompanied them. While headlines and image captions proclaimed news of unprecedented heat, vulnerable people and even deaths, the photos featured were those “fun in the sun” holiday snaps.
This is problematic in two respects. First, by shifting vulnerability concerns, it marginalizes the experiences of those vulnerable to heat waves: the elderly, young children and babies, people with pre-existing health conditions, and people living in poor quality housing. are all more exposed to extreme heat. .
Secondly, there is a difference between Northern Europeans who look forward to a “normal” spell of sunny, calm summer weather (I know – I wish after a long and often rainy Devon winter) and items that may , to a greater or lesser extent, seem to welcome the prospect of a much warmer, climate-changed future. Whether episodes of extreme heat are visualized through photos of people on beaches or exclude people altogether, we are missing an opportunity to imagine a more resilient future.
The news media may, however, imagine the visuals of the heat wave differently. Dutch outlet Algemeen Dagblad produced visual stories of the reality of life with extreme heat. When they imagined a young family, they weren’t queuing for ice cream on a sunny day, but at home in front of a fan, looking visibly uncomfortable.
Other images depict the solutions many have been calling for, in footage of an air-conditioned community space open to older local residents to help them cope with the heat; and in a grey, concrete thoroughfare in the city that has been given new life through an urban greening project, reducing the urban heat island effect.
Recent heat wave coverage of the Indian subcontinent has shown compelling visual depictions of daily life during a heat wave: struggling outdoor workers, warping roads, people seeking shade and of water. All of these images show that “having fun in the sun” is not an inevitable way of depicting sweltering heat.
We want to be clear that this is not a call for the media to redact all images of people enjoying the beach on a hot day, but an overabundance of these types of images (especially attached to a report on the risk of a heat wave) tells only a limited part of the story.
Not everyone has fun during super-powered heat waves from climate breakdown – for the vulnerable, they can be deadly. Fortunately, there are signs of progress as publishers, journalists, stock and editorial photography providers, and society at large begin to think critically about the images used to visually represent extreme heat. News media and social scientists can work together to tell the full story of extreme weather events.