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Drought media: does it help?

Drought media: does it help? Kevin Cortopassi
28 May
2015
Although California gets all the current headlines, there are numerous significant drought events occurring elsewhere in the world. Geographical explores why you are not hearing about them

California’s drought is a trending topic in today’s media. While the US West coast is running dry of water, the internet is saturated with articles, maps and shocking before and after galleries illustrating the change in Californian weather. In a way similar to popular ‘ruin-porn’ articles of urban decay in Detroit, the golden state has become the subject of mass image galleries – ‘drought-porn’ if you like.

It has also garnered countless print and web articles, celebrity opinions and ‘drought shaming’ on social media. However, this universal coverage of waterless woe does not seem to apply to other droughts currently afflicting locations around the world. So why is there such a fascination with drought media, and why does it only apply to California at the moment?

 

DISTRIBUTION OF DROUGHT MEDIA

California is not the only place drying up. Queensland in central-west Australia is seeing the worst drought event for many years. After three failed wet seasons, an area nearly six times the size of the United Kingdom has dried up, compromising thousands of jobs and the future of dozens of rural communities. Brazil’s megacity, Sao Paulo, is currently undergoing the worst drought for more than eighty years – a paradoxical concept for a country with the most fresh water in the world.

In Southern Africa, a vast drought is likely to damage the crops in large parts of Malawi, Mozambique, Angola, Botswana and Namibia while another brews on the equator. And in New Zealand, farmers are fearing a repeat of a record drought that hit them in 2012 and 2013 However, unlike the drought in California, these major events do not have their own twitter account.

droughtnewRainfall data from October 2014 to April 2015, areas shown in red show precipitation levels well below average. (Image: Global Drought Portal Data)

‘Levels of media interest do not necessarily reflect the scale of the problem’ explains Alison Anderson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Plymouth, ‘since certain regions tend to get disproportionate international media attention’. While as many as forty US states are expected to experience water shortages in the next ten years, California has captured the largest audience. This is partly because of the cultural significance of California. ‘It’s the power of Hollywood,’ says Environmental Journalist, Stephen Leahy. ‘The reason California has captured the attention and imagination of everyone is because it is happening there’.

Droughts are very visual events. Most of us recognise images of cracked-ground landscapes and bleached livestock carcasses even if we have never experienced droughts ourselves. Perhaps when drought meets Hollywood – the image capital of the world – we are even more enraptured. However, California’s flood of attention also has a lot to do with the size and economic importance of the state. ‘Farms are estimated to use 80 per cent of California’s available water,’ explains Anderson, ‘and the farmers have considerable political influence.’

In this sense, a drought’s media gravitas can be a matter of politics. ‘The relative silence from São Paulo reflects the downplaying of the issues by those in power,’ explains Anderson. ‘National and local governments have been slow to react, and evidence suggests that more than a third of tap water is wasted because of leaking pipes, illegal access and fraud. Here the crisis is having the most severe impact on the poor and there is potential for civil unrest’.

It is São Paulo’s favela districts that are the worst off. Local governments has even motioned towards military intervention should the shortage induce violence there. ‘Water scarcity is a particularly hot political issue given the links between the drought and the wider issues of deforestation, the powerful interests of the logging industry and climate change’ Anderson adds. Comparative quiet from southern Africa and Australia are less political hush-ups and more likely a reflection of public assumption that droughts happen often in those areas.

americaIn the long run, droughts are predicted to affect as many as 40 US states in the next decade. (Image: Pew Charitable Trust/Government Accountability Office)

 

HOW EFFECTIVE CAN IT BE?

While it gets the most attention, media in California has swung the other way. The want for clicks has lead to some fairly hyperbolic headlines which occasionally damage confidence in scientific claims. Anderson outlines a particular incident in March: ‘the piece from the Los Angeles TimesCalifornia has just one year of water left. Will you ration now?implied that water will run out in a year. The Op-Ed piece has now been retitled to clarify that the story was referring to stored water – California has about one year of water stored. Will you ration now? However, the claim that water would run out in a year was already picked up by several news outlets in the US such as MSNBC and Fox News, and repeated by some UK newspapers including the Daily Mail.’

The misleading headlines are brought about for two reasons. First, the issue is being covered by non-specialist journalists – repercussions of vast cuts made to science and environmental journalism. Second, headlines are being exaggerated to excite a larger audience. Leahy explains ‘No, California is not going to run out of water in a year, although this makes a more compelling story for what is actually a serious and slow moving catastrophe.’

Perhaps the drought in California can’t keep up with the immediacy of today’s media streams. The dilemma for journalists is how to grab attention in an increasingly information saturated world without resorting to oversimplification or exaggeration,’ says Anderson. ‘While the drought warrants serious attention, alarming stories can lead to public inertia, unless they provide ways in which individuals can gain a sense that their individual actions can make a difference.’

The media can be powerful when it comes to extreme weather events. In general, public concern about US water scarcity is on the increase – possibly due to the widespread coverage of California. The Public Policy Institute of California noted a 17 point increase since 2013 in the numbers of people who thought they would have an inadequate water supply by 2025 and Californians are now more concerned about water scarcity than employment or the economy. If media coverage were extended to other world droughts, it could affect attitudes issues of water usage and sustainability far beyond the state of California.

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