Perhaps you were stopped in your tracks by the news photograph of the drowning of three-year old Alan Kurdi, an immediate global icon of the Syrian refugee crisis. Or maybe you remember the exact moment you watched the imagery of the twin towers falling on TV news, knowing that global politics had just reached a watershed moment.
Besides these arresting news images though, more everyday visual tropes in the news media become part of the visual wallpaper of everyday life. Consider how endless photographs of a withdrawn mother cradling her emaciated child in a nameless outdoors location has become ingrained as a visual narrative of hunger and poverty: missing the opportunities to put in the frame supportive others (men, particularly) or homes, or the military checkpoints which redirect food distribution. In visually framing the news in certain ways, images put forward a particular way of defining a problem, its causes and potential solutions.
Similarly, visuals which have come to be associated with climate change have significant power in shaping how we define the issue, its underlying causes and potential solutions. The study of climate visuals involves a diverse set of social scientists. Science and Technology Studies and cultural studies scholars have explored how images are key vehicles for carrying environmental meaning and shaping futures. Geographers have shown how images are deeply interwoven with our cultural narratives of climate change. And psychologists have shown how the images which we hold in our minds about climate change shape how we think and feel about climate change, and even how we might act. Yet, despite the ubiquity and importance of images for shaping climate futures, there has been far less study of the images which are used to picture climate news than the words which are written about it.
One way in which many in the Global North will encounter climate news imagery is through reporting of extreme heat events. The UK, in particular, has a fascination with ‘weather talk’. So, what does heatwave news look like? Which sorts of images are used to portray the issue? And, what does this tell us about how we think about, and how we might respond to, climate change?
Together with a team of European researchers, I led a study which investigated the visual reporting of heatwaves over the summer of 2019 across four countries; the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and France. We analysed news stories from 20 major online news websites, whenever they mentioned ‘climate change’ and ‘heatwave’ (and their equivalents in Dutch, German and French). We analysed the text, but also the visuals that accompanied these news items. There were three key findings.
First, we found that many visuals were positively valenced, i.e. they presented heatwaves as a fun, enjoyable activity. Heatwaves were something to anticipate and look forward to. This prominent visual framing promoted heatwaves as ‘fun in the sun’. In contrast, news articles texts were very rarely positively valenced. In all four countries, the majority of images were of people having a good time in or by water – images such as kids splashing in city fountains or families at the beach. These were the sorts of images which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a holiday brochure.
Second, another prominent visual framing was of ‘the idea of heat’. Here, the danger of heatwaves was implicit through the use of ‘dangerous’ red or orange colours and bright sunbursts saturating the image. But, people were largely absent. When people were featured, they were largely depersonalised through, for example, being silhouetted against the sun so their faces couldn’t be seen. In sum, whilst heatwaves might have been presented as a risk, people were largely absent from both the impacts of extreme heat and the solutions needed to adapt to them.
Our final finding concerns the dissonance between the perspectives offered by the texts compared to the images. In some cases, this could be stark. In all four countries, we found examples of news headlines and image captions talking about the unprecedented heat, vulnerable people and even deaths alongside these sorts of fun-in-the-sun ‘holiday snaps’.
It is worth pausing to reflect on why these sorts of visuals might be problematic.
The dominance of these two visual framings of extreme heat (‘fun in the sun’ and ‘idea of heat’) displace concerns of vulnerability. In ‘fun in the sun’, no-one is at risk – heatwaves are something to be enjoyed and celebrated. People who are most vulnerable to extreme heat events – young children, older people, those with pre-existing health conditions or people living in poor quality housing – do not feature in the images at all; the risks extreme heat poses to their health and wellbeing is not even acknowledged. At least in ‘the idea of heat’ there is a recognition that extreme heat events are not all high days and holidays, but even here, people are largely excluded from both the impacts of extreme heat and solutions for adapting to heat events. Perhaps instead, photojournalists could show images of a young family inside their home, looking visibly uncomfortable in the hot weather, rather than escaping to the beach for a holiday (which is, after all, not an everyday practical solution for coping with extreme heat for most people).
The dominance of these two visual framings also means opportunities for imagining a more resilient future are largely excluded from the news media. How might images present ideas for how we might cope – or better, adapt – to extreme heat? Perhaps heatwave images could show an urban greening project, reducing the urban heat island effect and bringing additional wellbeing benefits through an increase in urban green space. Or, they could show elderly people socialising and eating ice creams (a visual cue for hot weather) in an air-conditioned community space; showing the benefits of opening up community-based cool spaces to wider audiences, and also how social connection is so important in managing heat-related risk in the community.
The examples I give here are not unrecognisable to journalism. In fact, all three examples are images which come from just one news outlet (Dutch newspaper Algermeen Dagblad) in our study sample. Algermeen Dagblad visually presented heatwaves in a very different way to other news organisations. What these few examples do show is that it is possible for the news media to visualise extreme heat in ways which are more inclusive and responsible.
This is not a call to end every image of people having a good time in hot weather. Living in often rainy Devon, I welcome a sunny, dry day as much as anyone. However, there is a need for us to critically examine the visuals which are used throughout the media – and indeed the images we might call to mind ourselves when visualising extreme heat – to make sure that vulnerable people are not excluded, and that options for adapting to hotter weather are not out of sight. Media portrayals both shape and reflect the society in which we live. Whilst there is certainly a significant role for photo-journalists, editors and image collection curators to critically examine how heatwaves are visually represented, it is also something we should all be cognisant of. Co-produced research between media actors and social scientists could usefully seek ways to open up the visual discourse of extreme heat.
Image by Pierre-Laurent Durantin from pixabay.com
About the author
Saffron O’Neill is Associate Professor in Geography at the University of Exeter. She holds a Leverhulme Research Fellowship titled ‘The visual life of climate change’. Dr O’Neill is also Co-Director of the ESRC ACCESS network (Advancing Capacity for Climate and Environment Social Science). The paper ‘’Visual portrayals of fun in the sun misrepresent heatwave risks in European newspapers’ is available as a pre-print.