Sensationalism puts media in its own planetary crisis

From Covid-19 to climate change through ozone hole, responsible reporting needed


November 18, 2020

/ By / Pune

Sensationalism puts media in its own planetary crisis

The size of ozone hole keeps on varying through the year making it vital for media to report accurately

November 16, India’s National Press Day, was the day to honour the media considered to be a ‘moral watchdog’ of the society. This year the day came amidst the Covid-19 planetary crisis. There is widespread anxiety that in reporting the news, analysing the situation and expressing the opinion, sensationalism seems to be ‘breaking’ the news as well as ‘breaking’ the soul of fourth pillar of democracy -as media was called for the first time in 18th century in the House of Commons in Great Britain.

Fake and phony news does not emanate only from the desire to misguide the people. It also comes from the inherent and impulsive tendency of competitive media to ‘Break the News’. Half-cooked verification before reporting and impetuous language while reporting and scant remorse for the wrongfulness, exaggeration, sensationalism and bashful content post-reporting, all blend to make perfect recipe for fake news. Even reputable agencies including science reporters have fallen prey to such formulae. The temptation of ‘breaking’ the news, results into literally making so.

The integrity of reporting has been receiving a severe blow in recent years. Globalisation and digitalisation of media are some of the reasons put forward as causative factors. But clearly these factors are clouding the uprightness and veracity-the elements on which the edifice of the human civilisation is built. Even while conveying scientific messages, the sensational fringes of journalism seem to spread into the very core messaging.

The recent example of reporting on the state of the stratospheric ozone layer during the Covid-19 pandemic illustrates the media frenzy more than any other recent scientific case.

Hole in ozone reporting

An article published in June 2020 in the Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection highlights how Coronavirus lockdown helped the environment to bounce back. While describing how Coronavirus (lockdown) has helped to improve the environment in terms of reduced air pollution, making sky blue and helping free strolling of  wild animals on empty roads, the article stated that ‘On 23rd April 2020, Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Services (CAMS) announced that the largest ( Ozone ) hole that was ever seen in the ozone layer over the Arctic has been closed.’ It was quick to add that , ‘Although lockdown is surely showing the prominent sign of nature balance, restoration of the ozone layer is not related to COVID-19’. However the damage was done mainly due to the title of the paper and the context. Several national and regional papers picked up the half-truth. ‘Largest hole in ozone layer heals itself amid coronavirus lockdown, confirm scientists’ reported one newspaper , while another from Denver in USA -not far from NOAA -National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration-headquarters, was smarter and safer in reporting that ‘ One of the largest ozone holes ever recorded just closed — but COVID-19 probably isn’t the cause’. It is easy to interpret how the precipitous media could rush to report this ‘probability’.

The ozone layer is located in the stratosphere between 10 and 50 km from the earth’s surface. It is a life-shield for our planet. It absorbs high energy UV rays from the sun without which there would be dangerous spread of skin cancers, cataracts, blindness, loss of immune system among humans, reduced food production due to stunted growth of plants and threat to life on the land and under water. Certain man-made chemicals, the Ozone-Depleting Substances (ODS)  like chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, on reaching the stratosphere break due to UV rays and release the chlorine and/or bromine radicals which break the ozone molecules that form the ozone layer in the stratosphere.

Mario Molina and  F. Sherwood Rowland in 1974 made a well-coined hypothesis from their university research about destruction of the ozone layer, through a short paper and later a more detailed and longer paper in the scientific journal, Nature. Media reported their hypothesis and its findings in precise manner. That was nearly half a century back. Competitive globalisation and ‘breaking news’ in cyber space had not yet arrived. But the scientists world over got busy in their laboratories to seek the evidence and verification of the hypothesis of Molina and Rowland. Then came, in 1985,  the evidence. Many called it as proverbial ‘smoking gun’ when severe and deep depletion of the ozone layer was observed in the polar region. Media coined that depletion as ‘Ozone Hole’ which was then defined the ozone depletion below certain value.

Molina and Rowland later shared Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1995 along with Paul Crutzen for their work in presenting their research on ozone depletion and giving early warning to the humanity of the impending catastrophe of pandemic proportion. As such, credit must also go to media who coined the phrase ‘Ozone Hole’ that prioritised action without wasting time over a debate. What else one does except to bring the ladder and seal the ‘hole’ when there is one in the roof of one’s house?

The international community signed a global treaty, the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer, in 1987. To seal the hole, it was agreed that consumption and production of ozone-depleting substances should be phased out with a differentiated time table by the developed and developing countries.

Media played a key role in Montreal Protocol

Media, since then, has been reporting the extraordinary collaboration among the countries, regions and various agencies. Success in implementing the Montreal Protocol was projected in right spirit, contrary to the popular belief that media generally likes to report on failures than the successes. Since year 2010, there are definite scientific projections that ozone layer is on path of recovery.

Still, recent research shows that new, unexpected emissions of several Ozone Depleting Substances including chlorofluorocarbons, probably from China, may undermine the Protocol’s success. Though such emissions have not yet disrupted the recovery to a significant extent, vigilance is the need of the hour. It is indeed a time for policymakers to plug such  ‘holes’ in the ozone hole treaty.

The long road to recovery of the ozone layer has not been without its own hiccups. Here comes the critical  importance of the media in delineating the fact that atmospheric chemistry is chaotic. It does not work the way experiments work in a laboratory. While the ozone hole over  Arctic in April 2020 , was healed well in time though wrongly attributed to COVID19 by some sensational media, the severe ozone depletion over Antarctic was evident from August to November 2020. Many media reported that the hole was ‘the largest and deepest ever recorded’, thereby indirectly doubting the success of the Montreal Protocol. Even UN agency WMO-World Meteorological Organisation in its press release of October 4, 2020 reported that ‘Stratospheric ozone concentrations have been observed to have reduced to near-zero values over Antarctica around 20 to 25 km altitude’. The release does explain the phenomenon of such annual depletion but the title of press release ‘ 2020 Antarctic ozone hole is large and deep’ does not convey the key message that the depletion observed is within the expected range and that the long term recovery of ozone layer is not affected.

First of all, the recovery of Ozone is measured based on average ozone concentration all around the Earth. Depletion of the Ozone is always minimum at equator and maximum at poles. In Antarctica, ozone depletion is more as compared to Arctic. Further, depending on the temperature above the poles, the intensity of the formation of polar stratospheric clouds differ. Mini ice particles in the polar clouds provide the reactive sites for the chlorine radicals and when the first rays of sun appear at the start of respective polar summers the extensive depletion of the ozone levels begin.

This happens in an annual cycle. Recovery of the stratospheric ozone is, however, determined by the average ozone all over above the earth. That average trend decides the recovery of the Ozone Layer.

NASA and NOAA reported in a balanced message that ‘persistent cold temperatures and…. the polar vortex, supported the formation of a large and deep Antarctic ozone hole that should persist into November’ (2020).

“The 2020 ozone hole was well within expectations. We always have year-to-year variations in the stratospheric meteorology. Bottom line is that in spite of its larger size, this year’s ozone hole shows signs of improvement from the early 2000s”, said Paul A. Newman, chief scientist for Earth Sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, in private communication.

Media should be the means to communicate the message, not through sensational alteration and tinkering of the truth. Global crises like pandemics, climate change and ozone layer depletion need the media to play its role responsibly instead of looking for sensationalism to capture eyeballs.


-The author is chairman TERRE, IIT Alumnus and former director UNEP

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