“They happened at the same time, halfway around the globe from each other. They both shook the world”. Daniel Yergin, founder of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Prize, begins his second book about global energy politics by looking at the catastrophe at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan and the self-immolation of Sidi Bouzid, a Tunisian fruit merchant redited with sparking off the Arab Spring. He highlights the speed with which both events were broadcast around the world, seeping through the media into the public’s consciousness and causing waves of such magnitude as to be able to change world politics.
The pen is mightier than the sword. This saying has probably never been truer than today. As Jack Prescott of SIR already remarked in its last issue, the media these days is comprised of powerful political players and modern conflicts are fought on newspaper front pages. It is hard to deny that the media, as the number one informer of the people, is capable of a considerable influence on our opinion formation. It is no hard task to see that newspapers, online blogs and TV programmes are bombarding us with information all day round. A much harder task is to distinguish between pure information, however useful or useless it may be, and the ever- common opinion- presented- as- fact. This second type of information is what truly forms our opinions and hence is able to sway public opinion.
Whilst most examples of areas covered by the media, such as celebrities, human interest stories, the weather, sports and even international news are edging towards entertainment and the media’s sway has lessened over the years, one area is still incredibly dependent on the media and their respective coverage: energy. Energy has only become a news item relatively recently, with the rise of alternative energies and global worries about sustainability of development, climate change and environmental concerns. However, this relatively new branch of news stories is a perfect example of the opinion forming power of the media. As coverage should have helped policy makers and the public at large to understand these new technologies, news coverage was and still is very often used by lobby groups to stoke up fear for competitors, or to hide imperfections. This has been the case for nuclear energy, shale gas, fracking, wind energy, biofuels and solar, to name just a few examples.
In all these cases, media sway has meant either a general liking for the energy type in question (biofuels, wind) or a public demonising of new technologies (shale gas, fracking, nuclear). This is particularly damaging for new technologies, as their development is often very costly and funds required for future developments need to be procured either from governments or private investors. These however often lack quality information, due to the misrepresentation given to these new technology types by the media. This means that already established energy types have it easy compared to new alternative energy sources, fighting a losing battle against public opinion in the hope to establish themselves.
Despite the clear pattern, this is far from organised. Although the media, catering to the needs of their readers, often misrepresent or scandalise certain energy sources, issues such as global warming give established energy sources a bad popular reputation. However, psychologically, we humans can’t aptly register and combine a multitude of things, but find it much easier to lump them together into something bigger and more comprehendible. This is why, for example, cars have been deemed safer then zeppelins, or, for a more modern example, why oil is deemed safer then nuclear energy. The media alone is therefore not to blame completely; after all it’s a mistake we all make. It could even be argued that it is a result of our modern times, as we nowadays unfortunately don’t have the time to research everything, leaving the media to do the research for us. Whilst this might be a good way for us to gather information on our favourite sports teams or our pop idols, it is more than just a dangerous habit when we rely blindly on what the media present us with. For the energy industry, it can mean the next contract, the difference between break through and shut down. Do we really want to risk future energy developments on dodgy research by non-specialists?
Addressing this lack of good information must be a key priority of legislators, the media companies, as well as the engineers behind alternative energy programmes. Only if the public at large is provided with accurate information about the merits and drawbacks of different options can we make an informed decision on what our future should look like. Only if we can collectively decide which energy sources to invest in, can we be sure to make lasting impacts. It takes information for understanding. It takes understanding for decisions. It takes decisions for politics.