Harvests are drying up. Water is rationed. People die because of the heat. But in European media, it is not uncommon for heat waves to be imaged with images of cloudless skies, overcrowded beaches and splashing children.
Harvest work was stopped after arable land was ravaged by fire. Architects warned that fire-ravaged Notre Dame would collapse from the heat. And about 2,500 people are estimated to have died when parts of Europe were paralyzed by two heat waves in the summer of 2019.
But anyone who turned up a newspaper or clicked on a news article to read about the devastating heat may have been greeted by a completely different image – of people who carelessly played and enjoyed the scorching sun, often in or near water.
Splash and play
Researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK have examined how news media in the UK, the Netherlands, France and Germany chose images in the heatwave reporting in 2019. The study, which has not yet been reviewed by other researchers for publication in a scientific journal, points to some clear themes.
One is that a majority of the pictures tended to depict heat waves as something fun and positive, often with people who seem to be fine in or near fountains, swimming pools or on the beach.
The second is that once the images were considered to make a connection to the risks, people were rarely shown, but rather a thermometer against a dazzling sun or an angry red heat map. If a person was present, he or she was often anonymous, often photographed in silhouettes against the sky.
The study only includes articles that mention both “heat wave” and “climate change”. In this way, the researchers wanted to find relevant texts that could be assumed to make some connection to the increased risk of longer, more frequent and intense heat waves as a result of climate change – and the risks it entails.
The researchers were surprised that in many cases there was a clear dissonance between the content of the text and the choice of illustration. Headlines and captions could tell of never-before-seen temperatures or affected people while the images were still of a holiday-like and carefree nature.
This attitude is deeply rooted in the soul of the people, especially in countries in northern Europe. Here, sunny summer weather is something we long for and is generally perceived as something positive due to the historically mild climate.
In part, it may be because the reporter and photo editor do not always have time to talk to each other. When it is stressful, it can be easy to ask a photographer to take a picture of the first thing that comes to mind and is associated with a heat wave, which can be the beach.
The study is not about hanging out the media and calling for a ban on pictures of swimming. But an abundance of such illustrations – especially news of risks associated with heat waves – misses important parts of the story, especially as extreme heat can be deadly for vulnerable groups.
It is said that a picture says more than a thousand words. They can make news penetrate through the noise and into people’s consciousness – many can still see the smoking twin towers in Manhattan or the napalm-burnt girl fleeing bombs in Vietnam in front of them.
These types of strong images become part of our collective memory, and images depicting the effects of climate change can have the same power to influence.
More pictures are needed that depict people who are vulnerable to the effects of heat waves. In addition, there are often no images that show a hopeful future through measures we can take to adapt, such as green architecture that can mitigate the heat effect in the gray concrete.