How the Guardian helped turn Greta Thunberg from schoolgirl to global icon

On a grey Friday in August 2018, a 15-year-old girl sat down in front of the Swedish parliament with a sign. Less than a year later, that same girl was on the front cover of Time magazine: she became the youngest person to be named Time person of the year. In the time in between, millions of young people had taken to the streets inspired by her single act of courage, buoyed by a collective sense of a need to act on climate change.

The climate crisis needed a human face, a relatable figure with authenticity and passion to galvanise a stagnant public into action. How much did media over-coverage have a role to play in Greta Thunberg becoming a global figurehead of the climate movement? To what extent was this 15-year-old girl made into an icon by left-leaning media? And whose voices were being left out as they leaned on her celebrity status? By scrutinising the use of language and imagery used in the Guardian’s coverage of the school strikes on Friday the 20th and 27th of September 2019, we hope to find out.

The #FridaysForFuture movement gathered over four million people onto the streets over the two days in September. It was the biggest environmental demonstration the world had ever seen. Thunberg was a single participant in these strikes, yet her face dominated the coverage.

Both publicly and privately, Thunberg has expressed her discomfort in being seen as a global icon. She told Wired, “I do not see myself as a celebrity or an icon or things like that… I have not really done anything.” Instead, she attempts to use the platform thrust upon her to bring up other voices from more affected communities.

The media, however, do not think the same way. They use her image as a selling point. Because Greta sells. To environmental NGOs, “the Greta effect” means that a piece of content will garner more engagement if it uses an image or a quote from Thunberg (I know this from experience). This became such a problem that Greenpeace needed to create a set of internal guidelines to avoid overuse of her image in unrelated campaign materials or fundraising.

While Thunberg never directly sought fame, she was given fertile soil to grow into a global celebrity. Sweden is a small country with high trust in the media (Edelman) and not very much in the way of big global news stories. In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Thunberg was raised by supportive, liberal parents, with easy access to resources. Hers is a world of privilege afforded to very few.

The Guardian is a reader-funded heritage media publication with a resolutely progressive lean and a relatively small readership (it has a print circulation of around 100,000). Owned by the Scott trust to ensure independence, it does not turn a profit. It is not beholden to board members or shareholders intent on making money. It operates only in liberal and democratic corporatist media systems (according to Hallin and Mancini’s definitions) having expanded with US, Australian, and international editions to complement the original UK edition. This guarantees a certain level of editorial freedom. It reports extensively on the climate crisis, with multiple stories about the issue across many sections in nearly every edition. The majority of content is geared towards a sustainability-focused audience who understand that the planet is heating and that it is a problem.

I wanted to look at the Guardian because it is the paper I rely on for most of my news. It focuses on thorough, credible reporting, albeit with a left-of-centre slant. It caters to an elite middle-class audience of like-minded do-gooders. Guardian readers are more likely to be vegetarians who recycle and believe in “equality for all.” The perfect readership for Greta Thunberg.

In many of the articles considered here, Thunberg is described as the individual who, “kickstarted the school strike movement with a solo protest.” The verb “kickstarted” here implies that the movement was burgeoning already; it was already there, waiting for a leader to set them off. It gives a sense of the prophetic nature of the icon of Greta. Because the story of a single hero is a great one. But while the protest was a solitary one, she was never alone. Greenpeace representatives visited her on day one, and she was already garnering media attention in the second week of her protest. This does not happen to just anybody. She is described as “not the stereotypical leader of a climate revolution” in the first article the Guardian published on Thunberg, two weeks after her protest began. Something about her image of innocence, youth, whiteness, and single-minded determination captured the attention of the press in a way that other environmental activists never had before.

Coverage of the strikes on 20th September

The first thing we see in the main article covering the 20th of September strikes is a video of Thunberg’s rousing speech at the New York climate strike. Demonstrations in other cities, while given equal weight in terms of text space, have very few images and when they do, they are only thumbnail size. The article features a tweet from Thunberg about the Australian climate strike (which she was not attending). This is significant because it turns her from the story’s subject to its author. The Guardian are relying on Thunberg as a source, rather than seeking other voices present, or using their reporters on the ground to cover the story.

Despite the striking headline (excuse the pun), “Biggest-ever climate protest sweeps through UK”, our next article chooses a lead image of three fairly disinterested looking marchers. Thunberg is present as a figure of inspiration for two young children who are “happy and proud” that their shared act of resistance has garnered so much attention, but she is otherwise not quoted.

None of the other articles take such a dramatically messianic approach as this photo gallery of placards bearing Thunberg’s image. Rather than focusing on any of the protesters present (none of whom are named), each image focuses on a depiction of Thunberg that someone has brought to the strike.

A protester holds a painting depicting Thunberg, titled ‘Our House Is on Fire (Our Children Will Burn)’ by Julia Vanderbyl, during a rally in Paris — Charles Platiau/Reuters/The Guardian

This image in particular speaks for itself; quite literally canonising Thunberg in the image of a saviour. Even compounded with Christ, her physical image is one that is easy to recognise: with two signature long braids and a distinctly youthful face. It is also easy to reproduce. One could compare it to the ubiquity of Che Guevara pins, or Obama’s HOPE poster in the myriad forms it takes in these signs.

By the protests on the 27th of September, it seems like the Guardian has become aware of the disproportionate amount of page space they have given over to Thunberg. Their feature piece evaluating the two days of strike activity builds a sense of global unity by giving roughly equal weight to every region. This gives their coverage a truly global sense of scope and balance. Quotes from protestors often include their ages. Indeed, there has been an “increase in quoting youngsters” in the last decade, according to Levinsen and Wien (2011). But the writers do not use youth to “other” the participants (as has been argued by Bergmann and Ossewaarde for some German outlets). Rather than signalling them out as “youth” or “pupils,” this piece describes them as “people.” The article quotes many different protestors from around the world, but it gives Thunberg the last word, ending with a line from her powerful address to the UN on the 27th.

While the lead image is of a group of unnamed young activists in Lisbon, the piece contains a compilation video titled “Greta Thunberg: the speeches that helped spark a climate movement.” The title alone perpetuates a sense of legendary status, almost sanctifying Thunberg. In the footage she appears alone, behind a podium, confident but young, in comfortable, unfussy, clothes. This is one of many articles which include this clip reel of highlights from her speeches, using the sections where she betrays the most emotion. Notably, the Guardian’s reporting does not draw any attention to Thunberg’s Asperger’s diagnosis, unlike more conservative leaning coverage of the strikes.

I only looked at eight articles out of 7, 290 on the Guardian site that mention Greta Thunberg. When searching the Guardian’s archives for other notable climate activists I found that the Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate was mentioned 73 times, and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez (a young campaigner from the US who filed a climate change lawsuit against the federal government in 2015) had 35 hits. I have to admit, I was not expecting there to be such a stark difference. It made any attempt to compare Thunberg with any of her counterparts quite challenging. Thunberg has authored opinion pieces for the Guardian. She is the only climate activist to have her own tag to arrange content by topic across the site.

The media use her as a stand-in for the millions of young people active in the climate movement. “She represents a lot of people, and that’s us, that’s the youth,” one of the strikers, Juliana Rubiano, said. In framing the climate movement as one sparked by a single heroic figure, the media whitewashes it. This has happened literally, as in the case where the AP resorted to cropping out Nakate’s image from a group photo taken at Davos. She was quite literally framed out of the story. In a less literal sense, this is what we have seen in the articles analysed above: a movement is apparently only big enough for one media figurehead.

In overhyping Thunberg in this way, what has the Guardian achieved? It is as though Greta Thunberg was the first young person to ever think of taking action for the climate. Others are swept aside as the spotlight shines firmly on her. She has given activists a place to rally behind and detractors a clear target for abuse. In framing Thunberg as the focal point of these worldwide protests, the left-wing media has succeeded in building a cult of personality around a girl who simply wanted to change the world.

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