An estimated 2.5 billion people saw the image: a starving polar bear struggling across an Arctic landscape. "The mission was a success, but there was a problem: We had lost control of the narrative," writes Cristina Mittermeier in National Geographic. Accompanied by a photographic team, she snapped shots of the dying bear last year while colleague Paul Nicklen shot video—all part of their "mission to capture images that communicate the urgency of climate change," she writes. "When Paul posted the video on Instagram, he wrote, 'This is what starvation looks like.'" He also wondered if all 25,000 polar bears would die like this and urged people to reduce their carbon footprint. But he didn't say climate change had killed this bear.
That nuance vanished when National Geographic posted the video with the subtitles "This is what climate change looks like" and the Washington Post ran a dramatic headline about "gut-wrenching" images. People also responded dramatically, expressing gratitude for validation of climate science, anger the crew hadn't fed the bear, or a stubborn refusal to acknowledge global warming. "Perhaps we made a mistake in not telling the full story—that we were looking for a picture that foretold the future and that we didn’t know what had happened to this particular polar bear," she writes. Yet a fast-warming Arctic means bears will be stranded on land, unable to pursue prey, so the photo makes sense. The trick for next time? Make sure "our intentions are clear and the narrative remains our own."