Media coverage of climate change

Media coverage of climate change

Media coverage of climate change has significant effects on public opinion on climate change,[1] as it mediates the scientific opinion on climate change that the global instrumental temperature record shows increase in recent decades and that the trend is caused mainly by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases. (No scientific body of national or international standing disagrees with this view,[2][3] though a few organisations hold non-committal positions.) Media coverage of climate change in the English-speaking media, especially in the United States, has been widely studied, while studies of coverage elsewhere lag behind.[4] A number of studies have shown that particularly in the United States and in the UK tabloid press, the media significantly understated the strength of scientific consensus on climate change established in IPCC Assessment Reports in 1995 and in 2001.

A peak in media coverage occurred in early 2007, driven by the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report and Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth.[5] A subsequent peak in late 2009, which was 50% higher,[6] may have been driven by a combination of the November 2009 Climatic Research Unit email controversy and December 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference.[5]

It must be admitted, however, that some researchers and journalists honestly believe that media coverage of political issues is adequate and fair, while a few other feel that it is biased all right—against big money (see, for example, Bozel & Baker, 1990; Lichter & Rothman, 1984).[7][8] It must be likewise admitted that most media studies are neither recent nor concerned with coverage of environmental issues. Moreover, when they do study media coverage of something like the greenhouse effect, they are rarely concerned with the question of bias (cf.,Bell,1994;Trumbo,1996;Wilkins, 1993).[9][10]


Factual Distortions

The public understands comparatively little about global warming Bord, O’Connor, & Fisher (1998) discovered the United States public has a flawed understanding of global warming—seeing it as linked to general “pollution” and causally connected in some way to atmospheric ozone depletion. According to Wilson (K.M. Wilson, 1995, 2000), reporters are not much better informed about climate change. Scientists and media scholars who express frustrations with inadequate science reporting[11][12][13][14][15][16] argue that it can lead to at least three basic distortions. First, journalists distort reality by making scientific errors. Second, they distort by keying on human-interest stories rather than scientific content. And third, journalists distort by rigid adherence to the construct of balanced coverage.

On the face of it, it seems very reasonable to demand that journalists get it right. If journalists knew more science, then their reports would be more accurate and then, perhaps, the public might understand more about issues like climate change. It may be impossible to craft good public policy about nuclear power and global warming without a better-informed public. Bord, O’Connor, & Fisher (2000)[17] argue that responsible citizenry necessitates a concrete knowledge of causes and that until, for example, the public understands what causes climate change it cannot be expected to take voluntary action to mitigate its effects. This is a highly laudable sentiment that in principle is achievable simply with better training of journalists.But even for a scientifically literate journalist, sorting out the true cause and effect mechanisms of climate change may be far from easy. Scientists often underestimate the complexity involved in popularizing science. Here’s a sketch of the basic concepts an informed citizen needs to understand climate change.

  1. Climate is not the same as weather
  2. The climate system is complex, working via a series of “forcings” and “feedbacks.”
  3. There are delays or inertias in the system, notably the oceans that can absorb large amounts of heat for a time.
  4. So far scientists cannot predict with any certainty the regional effects of anthropogenic global warming—from sea level rise, to intense storms, to regional cooling. Effects might well be counter intuitive with global warming producing severe cooling in certain regions.

Narrative Distortions

Journalists are storytellers. They like telling stories with characters, settings, and conflicts. While they are attracted to risk controversies, what interests them are not the intellectual arguments so much as the underlying human-interest drama.[18] When a group of parents believes their children are dying from some “agent” in the environment, those parents become scared and angry. Their predicament, as journalists know, grabs the audience’s attention. As readers and viewers are drawn into a conflict, and come to feel as though they know the protagonists, they are motivated to learn more and more about the issues that are so important to the main characters and their families.

Human-interest controversies that pit “innocent victim” against “alleged perpetrator” are a popular story type. According to Shoemaker and Reese,[19] controversy is one of the main variables affecting story choice among news editors,along with human interest, prominence, timeliness, celebrity, and proximity. But controversy raises editorial issues, such as, what is the fairest way to report such hotly disputed versions of reality to an audience? The culture of political journalism has long used the notion of balanced coverage. In this construct, it is permissible to air a highly partisan opinion, provided this view is accompanied by a competing opinion. But recently scientists and scholars have challenged the legitimacy of this journalistic core value.

One example is Michael Coffman's address about the global climate change was more of a political scare tactic than scientific.

C-SPAN Address: Michael Coffman

Distortions of Balance

The notion of balanced coverage may make perfect sense when covering a political convention, but in the culture of science, balancing opposing views may be neither fair nor truthful. To quote climate scientist Stephen Schneider (Schneider, 2005): “In science, it’s different.” Extreme examples bring this point home. Does a flat-Earth proponent deserve equal time to a modern astrophysicist? Surely not Should an advocate for intelligent design be taken as seriously as an evolutionary biologist? Again no. Following this logic, some experts argue that it is misleading to give scientific mavericks or advocates equal time with established mainstream scientists.

Yet there is evidence that this is exactly what the media is doing. In a survey of 636 articles from four top United States newspapers between 1988 and 2002, two scholars[20] (M.T. Boykoff & J.M. Boykoff, 2004) found that most articles gave as much time to the small group of climate change doubters as to the scientific consensus view. Given the real consensus among climatologists over global warming, many scientists find the media’s desire to portray the topic as a scientific controversy to be a gross distortion. As Stephen Schneider put it[14]: “a mainstream, well-established consensus may be ‘balanced’ against the opposing views of a few extremists, and to the uninformed, each position seems equally credible.”

Seeking the truth clearly involves more than simply balancing opinions, it concerns gathering and evaluating various types of relevant evidence and rigorously checking sources and facts. The subgenre of science journalism puts this search for evidence at the center of its reporting. As Boyce Rensberger,[21] the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Knight Center for Science Journalism, put it “balanced coverage of science does not mean giving equal weight to both sides of an argument. It means apportioning weight according to the balance of evidence.”

Powers of Perception

If risk perceptions have as much to do with feelings as facts, then we might predict that changes in the social, environmental,and cultural circumstances might radically shift human risk perceptions, making scary things less scary and vice versa.

For example, while global warming lacks traction today, theory predicts that a serious global warming catastrophe—such as a succession of years with super storms or a large sea level rise that drowned a United States city—would change perceptions, alter media traction, and influence public opinion.12 Just as the disaster at Chernobyl offered everyone salient and enduring exemplar of how bad a reactor accident can be, a global warming catastrophe might offer a striking image of the dangers of tampering with the climate.

Unlike advocates, journalists are not supposed to persuade but to report. It would be inappropriate for them to use these insights to manipulate their audience to, say, fear global warming more and nuclear power less. But, it can be argued that journalists should expand their narrative horizons: to include not just the facts about the risk in question but also how people feel about the risk and why. In essence, they should report two dimensions of the risk story—the physical narrative of nuclear power or global warming, and the psychological subtext that discusses how the public thinks about those risks. Journalists, of course, should strive to be accurate and avoid distorting the science, but getting to the heart of risk tales involves something more: in sum it requires not only understanding the objective facts of the danger, but also navigating the way their audience feels about the risk issue, while telling a gripping, scientifically accurate story.


Coverage by country


In Japan, a study of newspaper coverage of climate change from January 1998 to July 2007 found coverage increased dramatically from January 2007.[22]


A 2010 study of four major, national circulation English-language newspapers in India examined "the frames through which climate change is represented in India", and found that "The results strongly contrast with previous studies from developed countries; by framing climate change along a 'risk-responsibility divide', the Indian national press set up a strongly nationalistic position on climate change that divides the issue along both developmental and postcolonial lines."[23]

New Zealand

A six month study in 1988 on climate change reporting in the media found that 80% of stories were no worse than slightly inaccurate. However, one story in six contained significant misreporting.[24] Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth in conjunction with the Stern Review generated an increase in media interest in 2006.

The popular media in New Zealand often give equal weight to the those supporting anthropogenic climate change and those who deny it. This stance is out of step with the findings of the scientific community where the vast majority support the climate change scenarios. A survey carried out in 2007 on climate change gave the following responses:[25]

Not really a problem 8%
A problem for the future 13%
A problem now 42%
An urgent and immediate problem 35%
Don't know 2%

United Kingdom

A study of the UK tabloid press (The Sun, Daily Express, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and their Sunday equivalents) covering the years 2000 to 2006 found that "UK tabloid coverage significantly diverged from the scientific consensus that humans contribute to climate change. Moreover, there was no consistent increase in the percentage of accurate coverage throughout the period of analysis and across all tabloid newspapers, and these findings are not consistent with recent trends documented in United States and UK 'prestige press' or broadsheet newspaper reporting. Findings from interviews indicate that inaccurate reporting may be linked to the lack of specialist journalists in the tabloid press."[26] Another study of the same dataset found that "news articles on climate change were predominantly framed through weather events, charismatic megafauna and the movements of political actors and rhetoric, while few stories focused on climate justice and risk. In addition, headlines with tones of fear, misery and doom were most prevalent."[27]

A two-year study of media coverage of climate change feedback loops found that "non-US news organizations, especially in the UK, are at the forefront of the discourse on climate feedback loops. Poor US press coverage on such climate thresholds might be understood not only as self-censorship, but as a "false negative" error."[1]

A 2010 study looked at "prominent, disruptive direct action around the climate change issue, in the context of comparable activity across a range of political groupings" and found that "they garner significant but unflattering attention from [the conventional mass media], partly as a consequence of the persistent pressures and imperatives that drive conventional journalism."[28]

United States

According to Peter J. Jacques et al., the mainstream news media of the United States is an example of the effectiveness of environmental skepticism as a tactic.[29] A 2005 study reviewed and analyzed the US mass-media coverage of the environmental issue of climate change from 1988 to 2004. The authors confirm that within the journalism industry there is great emphasis on eliminating the presence of media bias. In their study they found that — due to this practice of objectivity — "Over a 15-year period, a majority (52.7%) of prestige-press articles featured balanced accounts that gave 'roughly equal attention' to the views that humans were contributing to global warming and that exclusively natural fluctuations could explain the earth's temperature increase." As a result, they observed that it is easier for people to conclude that the issue of global warming and the accompanying scientific evidence is still hotly debated.[30]

A study of US newspapers and television news from 1995 to 2006 examined "how and why US media have represented conflict and contentions, despite an emergent consensus view regarding anthropogenic climate science." The IPCC Assessment Reports in 1995 and in 2001 established an increasingly strong scientific consensus, yet the media continued to present the science as contentious. The study noted the influence of Michael Crichton's 2004 novel State of Fear, which "empowered movements across scale, from individual perceptions to the perspectives of US federal powerbrokers regarding human contribution to climate change."[31]

A 2010 study concluded that "Mass media in the U.S. continue to suggest that scientific consensus estimates of global climate disruption, such as those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are 'exaggerated' and overly pessimistic. By contrast, work on the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge (ASC) suggests that such consensus assessments are likely to understate climate disruptions. ... new scientific findings were more than twenty times as likely to support the ASC perspective than the usual framing of the issue in the U.S. mass media. The findings indicate that supposed challenges to the scientific consensus on global warming need to be subjected to greater scrutiny, as well as showing that, if reporters wish to discuss " both sides" of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate 'other side' is that, if anything, global climate disruption may prove to be significantly worse than has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date."[32]

Gallup's annual update on Americans; attitudes toward the environment shows a public that over the last two years has become less worried about the threat of global warming, less convinced that its effects are already happening, and more likely to believe that scientist themselves are uncertain about it occurrence. In response to one key question, 48% of Americans now believe that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated, up from 41% in 2009 and 31% in 1997, when Gallup first asked the question.[33]

A recent search of Lexis-Nexis computerized database for any mention of the term 'global warming' in the following three news papers, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, and Washington Post, found articles that were not concerned with the greenhouse threat but which only mentioned it in passing.[original research?]

Nor did the newspapers fail to ignore any research which could conceivably cast doubts on the reality of the greenhouse effect or on the need for actions.One article, for instance, wrongly led readers to believe that scientists now believe that human-induced global warming is most likely a fiction, and that the warming we have seen is due to solar cycles. Many other reports of scientific developments implied that global warming would be good for us.[citation needed]According to Moti Nissani, when the devastating effects of El Niño were reported, the likelihood that El Niño itself is caused by global warming was either whispered in passing, and always attached to an emphatic question mark, or flatly denied.[34]

Out of 100 articles reviewed from The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, and Washington Post repeatedly cited a tiny minority of scientist whose views happened to coincide with those for the oil, coal auto, and petrochemical industries. British Petroleum's views were cited in twelve of the 100 articles. At the same time a warning by 21 leading ecologist were cited in one article. There was a major U.W. government study dismantling the greenhouse controversy. In 99 articles the views of the ecologists and then Vice President of the United States were ignored.[citation needed]

On August 12, 1997, the New York Times promised its readers:"Between now and December, when representatives of most nations will meet in Japan to discuss limits on greenhouse gases, The Times will examine the science, politics and economics of climate change." [NYT 8/12].[35] The Times did not keep the stated promise.[citation needed]

Media, Politics and Public Opinion

As McCombs et al.’s 1972 study of the political function of mass media first showed, media coverage of an issue can “play an important part in shaping political reality” [36]. Research into media coverage of climate change has demonstrated the significant role of the media in determining climate policy formation[37]. The media has considerable bearing on public opinion, and the way in which issues are reported, or framed, establishes a particular discourse[38]. Discourse, broadly defined, is a linguistic or communicative regularity, which creates particular norms and determines the way we understand an issue, and “help[s] shape institutional considerations of policy”[39].

The Media-Policy Interface

The relationship between media and politics is reflexive (see:reflexivity (social theory)). As Feindt & Oels neatly state, “[media] discourse has material and power effects as well as being the effect of material practices and power relations”[40]. The Foucauldian concept of power-knowledge is central in discourse analysis, and resonates in media coverage of climate change.

As highlighted above, media coverage in the United States during the Bush Adminstration often emphasised and exaggerated scientific uncertainty over climate change, reflecting the interests of the political elite[41]. Hall et al. suggest that government and corporate officials enjoy privileged access to the media, so their line quickly becomes the ‘primary definer’ of an issue[42]. Furthermore, media sources and their institutions very often have political leanings which determine their reporting on climate change, mirroring the views of a particular party[43]. However, media also has the capacity to challenge political norms and expose corrupt behaviour[44], as demonstrated in 2007 when the Guardian revealed that American Enterprise Institute received $10,000 from petrochemical giant Exxon Mobil to publish articles undermining the IPCC’s 4th assessment report.

Ever-strengthening scientific consensus on climate change means that scepticism is becoming less prevalent in the media (although the email scandal in the build up to Copenhagen reinvigorated climate scepticism in the media[45]), however in terms of weighting impacts and positing responses, climate change remains a discursive battleground.

Discourses of Action - 'Creating a Climate for Change'[46]

The Polar Bear has become a powerful symbol for those attempting to generate support for addressing climate change

Commentators have argued that the climate change discourses constructed in the media have not been conducive to generating the political will for swift action. The polar bear has become a powerful discursive symbol in the fight against climate change. However, such images, it is argued, create a perception of climate change impacts as geographically distant[47], and MacNagton argues that climate changed needs to be framed as an issue 'closer to home'[48]. On the other hand, Beck suggests that a major benefit of global media is that it brings distant issues within our consciousness[49] .

Furthermore, media coverage of climate change (particularly in tabloid journalism but also more generally), is concentrated around extreme weather events and projections of catastrophe, creating “a language of imminent terror”[50] which some commentators argue has instilled policy-paralysis and inhibited our response. Moser et al. suggest using solution-orientated frames will help inspire action to solve climate change[51]. The predominance of catastrophe frames over solution frames[52] may help explain the apparent value-action gap with climate change; the current discursive setting has generated concern over climate change but not inspired action.


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