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Xu, H. Media Coverage of Global Warming. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 06 December 2023).
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Media Coverage of Global Warming

Media coverage of global warming has had effects on public opinion on climate change, as it mediates the scientific opinion on climate change that the global temperature has increased in recent decades and that the trend is mainly caused by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases. Almost all scientific bodies of national or international standing agree with this view, although a few organisations hold non-committal positions. Climate change communication research frequently studies the effectiveness of that media. Some researchers and journalists believe that media coverage of political issues is adequate and fair, while a few feel that it is biased. However, most studies on media coverage of the topic are neither recent nor concerned with coverage of environmental issues. Moreover, they are only rarely concerned specifically with the question of bias. Despite recent trends in increased coverage on climate change, media coverage is not constant, and researchers wonder if the current increase in attention will be sustained.

global warming global temperature climate change

1. History

Media attention is especially high in carbon dependent countries with commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. The way the media report on climate change in English-speaking countries, especially in the United States, has been widely studied, while studies of reporting in other countries have been less expansive.[1][2] 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.[3] A subsequent peak in late 2009, which was 50% higher,[4] may have been driven by a combination of the November 2009 Climatic Research Unit email controversy and December 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference.[3][5]

The Media and Climate Change Observatory team at the University of Colorado Boulder found that 2017 “saw media attention to climate change and global warming ebb and flow” with June seeing the maximum global media coverage on both subjects. This rise is “largely attributed to news surrounding United States (US) President Donald J. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 United Nations (UN) Paris Climate Agreement, with continuing media attention paid to the emergent US isolation following through the G7 summit a few weeks later.”[6]

2. Common Distortions

2.1. Factual

Bord et al. claim that a substantial portion of 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.[7] Scientists and media scholars who express frustrations with inadequate science reporting[8][9][10][11][12][13] 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. Bord, O’Connor, & Fisher (2000)[14] 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.

2.2. Narrative

According to Shoemaker and Reese,[15] controversy is one of the main variables affecting story choice among news editors, along with human interest, prominence, timeliness, celebrity, and proximity. Coverage of climate change has been accused of falling victim to the journalistic norm of "personalization". W.L Bennet defines this trait as: "the tendency to downplay the big social, economic, or political picture in favor of human trials, tragedies and triumphs".[16] The culture of political journalism has long used the notion of balanced coverage in covering the controversy. 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 with regard to matters of great importance on which the overwhelming majority of the scientific community has reached a well-substantiated consensus view.

2.3. 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. As such, many experts argue that it is misleading to give scientific mavericks or advocates equal time with established mainstream scientists.[17]

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[18] found that most articles gave as much time to the small group of climate change doubters as to the scientific consensus view. Given 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:[11]

Science journalism concerns itself with gathering and evaluating various types of relevant evidence and rigorously checking sources and facts. Boyce Rensberger,[19] the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Knight Center for Science Journalism, said, “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.”

The claims of scientists also get distorted by the media by a tendency to seek out extreme views, which can result in portrayal of risks well beyond the claims actually being made by scientists.[20] Journalists tend to overemphasize the most extreme outcomes from a range of possibilities reported in scientific articles. A study that tracked press reports about a climate change article in the journal Nature found that "results and conclusions of the study were widely misrepresented, especially in the news media, to make the consequences seem more catastrophic and the timescale shorter".[21]

2.4. Alarmism

Alarmism is using inflated language, including an urgent tone and imagery of doom. In a report produced for the Institute for Public Policy Research, Gill Ereaut and Nat Segnit suggested that alarmist language is frequently used in relation to environmental matters by newspapers, popular magazines and in campaign literature put out by the government and environment groups.[22] It is claimed that when applied to climate change, alarmist language can create a greater sense of urgency.[23]

The term alarmist can be used as a pejorative by critics of mainstream climate science to describe those that endorse it. MIT meteorologist Kerry Emanuel wrote that labeling someone as an "alarmist" is "a particularly infantile smear considering what is at stake." He continued that using this "inflammatory terminology has a distinctly Orwellian flavor."[24]

It has been argued that using sensational and alarming techniques, often evoke "denial, paralysis, or apathy" rather than motivating individuals to action[25] and do not motivate people to become engaged with the issue of climate change.[26] In the context of climate refugees—the potential for climate change to displace people—it has been reported that "alarmist hyperbole" is frequently employed by private military contractors and think tanks.[27]

Some media reports have used alarmist tactics to challenge the science related to global warming by comparing it with a purported episode of global cooling. In the 1970s, global cooling, a claim with limited scientific support (even during the height of a media frenzy over global cooling, "the possibility of anthropogenic warming dominated the peer-reviewed literature"[28]) was widely reported in the press. Several media pieces have claimed that since the theory of global cooling was shown to be false, the well-supported theory of global warming can also be dismissed. For example, an article in The Hindu by Kapista and Bashkirtsev wrote: "Who remembers today, they query, that in the 1970s, when global temperatures began to dip, many warned that we faced a new ice age? An editorial in The Time magazine on June 24, 1974, quoted concerned scientists as voicing alarm over the atmosphere 'growing gradually cooler for the past three decades', 'the unexpected persistence and thickness of pack ice in the waters around Iceland,' and other harbingers of an ice age that could prove 'catastrophic.' Man was blamed for global cooling as he is blamed today for global warming.",[29] and the Irish Independent published an article claiming that "The widespread alarm over global warming is only the latest scare about the environment to come our way since the 1960s. Let's go through some of them. Almost exactly 30 years ago the world was in another panic about climate change. However, it wasn't the thought of global warming that concerned us. It was the fear of its opposite, global cooling. The doom-sayers were wrong in the past and it's entirely possible they're wrong this time as well."[30] Numerous other examples exist.[31][32][33]

3. Media, Politics, and Public Discourse

As McCombs et al.’s 1972 study of the political function of mass media showed, media coverage of an issue can “play an important part in shaping political reality”.[34] Research into media coverage of climate change has demonstrated the significant role of the media in determining climate policy formation.[35] The media has considerable bearing on public opinion, and the way in which issues are reported, or framed, establishes a particular discourse.[36]

In more general terms, media coverage of climate change in the USA is related to the controversy about media ownership and fairness. While most media scholars uphold the view that the media in the USA is free and unbiased, a minority disagrees. Historian Michael Parenti,[37] for instance, alleges that the American media serves corporate interests by "inventing reality."

3.1. Media-Policy Interface

The relationship between media and politics is reflexive. As Feindt & Oels state, “[media] discourse has material and power effects as well as being the effect of material practices and power relations”.[38] Public support of climate change research ultimately decides whether or not funding for the research is made available to scientists and institutions.

As highlighted above, media coverage in the United States during the Bush Administration often emphasized and exaggerated scientific uncertainty over climate change, reflecting the interests of the political elite.[39] 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.[40] 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.[41] However, media also has the capacity to challenge political norms and expose corrupt behaviour,[42] 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 skepticism is becoming less prevalent in the media (although the email scandal in the build up to Copenhagen reinvigorated climate skepticism in the media[43]).

3.2. Discourses of Action

The polar bear has become a 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 may create a perception of climate change impacts as geographically distant,[44] and MacNaghten argues that climate change needs to be framed as an issue 'closer to home'.[45] On the other hand, Beck suggests that a major benefit of global media is that it brings distant issues within our consciousness.[46]

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”[47] which some commentators argue has instilled policy-paralysis and inhibited response. Moser et al. suggest using solution-orientated frames will help inspire action to solve climate change.[48] The predominance of catastrophe frames over solution frames[49] 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.

Breaking the prevailing notions in society requires discourse that is traditionally appropriate and approachable to common people. For example, Bill McKibben, an environmental activist, provides one approach to inspiring action: a war-like mobilization, where climate change is the enemy.[50] This approach would resonate with working Americans who normally find themselves occupied with other news headlines. Dispelling the capitalist commodification of the environment also requires different rhetoric that breaks certain ingrained notions concerning the human relationship with the environment. This could include incorporating traditional Indigenous knowledge that prioritizes human existence with the environment as a mutualistic and protective one.

Additionally, international movements in developing countries in the Global South are usually excluded in developed nations that assert hegemony over the economies of developing nations. This especially applies to the people of Latin America, that are battling multinational oil and mineral corporations that seek to cooperate with the ruling class and exploit fragile ecosystems, rather than provide real solutions to working people that mutually benefit the environment. This is apparent in Ecuador, where former President Rafael Correa, a left-leaning populist, incited “economic growth” as a reason to sell portions of the Amazon rainforest to oil companies.[51] These popular movements usually are neglected by the United States due to corporate relationships within the political sphere of influence.

Compared to what experts know about traditional media's and tabloid journalism’s impacts on the formation of public perceptions of climate change and willingness to act, there is comparatively little knowledge of the impacts of social media, including message platforms like Twitter, on public attitudes toward climate change.[52]

3.3. Coverage of Youth

Published in the journal Childhood, the article "Children's protest in relation to the climate emergency: A qualitative study on a new form of resistance promoting political and social change"[53] considers how children have evolved into prominent actors to create a global impact on awareness of climate change. It highlights the work of children like Greta Thunberg[54] and the significance of their resistance to the passivity of world leaders regarding climate change. It also discusses how individual resistance can directly be linked to collective resistance and that this then creates a more powerful impact, empowering young people to act more responsibly and take authority over the future. The article offers a holistic view of the impact of youth[55] to raise awareness whilst also inspiring action, and using social media platforms such as YouTube,[56] Facebook[57] and Instagram[58] to share the youth message.  

4. Coverage by Country

4.1. Canada

In comparison to other nations, such as the United States, the Canadian Media does not create the same perception of neutrality in the balancing of voices that represent both the scientific consensus and the skeptics equally.[59] The Canadian coverage appears to be more driven by national and international political events rather than the changes to carbon emissions or various other ecological factors .[59] The discourse is dominated by matters of government responsibility, policymaking, policy measures for mitigation, and ways to mitigate climate change; with the issue coverage by mass media outlets continuing to act as an important means of communicating environmental concerns to the general public. [59]

Within various provincial and language media outlets, there are varying levels of articulation regarding scientific consensus and the focus on ecological dimensions of climate change .[59] Within Quebec, specifically, these outlets are more likely to position climate change as an international issue, and to link climate change to social justice concerns to depict an image of Quebec as a pro-environmental society [59]

Across various nations, including Canada, there has been an increased effort in the use of celebrities in climate change coverage, which is able to gain audience attention, but in turn, it reinforces individualized rather than structural interpretations of climate change responsibility and solutions .[59]

4.2. Japan

In Japan, a study of newspaper coverage of climate change from January 1998 to July 2007 found coverage increased dramatically from January 2007.[60]

4.3. India

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."[61]

On the other hand, a qualitative analysis of some mainstream Indian newspapers (particularly opinion and editorial pieces) during the release of the IPCC 4th Assessment Report and during the Nobel Peace Prize win by Al Gore and the IPCC found that Indian media strongly pursue scientific certainty in their coverage of climate change. This is in contrast to the skepticism displayed by American newspapers at the time. Indian media highlights energy challenges, social progress, public accountability and looming disaster.[62]

4.4. 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.[63] 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 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:[64]

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%

4.5. Turkey

According to journalist Pelin Cengiz mainstream media tends to cover newly opened coal-fired power stations in Turkey as increasing employment rather than climate change, and almost all owners have financial interests in fossil fuels.[65]

4.6. United Kingdom

The Guardian newspaper is internationally respected for its coverage of the climate crisis.[66]

4.7. United States

One of the first critical studies of media coverage of climate change in the United States appeared in 1999. The author summarized her research:[17]

Following a review of the decisive role of the media in American politics and of a few earlier studies of media bias, this paper examines media coverage of the greenhouse effect. It does so by comparing two pictures. The first picture emerges from reading all 100 greenhouse-related articles published over a five-month period (May–September 1997) in The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times , The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post . The second picture emerges from the mainstream scientific literature. This comparison shows that media coverage of environmental issues suffers from both shallowness and pro-corporate bias.

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.[67] 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 journalistic 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.[68]

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."[69]

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."[70]

It has been suggested that the association of climate change with the Arctic in popular media may undermine effective communication of the scientific realities of anthropogenic climate change. The close association of images of Arctic glaciers, ice, and fauna with climate change might harbor cultural connotations that contradict the fragility of the region. For example, in cultural-historical narratives, the Arctic was depicted as an unconquerable, foreboding environment for explorers; in climate change discourse, the same environment is sought to be understood as fragile and easily affected by humanity.[71]

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 its 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.[72]

Data from the Media Matters for America organization has shown that, despite 2015 being “a year marked by more landmark actions to address climate change than ever before,” the combined climate coverage on the top broadcast networks was down by 5% from 2014.[73][74]

President Donald Trump denies the threat of global warming publicly. As a result of the Trump Presidency, media coverage on climate change is expected to decline during his term as president.[75]

4.8. Ireland

Ireland has quite a low coverage of climate change in media. a survey created shows how the Irish Times had only 0.84% of news coverage for climate change in the space of 13 years. This percentage is incredibly low compared to the rest of Europe, for example- Coverage of climate change in Ireland 10.6 stories, while the rest of Europe lies within 58.4 stories[76]


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