How the News Covers Climate Change, and Why It Matters - Pacific Standard

How the News Covers Climate Change, and Why It Matters

Scientists review news coverage of three IPCC reports, revealing common media narratives—and an unfocused media strategy on the part of the IPCC.
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The 48th session of the IPCC Bureau took place in Geneva, Switzerland, this past January. (Photo: IPCC/Flickr)

The 48th session of the IPCC Bureau took place in Geneva, Switzerland, this past January. (Photo: IPCC/Flickr)

For better or worse, the story of climate change research that you hear about in the news is not exactly the same one that researchers tell. After all, a research paper isn't the same thing as a news story, or a tweet, on the subject. Beyond that, reporters and tweeters alike use different narratives to explain the science and politics of climate change. Having a better understanding of those frameworks could help scientists more effectively communicate with the public, the authors of a new analysis argue.

"Over the last decade or so, the volume of research on media reporting of climate change science has grown significantly," the editors of Nature Climate Change write in their introduction of the issue, which focuses on how climate change is covered in news and social media. "But how much do we really know about the news chain ... in the context of climate change?"

To address that question, a team led by Saffron O'Neill, a geographer at the University of Exeter, gathered tweets, news broadcasts, and newspapers in the United States and the United Kingdom in three two-week windows in 2013 and 2014, coinciding with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports on its physical science, impacts, and mitigation working groups.

U.K. broadcasters generally focused on "settled science" and "uncertain science" frames, while "disaster" narratives dominated U.S. television coverage.

Within that mass of information, researchers identified 10 frames—simple narratives that provide context and structure to a report—journalists used to report on climate change, such as "settled science," which focuses on research quashing climate change doubts, or "political or ideological struggle," which emphasizes debates over the science or its consequences. But which narratives reporters used varied depending on the type of media, the working group a reporter covered, and whether the reporting was in the U.K. or the U.S.

U.K. broadcasters, for example, generally focused on "settled science" and "uncertain science" frames, while "disaster" narratives dominated U.S. television coverage. In contrast, print outlets employed a broader range of frames, including political conflict, disaster, settled and uncertain science, as well as potential opportunities and economic impacts. Tweets employed mainly settled-science angles. Reports on the physical science and mitigation working groups primarily emphasized settled science, while reports on the impacts working group emphasized disaster scenarios.

Still, the most striking findings may concern what was covered. Physical science, possibly the driest of the three working groups, received the most coverage, while mitigation got the least. Likely, that's because physical science press releases included summaries for reporters and had built-in narratives—namely, experts debating physical science findings. The physical science working group report also had the advantage of being released first, while the mitigation press release followed the impacts working group report by two weeks, making it less newsworthy in the eyes of many reporters and editors.

"Integrating this knowledge into the design and communication of future IPCC assessments—and including others (artists, film-makers, journalists) in the conversation on developing potential narratives and their associated visuals—would facilitate communication of climate change, and offer audiences a more diverse selection of frames with which to engage with the issue," the authors write.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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