Media Coverage of Climate Change: Propaganda or Duly Educational Tool?
by David Morin on December 12, 2017 - 12:08am
Climate change is one of the greatest threats faced by humanity in our time. It requires important economic, political, regulatory, technological as well as lifestyle’s changes around the world. In developed countries, where the emissions per capita tend to be much higher and where democracies are generally better implemented, such changes require the public to be well-informed and properly aware of that issue. However, because of its scientific complexity, of its global scope, of its time frame, and of the complexity of the human mind, climate change is difficult to communicate to the public. Actually, for most people, newspapers are the major source of environmental information (Young and Dugas, 3). But how do Canadian newspapers cover climate change and how does this coverage compare to other specific countries and the rest of the world in general? First, to analyze the Canadian coverage of climate change, the research of Young and Dugas, the one of DiFrancesco and Young, as well as that of Ahchong and Dodds were used. Second, Billet’s study was used to assess the issue’s coverage in an emerging country like that of India. Third, Olaussan’s study focused on the coverage in a European state, Sweden. Fourth, Schmidt et al.’s study explored the global media coverage of climate change and the differences between different types of states.
First, Young and Dugas analyzed the content of 897 articles that were discussing climate change and that were published in the Globe and Mail or in The National Post in 1988-89, in 1998-1999, and in 2007-2008 (Young and Dugas, 7). They found that the coverage of climate change increased over the three time periods (Young and Dugas, 8). Nevertheless, it has been found that the climate change discussion across time was less and less scientific and more and more political as it is evidenced by the decrease in the proportion of articles in which an expert voice is present and by the shift from scientific event to political events as reasons to write about climate change (Young and Dugas, 9, 12). Furthermore, they found that the proportion of articles that privileged the consensus view concerning the anthropogenic sources of climate change have decreased across time while the number of articles depicting no discernable balance or imbalance between the consensus view, the skeptic view and an equal representation of both views increased (Young and Dugas, 10). Moreover, the voices present in the articles were mainly Canadians in 2007-2008. The proportion of American voices decreased but remained substantial by being present in 21% of articles. As a matter of fact, ecological issues are those where American voices were the most likely to be heard in Canada (Young and Dugas, 13). As the authors mention, while climate change is a global problem its coverage is highly focused on North America (Young and Dugas, 12). For instance, the issues and the voices from Third World countries are almost absent in Canadian press (Young and Dugas, 12). In addition, the authors have found that the complexity of the articles studied have decreased across the three time periods as shown by a decrease in the number of themes explored in each article (Young and Dugas, 14). Similarly, the mentions of climate change’s causation decreased, but were not replaced by mentions of its different effects (Young and Dugas, 15). Finally, the authors argue that climate change has increasingly been conveyed along a business angle (Young and Dugas, 15). Indeed, articles were increasingly present in the business section of newspapers, and they were increasingly focusing on how businesses could profit from climate mitigation and adaptation (Young and Dugas, 15). Even more significantly, the mention of the ecological and the economic consequences of climate change decreased while the mention of the economic consequences of climate change mitigation policies increased (Young and Dugas 16). In brief, it is clear that climate change's coverage in Canada is geographically biased, and that the shift of this coverage away from science and ecological consequences toward political and business everyday issues decontextualized the topic for Canadian readers (Young and Dugas 20).
Likewise, DiFrancesco and Young used content analysis and critical discourse analysis to research the image-text interactions in the articles published in the National Post and the Globe and Mail from January to July 2008 that discussed climate change (4). They found that representations of humans were present in 66% of all images, but that these representations did not personify the issue since they mainly depicted politicians or businesspeople rather than people affected by climate change (DiFrancesco and Young, 7). Natural environments were also frequent representations, but the elements that they most often featured were urban landscapes (DiFrancesco and Young, 7). Hence, the expected natural representation that could have been used as visual metaphors for climate change such as polar bears, melting snow and ice, changing coastlines, parched earth, etc. remain mostly unused (DiFrancesco and Young, 7, 15). The only recurring Canadian representation that is linked to climate change involves images of oil sand production, but these are causes of climate change and so there is an absence of consistent visual representation of climate change’s effects in Canada (DiFrancesco and Young, 16). Consequently, it can be harder for people to visualize these consequences as well as to give a concrete visual everyday representation to the abstract language discussion surrounding climate change (DiFrancesco and Young, 15). Nevertheless, since 75% of the images accompanying the studied articles were depicting Canadian features, they do allow the localization of global climate change as closer to home (DiFrancesco and Young, 7). However, the researchers found a disjunction between the content of the images accompanying articles and the content of these articles. Indeed, while most articles accompanied by images had an emotional tone, the images accompanying them were mainly unemotional (DiFrancesco and Young, 8-9). Similarly, it was shown that the content of the articles were influenced by the presence or the absence of images, but much less by the content of these images (DiFrancesco and Young, 10). DiFrancesco and Young also found that the presence of images did not affect the complexity of the articles (DiFrancesco and Young, 9).
In addition, Alchong and Dodds compared the portrayal of climate change at the regional and the national level by examining the content of the articles that were discussing climate change in the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail from 1988 to 2007. As the authors indicate, the greater number of articles on the topic of climate change indicates that the issue has gained public and media importance throughout the period studied, even though the greenhouse gases emissions have also risen during that same period (Alchong and Dodds, 5). As well, they found that climate change had a destructive image in these Canadian newspapers (Alchong and Dodds, 7). Moreover, they found that climate change was mainly approached with a national and a global perspective, and, accordingly, that the government actors present in the news were mainly from the federal government (Alchong and Dodds, 7-8). Consequently, the authors note that local and provincial actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change may be neglected (Alchong and Dodds, 8). Similarly, while 75% of the articles were stating solutions, most of these articles were focusing on mitigation solutions, but the authors state that adaptation solutions should not be neglected (Alchong and Dodds, 8, 9-10). Moreover, 50% of the articles claimed that the responsibility to find solutions to climate change was mainly lying in the hands of the government parties (Alchong and Dodds, 8-9). Nonetheless, as the authors note, this is problematic because nongovernment actors such as businesses and individuals should also be presented how they can contribute in solving the climate change issue (Alchong and Dodds, 9). Likewise, most articles were linking climate change to large-scale issues such as international cooperation, energy, transportation, and scientific research and development (Alchong and Dodds, 10). Nevertheless, fewer articles were connecting climate change to issues that were closer to individuals’ realities such as health care, education and social order, and few of them were exploring solutions that can be taken daily by individuals (Alchong and Dodds, 10-11). Thus, that could result in inaction on the part of the public (Alchong and Dodds, 10).
Second, Billet used discourse analysis to examine the content of the articles regarding climate change that were published in four major English-speaking Indian newspapers from January 2002 to June 2007. Also, the researcher conducted interviews with 15 major environmental writers in the country. As a result, the author found that the Indian press almost unanimously accepts climate change as a human-caused reality, while it poses great attention to its impacts and risks in India (Billet 5-7). Further, the Indian’s coverage of climate change is characterized by a focus on the historical emissions of developed countries and on their resulting responsibility (Billet 8). As a matter of fact, 76.3% of studied articles placed climate change responsibility on countries located in the North, 38.4% stated that emissions cuts should only happen in the North, and 55.2% argued that actions should be global but differentiated (Billet 8-9). Accordingly, there is a belief in a certain neo-colonial desire to cap Indian’s economic growth among studied newspapers (Billet 11, 15). For instance, 61.2% of articles depicted the Kyoto Agreement as trying to cut India’s and Third World’s emissions, even though the agreement actually excluded emerging countries (Billet 11). Nationalism is also omnipresent in Indian press in such a way that journalists defend India’s position and its allies regarding international climate negotiations while it depicts negatively northern countries, which are presented as the country’s antagonists in that matter (Billet 11, 12). For example, the United States was negatively depicted in the studied articles, whereas the press was really empathetic toward other emerging countries (Billet 12). In contrast, Indian press neglects the coverage of the domestic inequalities in the distribution of emissions; in fact, an Indian of the highest-earning group, which represents 1% of the population, emits 4.5 times as much as an Indian of the poorest 38% of the population (Billet 3, 13). Clearly, the fact that the main readers of English-speaking newspapers in India are members of the upper class, influences that distorted presentation of the issue (Billet 14). To sum up, the presentation of climate change issues in India reflects and reinforces the elites’ beliefs and perspectives.
Third, Olaussan’s study explored how frames affected Sweden’s coverage of the climate change issue. Frame is defined as a “select[ion of] some aspects of a perceived reality and mak[ing] them more salient in a communicating text […] to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (Olaussan 3). As the author discusses, the control of these frames is a potentially strong power and domination tool (Olaussan 3). In the present study, the researcher used 141 news items about climate change that were published in 3 major Swedish newspapers between September 2004 and September 2005 (Olaussan 5). The items were then submitted to a Critical Discourse Analysis in order to unveil any underlying values, prejudices or assumptions (Olaussan 4). In consequence, the authors found that the mitigation of climate change was mainly treated as a transnational concern except for Third World countries (Olaussan 6). Regarding mitigation actions against climate change, Sweden media coverage was characterized by a strong division between Europe, on the one hand, which was presented as taking climate change seriously, and the United States on the second hand, which were presented as irresponsible and negligent in concern to the issue (Olaussan 6). Even the use of physical struggle metaphors to amplify that dichotomy was frequent (Olaussan 7). However, there a regional cohesion between Sweden and the rest of the Europe Union was present (Olaussan 7). Thus, while the national and local responsibilities regarding climate mitigation were marginalized as compared to the transnational ones, when they were explored, conflicts between localities were not present in newspapers’ coverage (Olaussan 8). On the opposite, newspapers conveyed the adaptation part of actions against climate change mostly as the responsibility of local and regional realms (Olaussan 8). Consequently, there was a problematic absence of transnational perspective since Third World countries were excluded of the adaptation strategy and were only presented through a pitiful frame (Olaussan 9). Notwithstanding, the fact that mitigation and adaptation strategies are rarely explored in the same article is noteworthy (Olaussan 9). Another important insight from Olaussan is that certainty of anthropogenic climate change is omnipresent in newspapers, which exemplify an important European difference from the United States, in which the journalistic norm of balance grant a lot of media space to climate skeptics (9-10, 13). Even though some connections between climate change and its effects on weather are still scientifically uncertain, these uncertainties were minimized and were presented as unquestionable in Swedish newspapers (Olaussan 11). The author also points to the use of scare to reinforce the aforementioned certainties (Olaussan 11-12). Finally, Swedish newspapers, similarly to those in India, mainly follow the nation’s policy frames and rarely criticize them (Olaussan 13). Hence, the way climate change issue is approached by the media does not offer an alternative view to the way the Sweden government approaches it (Olaussan 13).
Finally, Schmidt et al. explored climate change attention in 27 countries around the world by looking at the articles concerning climate change that were published in each country’s 2 major newspapers from 1996 to 2010 (7). As a result, the authors found that climate change was a relevant topic in every country; indeed, 0.62% of the total published articles during that time period were about climate change, which is a high proportion when compared to other important issues (Schmidt et al., 9). Moreover, that coverage was rising over time, although the long-term trend featured different ups and down, which were attributed to the different climate political events as well as the release of important information sources, such as the IPCC’s reports and Al Gore’s movie (Schmidt et al., 9-10). Surprisingly, the media attention was shown to be lower in vulnerable countries, because of the limited resources to which these countries have access in general. Nevertheless, among developing nations, the newspapers’ coverage of climate from 2001 to 2009 in countries with significant climate damages was 25% higher than that of other nations (Schmidt et al., 11). Furthermore, that coverage focused mainly on the consequences that these countries faced (Schmidt et al., 12). Similarly, the media attention was 1.5 times higher in countries with emission targets in the Kyoto protocol than in the others, since these countries faced higher pressure to act on the climate issue (Schmidt et al., 12). Among this group, the countries that depicted high carbon dependency had a media attention for climatic issues that was higher than average (Schmidt et al., 12). Logically, the more conflictive debates among the different interest groups in these countries possibly explain that result (Schmidt et al., 13). The authors mention that such debates should be aimed for since they usually yield public legitimation, although this is not always the case (Schmidt et al., 14).
In conclusion, that research shows that newspapers discuss significantly climate change but in ways that are not always ideal and that are sometimes distorted. While some of these distortions are unintentional, some seems to be caused by media’ bias. An example of unintentional distortion concerning climate change that can be created by newspapers is the Canadian newspapers' focus on national and transnational issues, which can minimize the responsibilities and the potential of provincial and local government as well as that of businesses and citizens. Another example of unintentional distortion is the disjunction between images and textual information in Canadian newspapers. However, a large part of the distortions mentioned seem to be caused, at least in part, by media’s biases concerning climate change. For instance, the Canadian newspapers focuses on a business and political perspective regarding climate change can be influenced by the ownership and the readership of these news outlets as well as by their day-to-day structure. Similarly, the way Indian and Swedish newspapers describe the responsibilities of each country regarding climate change are highly influenced by their national political views on the issue. Solutions to the problems explored in that paper lie both in the hands of the citizens, of the newspapers and of institutions. Indeed, newspapers should put their national and economic biases aside and strive on explaining climate change with a global perspective that would include the points of view of the different stakeholders. Otherwise, they should be forced to do so by governments. Citizens should consider using more objective and complete sources than newspapers to understand such a complete issue as climate change. Finally, institutional changes include the creation of climate change courses as well as courses on the critical evaluation of media messages at the high school level. What is sure is that it is complex to make the public understand climate change, even without the aforementioned distortions. Hence, further research should be done to assess the efficiency of the use of fear versus that of hope on engagement against climate change, and the different psychological effects of different communicational approaches regarding that topic. Media should, of course, adopt the most efficient approaches in that matter.
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