Media matters: How the U.S. media reports on climate change, and how do they affect and shape the opinions of the general public.

Written by – Ivona Poljak 

Media’s duty has always been to accurately inform, raise awareness and fuel debate within the general public. One of the issues that the world is facing for the last three decades is climate change. Climate change and the sustainability crisis are the issues of our times. Two hundred years of ever-intensifying human impacts have left the biosphere in a perilous state. The oceans are warming, glaciers disappearing, and the natural world is in sharp decline.


How frequently does the mainstream media in the United States reports and warns about dangers of climate change? How do they report on it? Do they call for immediate action or debate the facts? How do the market model, news frames and journalists influence the formation of public opinion on climate change, and does the public consider it a serious problem or a hoax?


In a comparative study about media systems, public knowledge and democracy, it is shown that informed opinion depends on perception and alertness to news and its supply. In modern democracies, the public holds the media responsible for providing them with unbiased and correct information. However, new business models for news organisations and media outlets mean less regulation, less cost (investigative journalism) and more profit (short stories that are generated faster).


Not all of western media have accepted this model. For example, most of European countries still have a state subsidised public broadcaster that supplies general public with regular news programming, whereas citizens of the United States depend on commercial broadcasters to report objectively and truthfully. Moreover, European broadcasters, public or private are legally obliged to accurately inform the public, which is not the case in the United States. It has also been found that public service television in Europe sheds more light to public affairs and international news, and is resulting in a more informed general public, unlike the market model.


Examining the US media in their coverage of climate change supports this theory. An ongoing debate about climate change is consistent in U.S. politics, media, and amongst general public. Although the majority of scientists agree that climate change is a manmade phenomenon, and one of the biggest issues that the world is facing, U.S. media is somehow still debating on whether it is real or not.


Journalists are often finding effective portrayal of environmental science through news media challenging. Mass media coverage has been proven to be the main tool that helps initiate debate between science (in this case), politics and general public. It has been repeatedly proven that the general public gains much of their knowledge through media channels. The same research has also shown that accurate information given to the general public is the most significant sign of the future actions (active or passive) of the general public on that topic.


News media are central agents for raising awareness and providing information. As global climate change is a serious issue that was brought to attention by scientists, the general audience might not understand it completely or would not seek to do so. Therefore, information about it and awareness  of it must be spread by some form of public communication; that is why the mainstream media is essential in their role as informants. Since the general public draws most of its knowledge about climate  change from the media, it is important that they accurately and consistently report on this issue.


“It is not simply the complexities and uncertainties of climate science that have led to the current situation. From the outset, there has been an organised “disinformation” campaign that has used the complexities of climate change and the inevitable uncertainties involved in scientific research to generate skepticism and denial concerning climate change. The primary strategy employed by this campaign has been to “manufacture uncertainty” over climate change, especially by attacking climate science and scientists” (Dunlap, 2013).


In a research conducted for media attention for climate change around the world, academics have found that U.S. newspapers (NY Times, Washington Post & Wall Street Journal) have had a significant rise in attention from late 1999 US coverage. Since 1996 to 2010 there were 8676 articles in the NY Times and 8095 articles in the Washington post, which took up 11.02% of the overall content throughout those years.


The results of this research have also shown that media attention in the US has been the highest from 2006 to 2009 (1.37%). However, their coverage was not consistent because it dropped and peaked around specific events. For example, there was a decrease in attention in 2009, which was possibly due to the financial crisis; less employees in newsrooms, a decrease of specialist environmental journalism in mainstream media etc.


The research cited above measured the consistency of key words such as climate change or global warming in the media database across 27 countries. This quantitative research has not provided data on how US media discusses climate change. Although consistent and rising, coverage has not had an impact on the concerns of general public.


The earliest opinion polls in 1986 showed that the US public considered global warming a serious problem. Since then, public’s concern about climate change has been different year on year. In 2004, for example, in the poll conducted by Gallup Centre, 26% of the respondents stated that they worried a great deal about climate change. In 2007 that number had risen to 41%, and fell again in 2010 to 28%.


“In the US , climate change and environmental issues have consistently ranked at the bottom of public concerns as measured by polls. In 2001, Gallup poll, environmental concerns were mentioned only by 1% of respondents as the most important problem facing the nation, and ranked 22nd overall. Among those who mentioned it, 79% worried a great deal or fair amount about toxic waste and water pollution. Out of nine environmental issues, global warming was ranked the last, with only 59% of the 1% worrying great deal or fair amount” (Brulle, Carmichael and Jenkins, 2012).


Alternative media outlet, produced an annual study on how broadcast networks covered climate change in 2015. In this report, analysis is both quantitative and qualitative. Their researchers have found that ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox collectively spent 5% less time covering climate change, even though there were more newsworthy climate-related events in 2015 (Pope Francis on climate change, Clean Power Plan, rejection of Keystone XL pipeline and Paris environmental talks). This study has shown that these networks collectively aired roughly 146 minutes on climate change coverage (8 minutes less than in 2014). Moreover, networks overlooked economic impacts of climate change, rarely addressed how climate change affects public health, and stations like ABC and Fox refused to address the link between climate change and extreme weather.  NBC was the only network that aired multiple segments on these issues (three).


“CBS Evening news, NBC Nightly News, and PBS News Hour aired stories detailing Climate Change impacts on plants and wildlife. PBS NewsHour, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News aired eight, five, and four segments about the impacts of climate change on plants and wildlife, respectively, but this aspect of climate change did not come up on ABC’s World News Tonight or any of the Sunday shows” (Seifter, Kalhoefer and Robbins, 2016).


The most concerning finding in this survey was climate change denial during the programmes that aired in 2015. Nine segments across these networks aired false information which disregarded the scientific consensus that climate change is man-made. Furthermore, ABC did not feature a single scientist in its coverage, NBC featured 5 and PBS featured the most, 12. Fox news was the only network that increased its climate coverage (39 min), but nearly every segment included denial or criticism of climate change and climate action.


Therefore, it is important to analyse how the media provided a platform for skeptics and deniers who had a great influence on public opinion regarding climate change. Mainstream media has enabled these unscientifically supported arguments to have their own place in debates on climate change policy making. By doing this, they have distorted the possibility of an intelligent discussion on the development of climate policies to minimise the effects of climate change.


Mass media representations of climate change have often been criticised because of the way journalists frame their stories. “They often result in illusory, misleading and counterproductive debates” (Engesser and Bruggemann, 2015). Research on cognitive frames of climate journalists showed that there are five journalist frames of climate change that could make a significant impact in informing the public. The first one outlined the importance of the carbon-dependent countries (industries) reducing the CO2 emissions, despite the constant lobbying against climate policies in those countries. Second frame emphasised consumers’ behaviour and their personal responsibility. The third one relied on technological optimism, or a belief that the development of environmentally friendly technology would solve the problem. Some of these frames, such as sustainability (consumer behaviour), are absent in the news.


Instead of properly framing scientific information about climate change, journalists usually frame it as Pandora’s Box or Frankenstein’s Monster in order to create dramatic effect that would help them gain wider audience. Presenting it as an unavoidable catastrophe might have a short-term effect on  the general public. Moreover, alongside this particular news frame, media in the U.S. provides various reassuring frames. For these they use a small number of scientist who interpret climate change as skeptics, focusing on uncertainty rather than on potential risks. These scientist are mostly funded by major oil and gas companies or wealthy conservative individuals.


Polls suggest that the parts of the public who are skeptical about climate change were highly influenced by these climate change skeptics. Regardless of the scientific majority’s agreement on climate change and its growing coverage in the media, the United States is trapped in their perpetual debate over weather climate change is real and man-made.


Furthermore, audiences do not react to numbers of injuries and deaths, but more to the causes; whether a risk is voluntary or involuntary, long-lasting or extreme and sudden, and known or unknown to science. In the research examining the relationship between physical vulnerability and public perception of global climate change in the United States, participants only became aware of climate change when the threat was most noticeable. For example, people who lived on the coastline were presented with an obvious threat of sea levels rising. Once media addresses those issues correctly, and policy makers focus on those areas, both media and political officials can spread the awareness and initiatives to locations that have not yet been affected by climate change.


“Journalists can also use scientific information to craft novel, accessible, and relevant narratives—such as the local public health implications of climate change—for nontraditional audiences across media formats, expanding their reach and impact. These institutions and professional groups share the uncontroversial goal of calling attention to climate change as a pressing problem while empowering citizens to become involved in national and local decision making. If major policy change is to be achieved, new meanings and messengers for climate change are needed. Communication can no longer remain a guessing game. Careful research needs to be funded and translated into collective action” (Nisbet, 2009).


Even if the mass media frames climate change differently and/or creates new ways of reporting it and reforming opinions of the general public, there is still a strong need for frequent reporting. Several polls have shown that the effect of national television news on public opinion disappeared in 8 weeks. The effect of news coverage of energy issues on public opinion decayed in a month, and news coverage of environmental degradation had short-term impact (60 days cca). Television coverage on climate change is not any better, here the impact did not last more than a month.


With the industrialised and developing economies relying highly on the carbon industries, the risks of climate change are becoming more severe and are going to affect every part of the world in the near future. Mass media’s duty is to actively and correctly inform general public, who gather most of their knowledge about politics and science from the mainstream media. The market model that brought deregulation in media outlets in the United States relies on increasing profits and cutting costs. Therefore, it is no surprise that news will be fast, short, entertaining, gathered in the shortest time possible in order to be more efficient. This often causes spreading of false or unchecked information, spending less time researching stories and transforming scientific jargon and facts into something accessible to general public. The U.S. media have been inconsistent and/or unsuccessful at informing the public about climate change. In order to spread awareness and information, journalists have to create new frames that will inform people of the severity of climate change. Moreover, the coverage has to be consistent, there is no place for unnecessary debates over the reality of global warming. The U.S. media should not provide a platform for deniers who are fighting facts with ideology. The United States is the largest emitter of CO2 amongst developing economies (China is making an effort to shift to renewable energy) in which climate change is being disregarded for the most part. Somewhat, this is due to conservatives pushing their anti-climate policies/legislation, lobbyists who’s interest is to stay carbon dependent, and the mainstream media, that are choosing to infrequently inform their audiences. All of the changes that are necessary to make in order to inform the public about the risks of climate change are unlikely to happen within the market model of the U.S. media.



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