According to Ereaut and Segnit (2006), climate change is one of the greatest challenges during this century. Its consequences concern the global population. It stands to reason that newspapers regularly cover it. In the United Kingdom, there is now more coverage of climate science and governance than ever before (Ereaut & Segnit, 2006, p.7). But there have always been considerable fluctuations in the coverage of climate change in the newspapers that lead to peaks and troughs. Ungar argues, that the public relies on the media for information about scientific issues (Ungar, 2010). That shows the high importance of media coverage on certain topics. This essay attempts to give some explanations why there are peaks and troughs in the coverage and tries to investigate the factors that cause this volatility.
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Critical discourse moments for climate change and development in the past decade
(Source: Doulton & Brown, 2009)
The graph above depicts the coverage of climate change and development stories in the Telegraph, the Times, the Guardian and the Independent. The peaks and troughs in the coverage coincide with some important key events. According to Doulton and Brown (2009), the majority of published articles related to climate change in 2004/05 dealt with the Copenhagen consensus. It is possible that other articles had an influence as well, but the tendency is clearly recognisable. Boykoff (2007) also states, that in the years 2005 and 2006, the two largest increases in the coverage of climate change in the United Kingdom were bred by key events. The first one was the Group of Eight (G8) meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland. The second increase was caused by the release of the film `An Inconvenient Truth´, by Al Gore, Richard Branson´s public donation to renewable energy initiatives and biofuel research and finally the Stern report. These findings show, that the media coverage is correlated with key events, which are related to climate science and governance.
Reporters, producers, editors and publishers who are enmeshed in journalistic norms can struggle to actually produce fair and accurate climate narratives (Boykoff, 2011, p.104 et seq.). Boykoff (2011, p.100) describes these journalistic norms as personalization, dramatization, novelty, authority-order bias and balanced reporting. These norms have a significant influence on the content of stories and on the publication frequency.
The first norm `personalization´ describes a tendency to downplay big social, economic or political pictures and to focus on the human trials tragedies. Micro-level issues, for instance competitions between personalities, have priority over macro-scale issues. Boykoff (2011, p.101) argues, that in the case of climate change, this extremely personalized news sometimes prevents media consumers from a more textured analysis of climate science and governance. The second norm `dramatization´ is described “as a process that accentuates crisis over continuity, the present over the past or future conflicts” (Bennett, 2002). As a result, current and spectacular issues have the priority over more enduring and chronic issues (Boykoff, 2011, p.104). Events, studies and developments that show lack of controversy and provocation are sometimes seen as not worth publishing it. This can lead to troughs in the media coverage of climate change. The third norm `novelty´ interacts with the above-mentioned norms. Journalists favour novel and fresh issues when reporting about climate science and governance and try to avoid repetition. This penchant is pervasive across-the-board, starting with the individual journalist through to the editorial staff. This norm or value can lead to peaks and troughs, depending on the novelty of the issue. Stories about environmental topics are in competition about space and airtime with football, crime, war and terrorism. To keep the topic alive, it needs a constant stream of new and interesting developments (Boykoff, 2011, p.104 et seq.). `Authority-order bias´ is the fourth journalistic norm that significantly influences the release of new stories. Journalists try to find voices and perspectives that act as authorities for climate change. A reason for this norm is the perceived need and desire to make sense of the complex and confusing topic `climate change´. Therefore journalists tend to ask people with expertise. These can be politicians, scientists, Non-governmental organisations or figureheads of the carbon-based industry (Boykoff, 2011, p.107). The fifth and last journalistic norm is `balanced reporting´ and is often used to fulfil the strive for objectivity. Balanced reporting describes the practice, when journalists try to present opposing standpoints by providing both sides equal attention. It is also used as a validity check for journalists who don´t have the scientific understanding to verify the validity of arguments when they cover complex issues in the field of climate science and governance (Boykoff, 2011, p.108).
The above explained factors explain how and why certain climate change issues appear in the news and others do not. The above-mentioned norms, along with other contributing social, political and economical factors, which will be discusses further down, have an enormous influence on what becomes a story and therefore can lead to peaks and troughs in the coverage.
These peaks and troughs in the media coverage of climate change can also be caused by editorial stances. Doulton and Brown (2009) argue, that the ideology of a newspaper plays an important role in the coverage of climate science and governance. Carvalho and Burgess (2005) examined, how these different ideologies of newspapers influenced the coverage of climate change. Newspapers translate scientific knowledge into the idiom of popular discourse and thus play a key role in public perception of climate change. Additionally, they articulate public opinion and provide a selective provision of knowledge. Thus they play an important role in policy making, particularly in science-related issues (Carvalho & Burgess, 2005, p.1457 et seq.). The complexity of environmental topics leaves scope for media sources to influence the agenda. This could start with the initial selection of the story through to the editing of the source material (Carvalho & Burgess, 2005, p.1458 et seq.). Carvalho and Burgess (2005) found that, in general, climate change issues were ideologically constructed. There exists an enormous difference in the depiction across different newspapers, due to their existing ideologies. The media is highly sensitive to shifts in political and scientific areas, as long as it is within the bounds of their ideologies (Doulton & Brown, 2009, p.200). The Times and the Daily Telegraph are good examples for conservative newspapers, representing a more neo-liberal and capitalistic stance. Hence they support for example free markets and have an aversion against political control. The Guardian and the Independent have a more social democratic ideology with beliefs in equity and solidarity. This stance leads to a coverage dominated by the crisis discourses. According to Doulton and Brown (2009) the editorial stances or ideologies of different newspaper seem to have a significant influence on the coverage, both on peaks and troughs, but it is not the only explanation. There are several other factors that have to be taken into account.
Different types of actors serve as the source for journalists and thus exert influence on the media coverage of climate change. In this essay, actors can be Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), corporations or the scientific community. Individual actors, like employees of NGOs can influence the appearance of climate change issues in the media significantly. They often write articles themselves that are published in the media or journalists quote them. Doulton and Brown (2009) point out, that scientists are occasionally used to legitimate stories, but their papers are rarely used as journalistic sources. Scientific papers are more likely to be used for NGO reports and are often rather sophisticated and deviant, compared to the current discourses in the media (Doulton & Brown, 2009, p.200).
Corporations also play a major role as key actors in influencing the coverage of climate change issues. For some corporations, for instance ExxonMobil, fossil fuel consumption is the basis of their business activities. Therefore, they provide financial support to their political allies with the aim to undermine public trust in climate science (Antilla, 2005, p.338). Climate change issues are primarily represented through the media and it is also the media, wherefrom the majority of people are informed about science. A vast number of media companies are pressured by stockholders, directors and bankers to focus on economic success (Herman & Chomsky, 1994, p.5 et seq.). Over the last years, this pressure has intensified, as current and prospective owners discovered the possibility to capitalize the increasing audience and advertising revenues. This evoked speculators and increased the pressure to focus more on profitability (Herman & Chomsky, 1994, p.6). The media is highly dependent on powerful sources of information, firstly because of an economic necessity and secondly because of a reciprocity of interest. They have a daily news demand and thus need a reliable flow of information for stories (Herman & Chomsky, 1994, p.18). These powerful sources sometimes take advantage of their exposed position and the dependency of the media on them as a source to manipulate them into following a special agenda or framework. Additionally, the process of influencing academics, for instance putting them on the payroll as consultants or funding their research, happens on a massive scale. A good example is the memo, written 1972 by Judge Lewis Powell, to the Chamber of Commerce “to buy the top academic reputations in the country to add credibility to corporate studies and give business a stronger voice on the campuses” (Herman & Chomsky, 1994, p.23).
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