Objectivity and advocacy have been contentious topics within environmental journalism since the specialism was formed in the 1960s. Objectivity is a broad term, but has been commonly interpreted to mean the reporting of news in an impartial and unbiased way by finding and verifying facts, reporting facts accurately, separating facts from values, and giving two sides of an issue equal attention to make news reports balanced. Advocacy journalism, by contrast, presents news from a distinct point of view, a perspective that often aligns with a specific political ideology. It does not separate facts from values and is less concerned with presenting reports that are conventionally balanced. Environmental reporters have found it difficult to categorize their work as either objective or advocacy journalism, because studies show that many of them are sympathetic to environmental values even as they strive to be rigorously professional in their reporting. Journalists have struggled historically to apply the notion of balance to the reporting of climate change science, because even though the overwhelming majority of the world’s experts agree that human-driven climate change is real and will have major future impacts, a minority of scientists dispute this consensus. Reporters aimed to be fair by giving both viewpoints equal attention, a practice scholars have labeled false balance.
The reporting of climate change has changed over time, especially as the topic moved from the scientific domain to encompass also the political, social, legal, and economic realms. Objectivity and advocacy remain important guiding concepts for environmental journalism today, but they have been reconfigured in the digital era that has transformed climate change news. Objectivity in climate reporting can be viewed as going beyond the need to present both sides of an issue to the application in reports of a journalist’s trained judgment, where reporters use their training and knowledge to interpret evidence on a climate-related topic. Objectivity can also be viewed as a transparent method for finding, verifying, and communicating facts. Objectivity can also be seen as the synthesis and curation of multiple points of view. In a pluralistic media ecosystem, there are now multiple forms of advocacy journalism that present climate coverage from various points of view—various forms of climate coverage with a worldview. False balance had declined dramatically over time in mainstream reportorial sources, but it remains a pitfall for reporters to avoid in coverage of two climate change topics: the presentation of the many potential future impacts or risks and the coverage of different policy responses in a climate-challenged society.
Sander van der Linden
Individuals, both within and between different countries, vary substantially in the extent to which they view climate change as a risk. What could explain such variation in climate change risk perception around the world? Climate change is relatively unique as a risk in the sense that it is difficult for people to experience directly or even detect on a purely perceptual or sensory level. In fact, research across the social and behavioral sciences has shown that although people might correctly perceive some changes in long-term climate conditions, psychological factors are often much more influential in determining how the public perceives the risk of climate change. Indeed, decades of research has shown that cognitive, affective, social, and cultural factors all greatly influence the public’s perception of risk, and that these factors, in turn, often interact with each other in complex ways. Yet, although a wide variety of cognitive, experiential, socio-cultural and demographic characteristics have all proven to be relevant, are there certain factors that systematically stand out in explaining and predicting climate change risk perception around the world? And even if so, what do we mean, exactly, by the term “risk perception” and to what extent does the way in which risk perception is measured influence the outcome? Last but certainly not least, how important is public concern about climate change in determining people’s level of behavioral engagement and policy-support for the issue?
Nelya Koteyko and Dimitrinka Atanasova
Discourse analysis is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that has been increasingly used by climate change communication scholars since the late 1990s. In its broadest sense, discourse analysis is the study of the social through analysis of language, including face-to-face talk, written media texts, and documents, as well as images and symbols. Studies in this field encompass a broad range of theories and analytic approaches for investigating meaning. Due to its focus on the sociocultural and political context in which text and talk occur, discourse analysis is pertinent to the concerns of climate change communication scholars as it has the potential to reveal the ideological dimensions of stakeholder beliefs and the dissemination of climate change-related information in the media. In contrast to studies under the rubric of frame analysis and survey-based analyses of public perceptions, this research places emphasis on the situated study of different stakeholders involved in climate change communication. Here attention is paid not only to the content being communicated (e.g., themes) but also to the linguistic forms and contexts that shape language and interaction. Both of these require an understanding of audiences’ cultural, political, and socioeconomic conditions. From the participatory perspective, discourse analysis can therefore illuminate the moral, ethical, and cultural dimensions of the climate change issue.
Kathryn E. Cooper and Erik C. Nisbet
As climate change becomes an increasingly serious problem, mass media are tasked with educating the public. Documentary films and television shows (also called “edutainment”) have been used for decades to communicate about the natural world so that the public may hopefully become informed about science in a simplified, easy-to-understand way. Although producers ostensibly create environmental documentaries in order to inform and/or advocate, theory development and empirical research is limited and insufficient in explaining how this genre influences audiences and why this genre may or may not be an effective means of science communication.
Environmental documentaries have the potential to deeply impact audiences because these films promote learning while viewers are entertained, because engagement with the documentary narrative (story) can overcome biases such as politically driven motivated reasoning (conforming new evidence to existing beliefs) and can leverage biases such as the tendency to rely on affect (emotions) when estimating risks. Documentary storytelling can also enhance learning by connecting the causes and consequences of climate change in a sequential narrative.
Climate change is a highly contentious political issue, which is reflected in the diversity of viewpoints found in climate change documentaries despite scientific consensus about the issue. While many of these films serve an educational purpose, others are geared toward advocacy. These advocacy programs aim to mobilize value-congruent audiences to engage in personal and collective action and/or to demand policy change. However, people prefer messages that align with their preexisting values, and so the belief disparity between climate change advocates and deniers grows with increasing media exposure as audiences with different beliefs watch and receive climate change messages in very different ways. Filmmakers and scientists must focus future efforts on creating visually engaging narratives within documentaries to promote both education and advocacy to diverse audiences.
Salil Benegal and Lyle Scruggs
How do economic conditions affect public opinion about climate change? Since the early days of the modern environmental movement, people have debated three main perspectives on how economic conditions impact environmental attitudes. The post-materialism perspective suggests that social and individual affluence leads to increasing concern and demands for action on climate change through long-run cultural change. A second view suggests that attitudes about climate change are shaped largely independently of economic conditions and reflect the emergence of a new environmental paradigm. A third view, associated with ecological modernization theory, suggests that attitudes about climate change are shaped in important ways by short-term economic factors, such as economic self-interest, and are likely to vary among citizens over time. While all of these perspectives have merit, we emphasize the impact of macroeconomic risk and business cycle fluctuations in shaping public attitudes toward climate change and more general aspects of environmental policy. Rising unemployment rates, for example, tend to be associated with declines in concern about environmental problems. This is a trend that is repeated across more than four decades and multiple recessions and recoveries dating back to the 1970s.
Although it is obviously a more recently recognized environmental problem, public attitudes about climate change are also affected considerably by short-run economic conditions. This fact can influence the possibilities for policy reform. Through a process of motivated reasoning, in which immediate concerns and preferences to address economic risk lead individuals to adjust other attitudes about the environment, public concerns about climate change have ebbed and flowed with the business cycle. Other economic factors—such as societal affluence, personal employment status, or income—have more limited effects on attitudes about climate change, at least in most developed countries.
The impact of economic risk on public attitudes about climate change has important implications for policy reform in democratic societies, because public support matters. While partisanship and ideology are frequently cited as explanations for fluctuating public opinion about climate change, macroeconomic risk offers a complementary explanation, which suggests that the framing and timing of environmental policy initiatives is as important as ideological acceptability. Positioning environmental actions or initiatives in better economic conditions, emphasizing immediate economic benefits, and countering unwarranted beliefs about personal costs, especially during challenging economic circumstances, should improve the prospects for efforts to address climate change.
Timothy A. Gibson
Over the past two decades, the global news industry has embarked upon a major project of economic, organizational, and technological restructuring. In organizational terms, successive waves of mergers and buyouts have yielded a global news landscape where most of the larger firms are owned by shareholders and run by executives whose singular focus is on rationalizing news production and improving profitability. Although in some cases, these shareholders and executives have used their authority to influence climate coverage directly, more often their goals are non-ideological: reducing labor costs and increasing revenues. At the same time, in a parallel development, the digital media revolution not only has spawned a host of new online competitors but also has cut deeply into the advertising revenue once enjoyed by traditional media firms.
Within legacy news organizations, these industrial and technological trends have converged to dramatically intensify the work pressures facing environmental journalists. For example, in an effort to reduce costs, many firms have reduced newsroom staff to a small core of multi-tasking reporters, supported by a wider web of part-time freelancers. In this process, the science and environment beat is often the first to go, with environmental specialists among the first to be reassigned or downsized (and pushed into freelance work). For all reporters, there is increased pressure to produce more stories in less time on multiple media platforms, a trend that, in turn, enhances the power of special interests to influence climate coverage through public relations and other external information subsidies.
Due to these converging industrial and technological trends, environmental reporters now work in a new media ecosystem that is complex, subject to contradictory pressures, and in many ways hostile to the production of high-quality climate news. When the environmental beat is cut, climate change often becomes the purview of general assignment reporters who lack experience and expertise. For their part, freelance specialists continue to cover climate news, but their ability to sustain this coverage over the long term is constrained by their part-time status. Finally, although niche climate blogs have provided welcome spaces for environmental journalists to produce in-depth coverage, these outlets usually reach only tiny audiences composed of the already-engaged.
In short, without significant action, the regrettable status quo of climate news—that is, an episodic sprinkling of climate coverage scattered across the media ecosystem—will continue indefinitely. Policy-makers should therefore restore long-term institutional and economic support for environmental journalists specializing in climate science and policy.
Ashley A. Anderson
Early research on the relationship between social media use and its relationship to climate change opinion, knowledge, and behavior suggests several positive impacts. Social media encourages greater knowledge of climate change, mobilization of climate change activists, space for discussing the issue with others, and online discussions that frame climate change as a negative for society. Social media, however, does provide space for framing climate change skeptically and activating those with a skeptical perspective of climate change. Further examination of the relationship between social media use and climate change perceptions is warranted.
For the general public, the news media are an important source of information about climate change. They have significant potential to influence public understanding and perceptions of the issue. Television news, because of its visual immediacy and authoritative presentation, is likely to be particularly influential. Numerous studies have shown that television news can affect public opinion directly and indirectly through processes such as agenda setting and framing. Moreover, even in a fragmented media environment largely dominated by online communication, television remains a prominent medium through which citizens follow news about science issues. Given this, scholars over the last several decades have endeavored to map the content of television news reporting on climate change and its effects on public opinion and knowledge. Results from this research suggest that journalists’ adherence to professional norms such as balance, novelty, dramatization, and personalization, along with economic pressures and sociopolitical influences, have produced inaccuracies and distortions in television news coverage of climate change. For example, content analyses have found that U.S. network television news stories tend to over-emphasize dramatic impacts and imagery, conflicts between political groups and personalities, and the uncertainty surrounding climate science and policy. At the same time, those skeptical of climate change have been able to exploit journalists’ norms of balance and objectivity to amplify their voices in television coverage of climate change. In particular, the increasingly opinionated 24-hour cable news networks have become a megaphone for ideological viewpoints on climate change. In the United States, a coordinated climate denial movement has used Fox News to effectively spread its message discrediting climate science. Coverage on Fox News is overwhelmingly dismissive of climate change and disparaging toward climate science and scientists. Coverage on CNN and MSNBC is more accepting of climate change; however, while MSNBC tends to vilify the conservative opposition to climate science and policy, and occasionally exaggerates the impacts of climate change, CNN sends more mixed signals. Survey and experimental analyses indicate that these trends in television news coverage of climate change have important effects on public opinion and may, in particular, fuel confusion and apathy among the general U.S. public and foster opinion extremity among strong partisans.
Maxwell Boykoff and Gesa Luedecke
During the past three decades, elite news media have become influential translators of climate change linking science, policy, and the citizenry. Historical trends in public discourse—shaped in significant part by elite media—demonstrate news media’s critical role in shaping public perception and the level of concern towards climate change. Media representations of climate change and global warming are embedded in social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions that influence individual-level processes such as everyday journalistic practices. Media have a strong influence on policy decision-making, attitudes, perspectives, intentions, and behavioral change, but those connections can be challenging to pinpoint; consequently, examinations of elite news coverage of climate change, particularly in recent decades, have sought to gain a stronger understanding of these complex and dynamic webs of interactions. In so doing, research has more effectively traced how media have taken on varied roles in the climate change debate, from watch dogs to lap dogs to guard dogs in the public sphere. Within these areas of research, psychological aspects of media influence have been relatively underemphasized. However, interdisciplinary and problem-focused research investigations of elite media coverage stand to advance considerations of public awareness, discourse, and engagement. Elite news media critically contribute to public discourse and policy priorities through their “mediating” and interpretative influences. Therefore, a review of examinations of these dynamics illuminate the bridging role of elite news coverage of climate change between formal science and policy, and everyday citizens in the public sphere.
Images are a key part of the climate change communication process. The diverse and interdisciplinary literature on how people engage with visual representations of climate change is reviewed. Images hold particular power for engaging people, as they hold three qualities that differ from other communication devices (such as words or text): they are analogical, they lack an explicit propositional syntax, and they are indexical. These qualities are explored in relation to climate change imagery. A number of visual tropes common to climate change communication (identifiable people; climate change impacts; energy, emissions and pollution; protest; scientific imagery) are examined and the evidence for each of these visual tropes in terms of how they engage particular audiences is reviewed. Two case studies, of polar bear imagery and the “hockey stick” graph image, critically examine iconic imagery associated with climate change, and how and why these types of images may (dis)engage audiences. Six best-practice guidelines for visual climate change communication are presented and three areas for further research in this nascent field are suggested.