Journalistic Depictions of Uncertainty about Climate Change
Summary and Keywords
Media research has historically concentrated on the many uncertainties in climate science either as a dominant discourse in media treatments measured by various forms of quantitative and qualitative content analysis or as the presence of skepticism, in its various manifestations, in political discourse and media coverage. More research is needed to assess the drivers of such skepticism in the media, the changing nature of skeptical discourse in some countries, and important country differences as to the prevalence of skepticism in political debate and media coverage. For example, why are challenges to mainstream climate science common in some Anglophone countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia but not in other Western nations? As the revolution in news consumption via new players and platforms causes an increasingly fragmented media landscape, there are significant gaps in understanding where, why, and how skepticism appears. In particular, we do not know enough about the ways new media players depict the uncertainties around climate science and how this may differ from previous coverage in traditional and mainstream news media. We also do not know how their emphasis on visual content affects audience understanding of climate change.
Anthropogenic climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humans on the planet. Yet even as scientists have become more certain about many features of climate change, uncertainty surrounds many other aspects of the science (Lewandowsky, Ballard, & Pancost, 2015; Trenberth, 2010). Indeed, it is helpful to distinguish carefully between what some scientists, and many lay commentators, have been uncertain or skeptical about: (1) the global warming trend (i.e., they question whether global temperatures are rising); (2) the anthropogenic contribution (i.e., they accept that temperatures are increasing but say that the anthropogenic element is negligible or non-existent) and (3) the timing, scope, or negative nature of the impacts (i.e., they accept that temperatures are increasing and humans are largely responsible but argue that not enough is known about the impacts). These types of commentators have been described, respectively, as “trend skeptics,” “attribution skeptics,” and “impact skeptics” (Rahmstorf, 2004).
Although there is overwhelming scientific consensus about the warming trend and the responsibility of humans for it, significant uncertainty surrounds the pace of the likely temperature increases in the rest of this century and the possible impacts they might cause, particularly at the regional or local level. Accurate projections of global mean temperature rises made by computer modeling are likely to remain impaired by intrinsic uncertainties, even though it may be possible in the future to reduce these uncertainties significantly (Shiogama et al., 2016). Moreover, even among the majority of scientists and politicians who agree on the need to take action to combat climate change, there is considerable disagreement and uncertainty over the most effective course of action and the possible benefits or downsides of different policy options.
The scientific and policy uncertainties may help to explain apparent paradoxes surrounding public understanding and attitudes toward climate change. For example, even though in recent years scientists are in greater agreement about the reality of warming temperatures and its human drivers, public concern has been dropping in many developed and some developing countries from the late 2000s (Painter, 2014). The percentage of the public who viewed climate change as an uncertain phenomenon or with declining concern increased in several countries (the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand) between 2007 and 2012 (Patt & Weber, 2014). In the United Kingdom, the percentage of the population who doubt that the world’s climate is changing increased from 4% in 2005 to 15% in 2010 to 19% in 2013 (Poortinga, Pidgeon, Capstick, & Aoyagi, 2014). Another apparent paradox is that even as more scientists are in general agreement about the science, the public view in the United States and many other countries remained persistent that significant numbers of scientists are in disagreement (Van der Linden, Leiserowitz, Feinberg, & Maibach, 2014).
Most people in most parts of the world get their information about climate change from the media. But business models for traditional print-based media have come under severe threat from the collapse in advertising revenue and from the impact of two waves of digital disruption caused by the rise of online and social media. This has given birth to important new “digital-born” players such as Huffington Post, which has a significant presence in several languages and countries, and BuzzFeed and Vice, which are already challenging traditional media organizations in English for younger age groups (Newman, Levy, & Nielsen, 2015).
There are important country variations in how pronounced these trends are, due to technological differences, national specificities, and cultural variations. But in general there is a quickening pace toward the use of social media platforms, a surge in the use of smartphones for news, and a significant growth in video news consumption online. Despite this revolution in most media landscapes, traditional media remain important conduits for imparting information about climate change. Surveys in several countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, show that television in particular, but also online sites and newspapers, are their most important sources on the topic (Schäfer, 2015).
Despite the centrality of television for information about climate change, and despite the growth of new players and changing patterns of consumption, research has centered heavily on traditional print outlets. Later in this article, we include some findings on the coverage of climate change by newer media organizations to help fill the gap. Also, most scholarship centers on what is the second stage of the communication cycle, namely the content journalists produce, rather than the first stage (the way it is produced including the use of journalistic sources) or the third stage (consumption of the content by audiences). Survey data taken from online consumers show important differences between the levels of public interest in environment news in various countries and political, age, and education differences between those who are interested in it (Fletcher, 2016). However, this article focuses on the more traditional area of what we know about the content media organizations provide.
Starting in the late 1980s, climate skeptics of different types have enjoyed considerable success in getting their voices heard in many parts of the traditional media in some, mostly “Anglosphere” countries (although not in many other parts of the world). They have loudly challenged the view of mainstream climate scientists and environmental policy advocates and argued that parts, or all, of the scientific exposition and political interpretation of climate change are uncertain or unreliable. Some scholars argue that organized skeptic groups, or individuals, especially in the United States, often for ideological reasons, have taken advantage of the uncertainties in the science and amplified them via the media in order to “sow the seeds of doubt” (Oreskes & Conway, 2010). Ross Gelbspan (1998) has made the case that such manufacture of doubt was part of a deliberate, well-financed tactic by fossil fuel companies supported by conservative politicians. These authors maintain that such campaigns and tactics have had a major impact on making policymakers and the public less willing to take action.
This last claim is difficult to substantiate. The relationship between media content and media effects on policymakers and the public is not straightforward or linear. Pinpointing the specific role played by the promotion of uncertainty in the media is even more complex. Some research with focus groups in the United Kingdom and the United States has suggested that scientific uncertainty, when prominent in the media and not contextualized, can be an obstacle to all or some of the types of public reaction to information about climate change, namely understanding, engagement or action (Glasgow University Media Group, 2012; Moser & Dilling, 2004; Shuckburgh, Robison, & Pidgeon, 2012). Partly this is because the language of scientific uncertainty is underpinned by concepts which are important but often difficult for the lay audience. For example, scientists make distinctions between “epistemic” uncertainties that are not known in practice, such as the precise details of the impact of a 3-degree temperature increase on coastal sea level rise around New York, but could in principle be known or reduced by more powerful computer modeling, and “aleatory” uncertainties that can never be known or will not go a way, such as unavoidable unpredictability or chance, as for example in the throwing of dice (Painter, 2013, p. 12).
More importantly, the non-scientist often expects the scientist to know things, equating science with certainty. In particular, the uncertainty intrinsic to scientific research is often equated in the public mind to ignorance. Pollack (2003) has argued that the public can react adversely when scientists do not show enough certainty in their understanding of complex natural systems, and can even come to believe that if scientists do not know everything about an issue, then they do not know anything about it at all. Moreover, research has shown that individuals who are uncertain or skeptical about one aspect of climate change are likely to be more uncertain on other aspects, a process called “uncertainty transfer” (Spence, Poortinga, & Pidgeon, 2012).
However, in general, a considerable amount of research, mostly done by environmental and social psychologists, suggests that a considerable gap exists between the public’s possession of knowledge or awareness about the environment or climate change and their displaying behavior in favor of the environment. This is known as the value-action gap (Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002). In other words, the uncertainty of the science may be a minor obstacle to politicians or the general public taking action when compared to the huge array of other external factors (such as the economic, social and cultural context) and internal factors (such as an individual’s knowledge, values, emotions, and priorities). In particular, a large body of research shows the crucial role that people’s values play in shaping individuals’ attitudes to climate change and their engagement with it (Corner, Markowitz, & Pidgeon, 2014).
Whatever the truth about the impact on the public of uncertainty messaging in the media, such is the enormity of the challenge of communicating uncertainty that several scholars and organizations have published guidelines both to clarify important areas of uncertainty in policy debates (Otto, Frame, Otto, & Allen, 2015) and to suggest best practice (CRED, COIN). The communication of the uncertainties in the climate system has become a major challenge for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Its attempts to capture the uncertainties by using different ranges for certainty and confidence levels has been severely criticized (Budescu, Broomell, & Por, 2009; Budescu, Por, Broomell, & Smithson, 2014). In the IPCC’s 28-page Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) for its 2013 Working Group 1 (WG1) report, the word “uncertain” or its derivatives appeared 32 times. In total, the words appeared on average 1.5 times per printed page of the full WG1 report (Lewandowsky et al., 2015). It comes as no surprise that the IPCC has published several iterations of its guidelines for authors on communicating uncertainty by attempting to quantify uncertainty and probability levels.
Scientific Uncertainty in the Media
Within the vast corpus of academic literature on climate change and the media, there are two discrete but linked bodies of scholarship relevant to the specific issue of journalistic representations of uncertainty about climate change. The first of these focuses on “uncertainty” as a dominant frame or discourse in media treatments measured by various forms of quantitative or qualitative content analysis (Painter, 2015c). The second is centered on the presence of the various forms of climate skepticism, in traditional media such as newspapers and television, and increasingly in online media such as blogs or niche sites. One of the key points, which is not often stressed enough, is that there are a wide range of indicators of uncertainty, linked to the very nature of climate science research, other than the presence of “contested science” through the voices of skeptics.
The first body of work has concentrated specifically on some of these indicators of uncertainty in print articles. Different indicators and definitions of uncertainty frames or uncertainty discourses have been applied, and different research methods have been used to track and evaluate them. These have ranged from quantitative assessments via content analysis of the relative presence of recurring frames, indicators, or themes to more qualitative approaches such as Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) or corpus linguistics. In his study of a selection of the U.S. print media from 1986 to 1995, Zehr (2000) found that uncertainty was salient in coverage in several different forms, including scientific controversy, new research topics, and “expansion of the problem domain” (where more research problems were included in articles) as well as more obvious representations such as uncertainty parameters.
Corbett and Durfee (2004) drew on this work to point out that science is portrayed as uncertain in the media without ever mentioning the word “uncertain.” They observed that competing scientific views can be included in articles for the sake of more dramatization without the journalist giving a sense or context of where the evidence points. Antilla (2005) was another scholar to look at uncertainty portrayals in U.S. newspapers (2003–2004). She mainly looked at “controversial science” where skeptics were mentioned, but she also examined other scientific uncertainties such as ambiguous cause or effects, climate forecasts, or the risk of species extinction.
Later studies have included the uncertainty frame implicitly or explicitly in the analysis of the relative presence of different frames or discourses. In an influential analysis of U.K. media treatments of climate change, Ereaut and Segnit (2006) carried out discourse analysis of a wide variety of print, broadcast, and online sources. The main “linguistic repertoire” they identified was called “alarmism,” which was universal across the ideological divide and employed “a quasi-religious register of death and doom, and … language of acceleration and irreversibility” (2006, p. 7). However, they argue that such is the noise and messiness of the language around climate change in the media that for the lay public the “meta-message” is that “nobody really knows.” In the United States, Nisbet (2009) has drawn up a typology of eight common frames applicable to climate change, which includes “scientific and technical uncertainty.” He mentions how in the 1990s a Republican consultant, Frank Lutz, promoted the framing of climate change in this way, as he recommended to lobbyists that the issue should be essentially presented as “scientifically uncertain.”
Scholars such as Olausson used CDA to conclude that three Swedish quality newspapers in 2004–2005 were reluctant “to display any kind of scientific uncertainty which would undermine the demand for collective action” (2009, p. 421). Bailey, Giangola, and Boykoff, (2014) also followed a heavily linguistic approach to examining the text of the U.S. and Spanish print media between 2001 and 2007 and concluded that uncertainty language was more present in the former. They applied “epistemic markers” such as inherent uncertainty (predictions or estimates), modal verbs (“could” or “may”), and “descriptors” (“probable” or “likely”), which again point to the variety of ways journalists (and scientists) can express uncertainty when they present information about climate change.
Painter (2013) used an essentially quantitative research method to assess, among other things, the presence of the uncertainty frame in print coverage of climate change in six countries, focusing on the 2007 IPCC reports known as AR4 (the Fourth Assessment Report), the 2012 IPCC report on extreme weather, and the melting of the Arctic sea ice. In all, 350 articles were examined from 18 newspapers in six different countries (Australia, France, India, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States) with a combined readership of around 15 million. The assessment of the presence of uncertainty included modal verbs (“may,” “might” or “could”), representations of uncertainty such as dueling experts, new research raising more uncertainty, and ranges of results including uncertainty parameters, likelihood indicators, and confidence levels. For example, dueling experts were present in 32% of all the articles about AR4, and skeptics in 29%.
His study concluded that the uncertainty frame was very common across all six countries, appearing in around 80% of all the articles, and coming second only to the “disaster” frame as the most common of those frames included for analysis. What was particularly significant was that nearly half of all the articles included a quote from a scientist or scientific report that indicated some manifestation of uncertainty.
It is interesting to note that the picture seemed to have changed by the time of the release of the next set of IPCC reports in 2013/14 (known as AR5). The uncertainty frame was present in a considerably lower percentage of the 2013/4 print coverage (between 31% and 68% depending on the country) than in the print articles examined in the study of the 2007 IPCC reports, where the figure was 87% (Painter, 2013, p. 68). The methodology used in the analysis of the 2013–14 IPCC reports was slightly different to that used in the study of the 2007 IPCC reports, and the countries chosen were also distinct. But the lower incidence was significant, and an important explanatory factor for it was that the “increasing certainty” narrative about the human drivers of increased global temperatures since the 1950s (also described as the “settled science” frame in O’Neill, Kurz, Williams, Boykoff, & Wiersma, 2015) received a considerable amount of media attention and went some way to provide a strong counternarrative to all the remaining uncertainties.
Of particular relevance to measuring the presence of the “uncertainty” frame in the 2013/14 IPCC reports was the presence or absence of discussion about the climate “pause,” which refers to the apparent lack of a significant rise in global average temperatures from 1998 to 2013. Some commentators accused skeptic groups of promoting a narrative about the “pause” as part of an organized campaign to undermine the case for action (Ward, 2014). An examination of the coverage of the 2013/14 IPCC reports in a selection of news bulletins on popular television channels in Germany, Norway, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom shows that the BBC in the United Kingdom was the only channel of those studied to mention the climate “pause” (Painter, 2015b).
The “exceptionalism” of the United Kingdom’s media’s treatments of climate change compared to other European countries has been supported by other studies. Research on the media in Sweden (Olausson, 2009), France (Brossard, Shanahan, & McComas, 2004), Germany (Engels, Hüther, Schäfer, & Held, 2013), and Holland (Dirikx & Gelders, 2009) strongly suggests that the media in these countries exhibit less uncertainty about climate science than in the United Kingdom. Indeed, in many respects the United Kingdom is more like the United States and Australia in the representations of uncertainty in the media, and particularly in the willingness of parts of the country’s mostly right-leaning media to give ample space to the wide range of skeptical voices.
Climate Skeptics and Skepticism
The presence of skeptical scientists or commentators in the media is one strong indicator of scientific uncertainty. The U.S. academic Max Boykoff was the first to ascribe their presence to the journalistic norm of balance, or what he critiqued by using the oxymoronic phrase “balance as bias” (Boykoff, 2007; Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004; Boykoff & Mansfield, 2008). In other words, he argued that journalists are driven by what he called the “second-order norm” of balance to include or overemphasize the presence of voices doubting the mainstream consensus on anthropogenic global warming. In his first study of U.S. newspapers from 1988 to 2002 (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004), he concluded that more than half the articles gave equal space to the view that global warming was due to humans or natural. Primarily focused on the United States and the United Kingdom, Boykoff’s later work has shown that the timing, nature, and volume of skeptic presence in the media vary but persist.
Nisbet (2011) replicated the Boykoff studies for the period 2010–11 and found that with the exception of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) opinion pages, the WSJ (news coverage), Washington Post, New York Times (NYT), and CNN.com all strongly reflected the scientific consensus that climate is happening and human caused. Later research focusing on U.S. print media in 2012–2013 (Schmid-Petri, Adam, Schmucki, & Häussler, 2015) also suggested that at least in this period, the newspapers and magazines examined presented the science in ways more representative of the mainstream consensus, the nature of climate skepticism in the media has changed, and that “false balance” was not a main driver of the coverage. The ebb and flow of skepticism is difficult to map accurately across time and across different media, even in one country. Part of the challenge is to identify what is meant by skepticism, or whether other descriptions such as “denialism” or “contrarianism” are more appropriate (O’Neill & Boykoff, 2010). Indeed, scholars and journalists have agonized at length over the connotations and implications of the different nomenclature. In 2015 one of the world’s leading news agencies, Associated Press, recommended in its style guide that their journalists should avoid the words “skeptics” or “deniers” in favor of “climate change doubters.” This prompted extensive commentary from other journalists. Moreover, skeptics can vary not just according to what aspect of science or policy they are skeptical about, but also by the presence or absence of links to lobby groups or conservative think tanks, their funding (or lack of it) from fossil fuel interests, their level of scientific repute, and even their favored media platform.
Several studies have taken as their point of departure the taxonomy of skepticism first put forward by a climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf (2004), which has been applied as a framework both for studies of media treatments of skepticism (Painter & Ashe, 2012; Painter & Gavin, 2016; Schmid-Petri et al., 2015) and of skepticism in public attitudes (Engels et al., 2013; Poortinga, Spence, Whitmarsh, Capstick, & Pidgeon, 2011,). As mentioned above, Rahmstorf’s taxonomy is based on the tripartite distinction between “trend skeptics,” “attribution skeptics,” and “impact skeptics.”
This taxonomy has been criticized for concentrating too much on “epistemic” skepticism, which relates to the science of climate change, to the exclusion of other types of skepticism such as “response” skepticism, which relates to the efficacy of taking action to address climate change (Capstick & Pidgeon, 2014; Patt & Weber, 2014), “IPCC skepticism,” which questions the scientific consensus embodied in the work of the IPCC (Engels et al., 2013), and “policy skepticism,” which questions the need for action because of all the uncertainties about the science (Painter, 2013). Howarth and Sharman (2015) argue that the very terminology of skepticism contributes to framing the climate change debate as antagonistic and combative. Such labels, they say, “are serving to isolate, exclude, ignore, and dismiss claims-makers of all types from constructive dialogue” (2014, p. 239).
Others have stressed that different skeptic arguments are strongly interrelated and not clear cut (Poortinga et al., 2011). Indeed, some scholars point to the “slipperiness” of the concept, suggesting that the types of skeptic arguments cross over with a high level of fluidity and that climate change “simply looks and feels like the kind of issue to which [skeptics] ought to be opposed.” Geographers and psychologists have also suggested that the taxonomy put forward by a climate scientist does not capture the full range of responses in the public mind that can range from “emphatic negation” to “noncommittal consent” (Hobson & Niemeyer, 2013), or from denialism (if something cannot be proved beyond doubt then it cannot be true), through negation (saying what is, isn’t), to disavowal (seeing reality, but minimizing its significance and emotional impact) (Weintrobe, 2013).
Despite these important caveats, the Rahmstorf taxonomy of three discrete types of skepticism is helpful for several reasons, not least because journalists often conflate the different manifestations of skepticism. His taxonomy is a useful tool for achieving a greater understanding of the different types of skepticism present in the media, the possible ideological underpinning of certain manifestations of skepticism, and the changing nature of dominant skeptical arguments over time. On the first point, the taxonomy can help to give a more nuanced appreciation of what type of climate skepticism can be found in which part of a newspaper (particularly news versus opinion or editorial pages).
For example, a study of the coverage of climate change by all 10 major U.K. newspapers over 3 distinct periods from 2007 to 2011 (Painter & Gavin, 2016) has shown that there is a strong correspondence between right-wing newspapers and their willingness to quote or use uncontested skeptical voices in opinion pieces and editorials. The numbers of such voices are high in the right-leaning Express, Telegraph, and Sun, but much lower in the left-leaning Independent, Guardian, and Mirror. Over the 4-year period, the Telegraph published 51 opinion pieces or editorials with skeptics in them, and the Express 43. In contrast, the Guardian ran 20 and the Independent 19. The tabloid right-wing Sun published 19 compared to the 7 of left-wing tabloid Mirror.
The Rahmstorf taxonomy also provided the conceptual underpinning of a study of the differences between six countries (Brazil, China, France, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States) as to the presence of skepticism in their print media between 2007 and 2010 (Painter & Ashe, 2012). The main conclusion from the examination of more than 3,000 articles was that the news coverage of skepticism was mostly limited to the media in the United States and the United Kingdom. But the research also showed that trend skeptics and policy skeptics were almost exclusively found in the same two countries. The same research showed that in the United States, much of the uncontested skepticism can be found in the right-leaning media’s opinion or editorial pieces. There was a major difference in tone and content between the liberal or left-leaning NYT and the right-leaning WSJ. In the NYT’s editorials and opinion pieces, the content was virtually always dismissive of climate skeptic arguments, whereas in the WSJ, it was virtually all supportive (Painter & Ashe, 2012). Elsasser and Dunlap (2013) have found that in the United States op-eds about climate change are often written by syndicated conservative columnists, who are largely political commentators.
Other comparative studies have endorsed the view that “Anglosphere” countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States exhibit much more skeptical views than other industrialized countries or developing countries. For example, a study comparing Finland to the United States and New Zealand (Dispensa & Brulle, 2003) concluded that there was much larger presence of articles expressing uncertainty about the science in the United States and argued that the main explanation for this was the presence of the fossil fuel industry there. The above-mentioned study of three Anglosphere countries and three others (Painter, 2013), showed that Australia had the highest percentage of articles with skeptics in them (33%), followed by United States (24%) and the United Kingdom (20%). France had the same percentage as the United Kingdom, but Norway (9%) and India (2%) had far less. Indeed, the virtual absence of skepticism in the Indian media has been highlighted by other studies (Billett, 2010; Painter, 2011).
Research has produced different results about the presence of skeptics in the French media. At times high-profile skeptics have appeared in the media such as in the 2000s when Claude Allègre, a skeptic and government minister under Lionel Jospin with a background in science, was a regular media pundit. A French television weather presenter, Philippe Verdier, was taken off air in 2015 apparently for publishing a book criticizing the IPCC for data manipulation and inaccurate climate models. Grundmann and Scott (2014) used corpus linguistics to analyze a huge sample of print media coverage in France and three other developed countries (Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States) from 2000 to 2010. They concluded that all four countries showed a dominance of what they called “advocates” (meaning followers of mainstream consensus) over “skeptics,” but found that skeptics are much more visible in the United States and France compared to Germany and the United Kingdom. The finding of a strong presence of skeptics in France compared to the United Kingdom is different from other studies (Painter, 2011). This may be due in part to the methodology used as Grundmann and Scott searched for named individual skeptics rather than generic mentions of skeptics, or to the period they chose to examine which included the frequent television appearances of Claude Allègre but excluded most of the period (after 2009) when the main U.K. skeptic organization, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), increased its media presence.
There is less uncertainty about other countries. China, now the world’s largest polluter measured in absolute terms, has few skeptics among either the Communist Party leadership or leading scientists, and journalists strongly follow the prompts from the former (Painter, 2011). In Japan, too, there is hardly any skepticism either in the right-leaning or left-leaning newspapers (Painter, 2016). In Brazil, a country that, like Japan, covers extensively the topic of climate change, both left- and right-wing newspapers barely include skeptics, or when they do, it is usually in reference to the United States (Painter, 2014). In Western European countries like Germany, Spain, and Norway, there is little skepticism in the media despite a politically pluralist press (Engels et al., 2013; Painter, 2014, 2016). There have been few studies about Eastern Europe, but in Poland there is some evidence that the presence of skepticism perhaps linked to its coal-dependent economy is strong among the population but not in the mainstream media (Kundzewicz & Matczak, 2012; Painter, 2015b).
We now have a reasonably detailed picture of the geographic location of where skeptics and skepticism are common in the media of some countries but absent from the media of others. It is less clear which are the main drivers to explain their presence or absence. For example, the work by Max Boykoff clearly established the journalist practice of balance, false or otherwise, as one of the main explanations for the presence of skepticism in the United Kingdom and the United States. But a wide range of journalists in other countries also follows editorial principles of balance and yet do not give such space to skeptics.
We do not know enough about the balance between, on the one hand, the wide range of variables internal to media organizations such as journalistic norms like balance, editorial culture (opinion versus objectivity in reporting), the influence of proprietors, ideology (left-leaning or right-leaning), and media type (television, print, online, social) and, on the other hand, those factors within wider society having an impact on media coverage such as the presence of organized skepticism through lobbying groups or think tanks, the influence of fossil fuel companies, the presence of skeptical politicians, readers, or scientists, and country-specific cultural or political values. The details of how any of these latter set of drivers feed into media coverage are difficult to pin down.
We probably know the most about the United States. Many aspects of organized skepticism have been extensively examined there, including their impact on legislation and specifically the Kyoto Protocol (McCright & Dunlap, 2003), their links to right-wing lobby groups and think tanks (McCright & Dunlap, 2000; Oreskes & Conway, 2010), and their forms of organization and tactics (Jaques, Dunlap, & Freeman, 2008). Indeed, a strong case can be made that climate skepticism is more deeply interwoven into the fabric of U.S. politics, ideology, and culture than in other countries (Painter, 2011). Climate skepticism is the latest example of a long line of scientific issues (such as passive smoking, ozone depletion, and acid rain) loudly contested by small groups of outlier scientists in the United States, at times driven by political ideology (Nisbet, Brossard, & Kroepsch, 2003); second, some of the most active and combative skepticism is found in the United States blogosphere; and third, the U.S. political system includes a pervasive lobbying culture and less regulated funding of individual members of both houses of Congress, which is not as present in other Western democracies.
The funding of lobby groups and think tanks in part by fossil fuel companies is a major driver of skepticism in U.S. society and probably not replicated to the same extent in other countries. For example, an investigation published in 2015 by Inside Climate News documented how one oil company, Exxon, had for years sowed doubt about climate change by stressing the uncertainty about aspects of the science. However, the processes by which such companies, lobby groups, and think tanks affect the production or prepublication stages of news and information need further research. It may be that such groups are expert in hounding journalists and editors to publish their skeptical views, but it is unlikely to be the only factor involved.
It is also important to identify peculiarities in the nature of the U.S. media which may help to explain the strong presence of skeptics there. Journalism in the United States probably has a more adversarial than consensual nature compared to many countries in Europe and as a result features greater amounts of disagreement emphasizing claims about uncertainty and works against political/policy closure rather than seeking it. (Hallin & Mancini, 2004) There is also a tendency for the U.S. news media to favor a conflict frame or narrative in the coverage of almost all policy debates, which are treated as if there were elections, focusing on who is ahead and behind and how positions or strategies will play politically (Nisbet et al., 2003).
Moving away from the United States, it is clear that the presence of fossil fuel companies funding organized skeptical groups is not a necessary condition for the presence of skepticism in the media. In the United Kingdom, for example, where the presence of skepticism is often as high as in the United States both in the media and among the public, no evidence has so far emerged of major U.K.-based or U.K.-linked oil and gas companies funding lobby groups to promote uncertainty in the media. Although the United Kingdom’s leading skeptic group, the GWPF, does not disclose its funders, it is thought to be funded by wealthy individuals. Indeed, oil and gas companies with strong links to the United Kingdom such as BP and Shell, at least in public, often declare themselves in favor of combatting climate change and advocate specific policies to do so. For example, in June 2015, six of Europe’s top oil and gas companies including BP and Shell came out publicly in favor of carbon pricing. This was followed in October by a statement by the same six joined by four others offering their qualified support for a new global treaty on climate change at the December Paris summit later that year. Missing from both initiatives were endorsements from Exxon and Chevron. More research is needed into why some oil and gas companies choose to fund lobby groups who influence the media and promote uncertainty while others do not.
Political Polarization and Skepticism in the Media
Extensive research in the United States clearly points to the increasing political polarization of climate change among the public in recent years (Dunlap & McCright, 2011) and to political orientation having the most significant effect in shaping public attitudes to the seriousness of climate change (Marquart-Pyatt, McCright, Dietz, & Dunlap, 2014). More Republicans question the science and dismiss the urgency of the problem, while an increasing majority of Democrats accept the science and express concern. Some research suggests this polarization increased significantly in the late 1990s after a barrage of media coverage stimulated by a campaign led by the Clinton administration to build political support for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (Krosnick, Holbrook, & Visser, 2000). However, quantifying the precise effect of media coverage on public attitudes is a highly contested one. There is some evidence, for example, that media coverage was not as significant as other factors (such as elite cues) in shifting public concern about climate change in the United States in the 2000s (Brulle, Carmichael, & Jenkins, 2012). It is also not clear whether media coverage over time has become more polarized along ideological lines, either in the United States or in other countries.
It is significant that in countries where the different forms of skepticism are strongest in the public mind, such as in Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, there is also a strong presence of skeptical commentariat and voices in the right-leaning media. It has been shown in the United States that audiences with a low belief in mainstream science or the need to take action use conservative media outlets that reinforce that view and that those with a higher belief use left-leaning media (Feldman, Myers, Hmielowski, & Leiserowitz, 2014). Which way the causality flows is more difficult to establish, and the most likely relationship is that it flows both ways. Expressed simply, readers or consumers may turn to such media outlets to have their pre-existing values or biases confirmed, and their biases may be influenced by their trusted media sources.
Several studies suggest ideological differences between media organizations are a significant driver of different treatments of the climate change story, including that of uncertainty (Carvalho & Burgess, 2005; Dirikx & Gelders, 2010; Painter & Ashe, 2012). We have seen that there is a strong correlation between the presence or absence of uncontested skeptical opinion on editorial pages and the political leanings of media outlets (Painter & Gavin, 2016). Other studies suggest that it can affect news reporting too. For example, research by Feldman, Hart, and Milosevic (2015) of the news coverage of climate change in the Wall Street Journal and three other mainstream newspapers from 2006 to 2011 found that the WSJ was less likely than the other newspapers to discuss the threats or impacts of climate change and more likely to frame climate action as ineffective or even harmful.
An examination of climate coverage in the news pages of four U.K. newspapers in a 3-month period in 2009–2010 shows sharp differences between the left-leaning Guardian and Mirror, on the one hand, and the right-leaning Mail and Telegraph, on the other (Painter, 2015c). The two left-leaning papers emerge as strongly supportive of mainstream science and the behavior of climate scientists in their news articles, whereas the right-leaning Mail is strongly dismissive of them. The Telegraph comes in between. Dirikx and Gelders (2010) have also examined the link between ideological leanings and journalistic treatments. In their study of the Dutch and French press, they focused on treatments of scientific uncertainty, the tone of an article (“dramatisation”) and mitigation policies. They found that in the Netherlands newspaper ideology was not related to climate change coverage, but in France it was related to the tone of the coverage and the presentation of the necessity of taking action. The difference, they said, was in part due to the highly competitive media landscape in the United Kingdom and France, but not in the Netherlands, and that ideologies are used as a form of “product differentiation” in the two countries.
In the United States, Nisbet (2009) has shown how sources trusted by Republicans and Democrats have presented or framed the nature and implications of climate change in very different ways. Conservative think tanks, political leaders, and commentators, found particularly on such right-wing outlets as Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and radio talk shows such as Rush Limbaugh’s, downplay the urgency of climate change, question its human drivers, and argue that any action to curb it will lead to dire economic consequences. However, one study of U.S. print media in 2012–13 (Schmid-Petri et al., 2015) found little difference in the volume of articles containing skepticism between conservative and liberal media in the period examined. This finding needs to be updated over a longer period and with a wider range of non-print media.
Most of the studies mentioned above point to the different ways ideology can affect the nature and content of coverage: the presence of skeptical voices in news, editorials, or comment pieces; the amount of space given to them; the presence or absence of countervailing mainstream voices; the presence of different types of skeptical arguments about the science (trend, attribution, or impact); the questioning of the behavior of scientists or the IPCC; and the (questioning of the) need to take action or, if so, what policy solutions are the most appropriate.
Free market ideology combined with competitive media markets may go some way to explain why right-leaning media organizations treat climate uncertainties in such marked contrast to left-leaning ones. Carvalho and Burgess (2005) were among the first scholars to point out that right-wing parties and newspapers often see mitigation policies as a threat to consumerism, the hegemony of the market, or individual liberties and consequently downplay or disparage them, whereas left-leaning ones often favor non-market, interventionist, and international approaches. However, it is still not clear why an ideological antipathy to state-led solutions to climate change should lead to questioning the science as well as mitigation or adaptation strategies.
The Changing Nature of Skepticism
The distinction between skepticism about climate science and skepticism about policy options remains an important one, but not enough longitudinal, up-to-date data from a wide range of media in different countries are available to establish if skeptical discourse may be changing to become more policy-orientated than science-focused. Some commentators have suggested such a change in the dominant skeptic discourses, but research from the United States suggests that there is no evidence that questioning of the science has been replaced by questioning of climate policy among skeptical groups. One study (Boussalis & Coan, 2016) analyzed 16,000 documents published online between 1998 and 2013 by mainly U.S. groups like the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute and concluded that such think tanks were focusing less on policy issues and more on science denial. One of the authors argued separately that although it is understandable to think the trend may have softened since 2013 due to warming temperatures and others factors, there was evidence from climate blogs through 2015 that the increase in science-related skepticism had continued and that there was an overlap in blog discourse to that put out by conservative think tanks (Readfearn, 2016).
However, as the authors acknowledged, one crucial question remains unanswered—how and to what extent the information produced by the conservative think tanks has been spread through traditional media, social media, and conservative political elites. They quote the research by Schmid-Petri et al. (2015) suggesting that in the period 2012–13 the U.S. print media was moving toward impact and policy skepticism and presented the science in ways more representative of the mainstream consensus. Boussalis and Coan (2016) correctly point out that as the media landscape in the United States is increasingly fragmented, we do not know if this is also true for television media, conservative talk radio, and social media (including the blogosphere).
Research shows that an echo chamber effect or confirmation bias is prevalent in the use of social media for the spreading of scientific (mis)information (Del Vicario et al., 2016). More research would be helpful in examining the relationship between new media and legacy media in the transferal of climate change information between the two, and the effect this may have in reinforcing climate skepticism among their audiences.
Risk and Uncertainty
The pervasiveness of uncertainty language and the prominence of skeptics in public discourse, including in the media, has prompted some prominent commentators to ask whether framing climate change as one of risk (particularly for policymakers or decision-makers) is more helpful than framing it as uncertainty for promoting policy action and elite engagement (Painter, 2013, pp. 1–5).The former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and Lord Nick Stern, author of the seminal 2006 Stern Report, both regularly portray climate change as a problem of risk management. Risk can mean the general possibility of an adverse impact occurring in the future, although most specialists in risk, like economists or actuaries, use it in a narrow sense of involving a numerical probability. Government officials and policymakers regularly make decisions on the basis of risk assessments. Risk language may also be appropriate for those members of the general public used to the language of betting, taking out an insurance or pension policy, or assessing health risks before deciding on an operation.
Many other sectors including the military, health workers, and particularly businesses, such as insurance and investment companies, are used to the concept of risk. Business sectors have been the target audience for a series of reports from the “Risky Business” initiative based in the United States, which has used a risk-management perspective to lay out the economic threats to agriculture, energy, and coastal real estate. Such a perspective involves an assessment of the potential adverse impacts to different sectors presented by unabated climate change and the opportunities to reduce them. This is followed by what the authors call risk management, by which they mean taking action to move to a different investment or policy path, and thus avoiding many of the worst impacts, including extreme heat. The authors argue that it is possible to manage climate risk in the same way that businesses and governments manage risk in many other areas of the economy and national security.
According to a study in the Columbia Journalism Review, the first of the Risky Business reports helped to change the way the climate change story was being reported in the U.S. media. By framing climate change as a specific risk to key sectors of the economy (rather than just an environmental problem), the report received ample coverage in the business pages, often written by business reporters, in contrast to the way climate change has historically been assigned to the “ghetto” of the environment and science beat or covered as a just another policy fight by political reporters.
The concept of “risk management” applied to climate change was strongly promoted by the IPCC in the communication of its AR5 WGII report on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. For example, a simple word count of the WGII’s 34-page Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) shows that “risk” appeared more than 230 times. The SPM contained a risk chart and a long list of possible policy solutions to manage the risks of, for example, sea level rise, such as sea walls and coastal protection. A co-chair of WGII, Professor Chris Field, explicitly used a risk framing when referring to impacts and solutions and explained why such framing was helpful (Painter, 2015a).
However, journalists in print and broadcast mainstream media rarely seem to pick up on risk concepts, even if these are given to them in press releases. One exception is the Financial Times, where the columnist Martin Wolf regularly frames climate change as one of risk. Research shows that the risk frame is one of the least present in describing the climate change challenge (Painter, 2013, 2014, 2015b). For example, the above-mentioned study of 350 articles in 18 newspapers covering IPCC reports and the Arctic sea ice melt showed that risk language or concepts were present in only 26% of the articles, compared to 82% for the disaster theme and 79% for uncertainty (Painter, 2013).
The IPCC concepts of quantifying uncertainties through likelihood and probability ranges are also not favored by journalists, or, if they are, they are rarely explained. It may be that journalists and editors are worried about their audiences’ lack of familiarity with such concepts or their lack of numerical literacy. But more research is needed into why journalists are reluctant to use risk language at the production phase, and whether such risk language in public discourses helps to overcome the elite and public difficulties with scientific or policy uncertainty.
New Players Covering Climate Change
Missing from the above discussion of media representations of uncertainty is whether and how new players, who rely on online and social media platforms, give space to skeptics or other expert voices. The Reuters Institute’s annual Digital News Reports (DNRs) map the rapidly changing trends in the way the public in several countries, and particularly those under 35 years old, consume news. Although the audiences sampled are restricted to online users, a clear picture emerges of the impact of two waves of digital disruption caused by the rise of the Internet and social media, which have given birth to significant new “digital-born” players based on social and mobile news approaches.
The smartphone has risen rapidly in most countries as the defining device for digital news with a disruptive impact on consumption, formats, and business models. Video content is also rapidly on the rise, as is the role of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook in finding, discussing, and sharing news. Print-based information is in fast decline (only between 6% and 12% of those surveyed in the 2015 DNR used it as their main source of news), but broadcast information is holding up better than expected, at least for older audiences.
From data found in the 2015 DNR it is clear that a number of new general news providers for whom science, environment, and climate change is an important area of coverage have established themselves firmly in several countries. For example, Huffington Post, one of the first “digital natives,” is now one of the most accessed sites in the United States but also operates in 14 countries of the world with a significant presence in Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. It runs a sub-index called HuffPost Green on its .com site, which includes a considerable volume of articles and blog posts on climate change.
BuzzFeed doubled its reach in the United Kingdom and the United States from 2014 to 2015 and, like Huffington Post, has established a strong foothold in several countries among people under the age of 35. It has overtaken the New York Times and the Washington Post for its number of digital page views. It is developing a focus on news and investigative journalism, and senior editors have said the environment and climate change is one of the areas of coverage they are keen to cover due to their understanding of their audience interests.
Vice is another relatively new web-only digital player that is well capitalized (Kung, 2015). Based more on video content than BuzzFeed, Vice launched a new multimedia portal for news stories in early 2014 called Vice News. It is aiming to produce content in more than 20 languages and has set up production centers across the world. It describes itself on its website as “closely tracking global environmental change”. Within its news site, it runs both a special index on climate change and a blog Tipping Point, which includes both news and regular, heavily visual, features.
There are other U.S.-based digital-only players who pay considerable attention to climate change and wider scientific issues, such as VOX, Reddit, and Tumblr. Reddit’s Science Forum, for example, is said to have more subscribers than the circulation of the New York Times. Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Vice are three organizations more likely than others to survive for some time in the future due to the high levels of investment in them. All three cover the environment and climate change extensively, but in different ways. Huffington Post relies heavily on blog posts, Vice on “personal narration” video, and BuzzFeed on a mix of listicles, quizzes, photo galleries, and irreverent content.
Another major development has been the growing importance of specialist or niche online websites providing information on the environment and climate change. In the United States and United Kingdom, former science and environment journalists from legacy media have been heavily involved in the establishment of web-based climate information, which combine reporting and aggregation. In the United Kingdom three niche sites fit this description: Carbon Brief, Climate Home, and ECIU. In the United States a similar process has taken place, where The Daily Climate and Inside Climate News have moved from just aggregation to original reporting and analysis. Other examples include Climate Progress, Climate Central, and Climate Wire. Author interviews with environment correspondents at traditional media suggest that these niche sites can have a profound influence over legacy media both as a source and editorial agenda-setter.
Despite the arrival of these two types of new digital-based players, the digital disruption that accompanies them, and the decline of print, very few academic articles have been published on the content of the new arrivals or how they differ from legacy players. Some preliminary results from studying the large amount of media coverage of the UNFCCC Paris summit in December 2015 do provide some insights into the treatment by the new players of scientific uncertainty and skepticism. Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of the Huffington Post media group, has made it clear that her organization is “not agnostic” on the issue of climate change and agrees with mainstream scientists. In its coverage of the Paris Summit, the Huffington Post offered no space in its numerous blog posts to authors skeptical about the science or the need for action. This stood out in contrast to some legacy media both in the United States and the United Kingdom, who during the summit gave considerable space in their opinion columns to impact or policy skeptics such as Bjorn Lomborg (WSJ, Mail on Sunday, Telegraph, Financial Times, the Spectator) and Matt Ridley (WSJ, Financial Times, the Spectator). In the United Kingdom, prominent skeptical in-house columnists such as Christopher Booker and David Rose were also given extensive space in the right-leaning Daily Mail, Sunday Telegraph, and the Spectator.
BuzzFeed and Vice showed a similar editorial approach to that of the Huffington Post towards skeptics in their coverage of the summit. In its 30-odd articles in English about, or linked to, the Paris summit, BuzzFeed did not quote a single skeptic directly. When it did include a mention of them, such as in the case of former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, it gave prominence to strong criticism of his approach to climate change policy. Vice news covered the meeting of the skeptic Heartland Institute in Paris at the time of the summit, but the tone of its video report was noticeably unsympathetic to the speakers at the meeting, quoting the description of them by the global advocacy group Avaaz as the worst “climate criminals.” Both organizations show a freshness of approach in covering climate change, particularly in including, or being driven by, visual material. But a key question for them and for the Huffington Post is the extent to which their editorial coverage becomes advocacy journalism, closely aligned with nongovernmental organizations promoting the need for individual and collective action to tackle climate change through protests and other forms of activism.
The above discussion has identified areas where a fair amount is known about the presence of journalistic and expert representations of uncertainty about climate science or policy in the media. Different manifestations of scientific uncertainty have long been present, although there is some evidence they may be declining as climate scientists become more vocal about what they know with more certainty. We also have a clear idea of the different forms of skeptic discourse, and where there are important country differences in the volume of skeptical voices and arguments. It remains the case that those voices wishing to question aspects of the science or the need for action find the most welcome home in the opinion slots of right-leaning media in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. To have a persistent presence, organized skepticism needs to find an outlet in the mainstream political system and in partisan media sympathetic to those political views.
However, we do not yet know enough about the relative strength of the different drivers of its presence or absence in different countries. General overviews of the gaps in the scholarship about climate change agree that more comparative work is needed on the global characteristics of climate reporting and the drivers of country differences (Hansen, 2011; Olausson & Berglez, 2014; Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). This is also true for the study of skepticism, as much research has been carried out in this area of the media in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. We know less about other countries and the reasons why skepticism is absent from the media. As we have seen, the possible drivers of its presence include journalistic norms, the presence of well-funded lobby groups or sympathetic politicians, and the ideological orientation of a media organization. A media owner such as Rupert Murdoch, many of whose media organizations such as Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and the Australian give plenty of space to skeptics, may have a profound influence here. But the picture is more complicated in the United Kingdom, where the Sun, also a Murdoch title, appointed its first environment editor under James Murdoch, and for many years followed the mainstream consensus on climate change in its news reporting (although not in its opinion columns) (Painter, 2011).
As the revolution in news consumption via new players and platforms causes an increasingly fragmented media landscape in different countries, there are huge gaps in understanding where, why, and how skepticism appears. Much continues to be published about print media, particularly in the Western world, which focus on the volume of climate coverage, the nature of climate journalism, or the dominant frames (Schäfer, 2015). So far, these types of detailed analysis are missing for the new players. We also do not know how the predicted shift to much more visual content, and particularly video content delivered to smartphones, will affect coverage of climate change. Although the traditional media have relied on imagery to illustrate texts, most research has focused on the text and not the images. An exception has been the work by Saffron O’Neill, who in her research has found that a “contested” or “politicised” visual frame of climate change, analogous to the uncertainty frame in texts, was particularly common in Australian newspapers during 2010 (O’Neill, 2013). There is a pressing need to include more studies of the visual framing of climate change in new and traditional media and how contested science or policy is portrayed through such frames.
Much existing research centers on the content of media output, yet as Philo (2007) and others have argued, this is just one stage in the way information “circulates.” There is a pressing need to further analyze the other two processes of news production, namely the forces shaping the way journalists find and process information and the way audiences consume and receive news messages. Interview-based research has provided important insights into the first of these stages and, in particular, changing journalist attitudes to skepticism in the late 2000s (Painter, 2010), the factors influencing the cognitive frames of journalists in different countries (Engesser & Brüggeman, 2015), and how journalists in the United States have developed creative strategies to publish new angles on the climate change story (Gibson, Craig, Harper, & Alpert, 2016). But more research is needed on the pathways by which skeptic views are taken seriously and included by journalists and the relative strength of the roles played by editors, media owners, sources such as lobby groups, and individual journalistic values.
The third stage of circulation (audience reception and consumption) should be central to any study of media representations of scientific uncertainty because of their potential to have an impact on public opinion and action. However, there are significant gaps in our understanding of how media portrayals of the different types of skepticism influence the three spheres of public engagement—cognition, emotional engagement (affect), or willingness to take action or change behavior (Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, & Whitmarsh, 2007). This needs to be linked to the research in the fields of psychology and other discipline,s which shows that political polarization around climate change, particularly in Anglosphere countries, is largely a reflection of “the fact that disagreements are more likely to be about values (cultural, political and social) than about the basic science, even though the science may be a proxy for these value-based disputes” (Corner et al., 2014, p. 418).
With this in mind, it is worth exploring the extent to which values held at the national or sectoral level may help to explain differences between countries in the amount of uncertainty or skepticism in the media or the wider public. In the United States, where skepticism is deeply embedded among right-wing Republicans and Tea Party supporters, we know that libertarian, anti-state values underpin their attitudes to a bundle of issues including climate change but also gun control, abortion and higher taxes, which help to define their cultural identities (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2011). Fox News, which research shows adopts a more dismissive tone toward climate change than CNN or MSNBC and interviews more skeptics than upholders of the mainstream consensus, clearly appeals to its audience by endorsing or speaking to these values. In Germany, where skepticism is not strongly present among the public, political elites, or the media, the precautionary principle is one of several values firmly rooted in the country’s culture which is not as present in the United States (Engels et al., 2013). The exact relationship between the uncertainties promoted in the media and their presence in public attitudes toward climate science or action remains a complex one, but one in need of constant and urgent enquiry.
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