Agenda Building, Narratives, and Attention Cycles in Climate Change News Coverage
Summary and Keywords
Social scientists and media critics have often been befuddled about how and why news coverage of important issues takes the shapes that it does. While some issues seem to behave according to well-established patterns, others don’t. The issue of climate change is one that has been explained in numerous ways, often from a cyclical perspective. This perspective suggests that news attention naturally varies up and down, often cued by certain focusing events that draw attention for a time, after which attention wanes again. These observations are usually matched with the perspective that attention should normatively not be cyclical, that the issue is one that deserves continuous attention until it is resolved.
All of this is in the context that there are significant doubts about the objective role of newsmakers in this process. Climate change is an issue that has cut across a period of news evolution in which objectively neutral news has become even less prominent than it once was, if it ever was. News outlets with specific ideological agendas, a plethora of bloggers and websites with an axe to grind, and a variety of conspiracy theories about climate have obscured how news can even hope to cover this issue. With “belief” in climate change now becoming an important token of how one identifies oneself politically, we can wonder whether the issue can ever receive a fair hearing from a scientific perspective.
Social scientists and media critics have often been befuddled about how and why news coverage of important issues takes the shapes that it does. While some issues seem to behave according to well-established patterns, others don’t. The issue of climate change is one that has been explained in numerous ways, often from a cyclical perspective. This perspective suggests that news attention varies up and down in natural cycles, often cued by certain focusing events that draw attention for a time, after which attention wanes again. These observations are usually matched with the perspective that attention should normatively not be cyclical, that the issue is one that deserves continuous attention until it is resolved.
The cyclical perspective seems to match the issue of climate change very well because of the tendency of climate change supporters (those who believe that climate change is anthropogenic and that we should do something about it) to think that there is both not enough news coverage about climate change and not enough good coverage. Ups and downs in coverage are seen as reflecting political realities that draw attention away from climate change coverage as well as the connections between news media and the corporate world that mitigate against attention. Not all subsequent attempts to explain climate change news coverage have been from a cyclical perspective, but it has been a dominant enough viewpoint that it forms a good starting point for thinking about the issue.
News Cycles and Climate Change
Early sociological investigations into environmental problems were dealing with an issue that seemingly forced its way onto the national agenda via communication campaigns. The historical roots of the desire for environmental protection (such as the “conservation” movement) were brought to the fore via prominent media campaigns that were catalyzed either by books (such as the national parks movement as an extended outcome of the writings of John Muir, 1901) or by magazine serializations (for instance, The New Yorker’s publication of material from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962). Such publications drew public attention—combining science with compelling narrative—to the possibilities that nature itself could be diminished or lost. An example more proximally relevant to climate change came from Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature (1989):
Our comforting sense of the permanence of our natural world, our confidence that it will change gradually and imperceptibly if at all, is the result of a subtly warped perspective. Changes that can affect us can happen in our lifetime in our world—not just changes like wars but bigger and more sweeping events. I believe that without recognizing it we have already stepped over the threshold of such a change; that we are at the end of nature. By the end of nature I do not mean the end of the world. The rain will still fall and the sun shine, though differently than before. When I say “nature,” I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it.
Romantic associations with “nature” from literature and art were harnessed to new scientific perspectives to create a felt need to protect what we started referring to as “the environment.” However, these campaigns also revealed that public attention to environmental problems could also easily wane if attention were not being focused on them by prominent storytellers. And in many ways, a good portion of environmental issues lacked the inherent narrative punch, or perceived direct and immediate impact on personal welfare, that would keep them on the public radar for long.
Anthony Downs—looking at the issue from the 1970s perspective when the environmental moniker first was really deployed—thought that, broadly speaking, environmental issues were always likely to go through “ups and downs” by virtue of these qualities (Downs, 1972). He proposed a powerful theoretical model for explaining why the public suddenly became so interested in the environment at the time he was writing and why that attention would wane (as it did). Condensed, his model suggested that initial public alarm at some proposed disastrous consequences (“alarmed discovery” of the problem, “euphoric enthusiasm” for measures to fix it) would eventually be replaced by public realization that the actual costs to fight the problem would be high and the fact that the predicted disaster often did not materialize, at least in the short run. Downs’s perspective has been influential in numerous attempts to explain public attention to environmental issues.
To be fair, all issues are cyclical to some degree when we examine them empirically. If we go by public opinion measures, public attention is usually neither steady-state nor monotonically increasing or decreasing, so cycles are inevitable. It is often a question of degree. Figure 1 charts public attention to environmental issues in response to a question from the General Social Survey (GSS) asking whether we as a nation are spending too much or too little on environmental problems. The figure shows three rough peaks of public concern about environmental issues: the period at the start of the data during the first wave of the environmental protection movement that had started in the 1960s; the period 1988–1992, a period of omnibus concern about environmental issues (and the emergence of climate change as a major issue), including the first real wave of worry about global warming; and 2007–2008, when a gradual resurgence of environmental concerns was cut short by the economic collapse of 2008.
Does climate change concern follow this same pattern? Unfortunately, we do not have uniformly comparable data going back as far as the GSS data, and we should remember that sustained public attention to climate issues only began around 1987–1990 (near the publication of End of Nature as well as a popular media panic over environmental catastrophes occurring in that time). Brulle, Carmichael, and Jenkins (2012) created a climate change “threat index” covering the years 2002–2010 that corresponds well with the GSS data, showing a peak of concern in 2007. The Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at Colorado University maintains an active database tracking news coverage of climate change; it also corresponds roughly to the cycles shown in Figure 1, though its later years of coverage show a rise in attention in 2015. Figure 2 is a snapshot of their analysis as of December 2015.
Thus, attention to climate issues is roughly cyclical; whether or not it is for reasons that Downs established can be debated. However, the vagaries of this news coverage are sometimes established as reasons for the durability of the belief that climate change is some sort of conspiracy that is being foisted on an unsuspecting public in the face of the oft-cited observation that 95% or more of the science community “believes” that climate change is happening. Communication research has provided a variety of perspectives on how climate change as an issue affords topics for news discussion and how these are transmitted to lay publics. The rest of this article examines various social scientific perspectives on how and why the news media covers climate change the way it does.
What Happened During the 1987–1992 Cycle?
Certainly there was attention to climate change before 1987. But the passage of time allowed us to see that climate change was only one of a suite of issues that attracted attention in the late 1980s. There had been other environmental panics before, so what, if anything, was different about this one? By the moment Time had named the Earth its “planet of the year” in 1989 (rather than choosing its normal “person of the year”), a number of spectacular environmental catastrophes had served as focusing events for public attention. First, temperatures in the United States were unusually hot in the summer of 1987. There were also significant western wildfires that provided vivid imagery for feelings of environmental doom and plenty of good video for news coverage. Other things happened, such as the washing-up of medical waste on New Jersey beaches, sometimes known as the “Syringe Tide.” In the context of these biblically concatenated disasters, environmental issues as a whole, not just climate change, moved up on the issue agenda.
In 1988 NASA’s James Hansen gave his well-known testimony to Congress that climate change was real and happening. With this, the frequency of attention to the environment in journalism was already up across the board and becoming marked: it looked like one of Downs’s “alarmed increases.” Any measure of attention by journalism to environmental issues was increasing by 1990, and public opinion was coming along with it (at a macro-level, a clear indication of agenda-setting). Even Hollywood was getting in on the act. Movies such as Ferngully (1992) expressed the feeling of the time that industrially driven expansion was destroying the planet. Captain Planet, a Turner Network cartoon, made environmentalism a superhero cause. It seemed as if the media and the attention they could bring might actually turn out to be environmental saviors.
However, as Downs predicted, the bubble popped. What happened? First, environmental issues had to give way to others, most obviously the Gulf War of 1991. While the war had some clear environmental implications (such as oil wells uncontrollably burning in the Kuwaiti desert), it was political and military coverage that got most of the column inches. Also, temperatures didn’t quite behave as they were supposed to. Many said the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 brought the Earth’s temperatures down, so that people were wondering about cooling rather than warming. Such climate science hedging was also easily seized upon by the emerging climate deniers as evidence of the uncertainty of climate science. By 1995, the environment was back in the doldrums. The celebrations of Earth Day that received a lot of attention in the early 1990s were much muted later in the decade.
And thus a Downsian cycle was complete. It was a confluence of many factors that brought the issue up and then down again. While it may have looked in 1995 as if the issue was done for, there were further cycles to emerge, a pattern that has continued to this day. Nisbet and Huge (2007) have offered an explanation of how scientific and technical issues evolve through a series of cycles as they are processed in a variety of ways. They see issues as being first processed through “dramatic” framing (something bad or great is about to happen!), and thus they receive much attention. However, the dramatic framing goes only so far, and the issue loses attention. At this point, the issue is being dealt with in more technical spheres (where ideally it will be resolved), but it also draws less attention. Then, with renewed claims that the issue brings danger (and new focusing events that bring reasons for coverage), it is brought back into dramatic framing. It navigates between these two poles until there is some actual resolution. Much of the data from later studies of climate change could easily be subsumed under this rubric.
Agenda-Setting, Agenda-Building, and Climate Change
The news cycle is a complex, living, breathing thing. Attempts to reduce it with single-theory explanations are likely to fail. But it is reasonable that major theories from communication theory and other social science work can be adduced as at least partial explanations. It will likely take multiple theories to reach adequate explanations. One of the earliest candidates to take a crack at explaining the impact of newson the public is known as “agenda-setting.”
There are two streams of agenda-setting research: that which has been mostly found in communication research and that which comes from political science. Although the two streams have a lot in common, they don’t often cite each other. In this article we focus on the communication theory approach. McCombs and Shaw (1972) began this research stream. Their perspective argues that the influence of news on the public is not through direct argumentation (“telling people what to think”) but through placing issues on the table for public discussion (“telling people what to think about”). The theory has been confirmed in a variety of ways, mostly by comparing public agendas with news issues using both survey and content analysis (Dearing & Rogers, 1996). The important thing to note here is that the independent variable is usually media (news) attention of some sort; the dependent variable is usually public assessment of the importance of the problem, as measured in opinion surveys. An early environmental study from this perspective (Ader, 1995) found that news coverage, rather than “real world conditions,” was what correlated with people’s concern about pollution. Atwater, Salwen, and Anderson (1985) found, in relation to environmental issues (which they considered to be a “sub-issue”),
a moderate relationship between media salience and audience intrapersonal salience…. This finding suggests that the mass media may be able to transfer detailed levels of information about a single issue to the audience. Thus, it may be possible to extend the agenda-setting hypothesis to detailed levels of information about a single issue.
The environment behaved like a lot of other issues, where the media clearly had the power to bring issues to the fore or push them back.
Agenda-setting research in the communication tradition has often found itself bursting against its own boundaries. Early agenda-setting research usually studiously avoided suggesting that news controls people’s actual responses to the arguments embodied in news stories, until the emergence of the idea of “second-level” agenda-setting. Second-level agenda-setting perspectives attempt to take on “framing” language to suggest that news frames go beyond simple salience to influence how people perceive the issues that are placed on the agenda. Framing perspectives emerged out of sociological and psychological work to suggest that “selection” of and “salience” given to issues would be just as important as the issues themselves in constructing public reaction. Amid a flood of studies that have focused on framing in the last 30 years, the whole perspective has become very muddled (Cacciatore, Scheufele, & Iyengar, 2015), but there are studies within this perspective that are quite relevant to climate change.
Trumbo’s (1996) study was probably the first to attempt to operationalize ideas from Downs in a communication research context and within an agenda-setting tradition. He noted (as did McComas & Shanahan, 1999, in a slightly later context) that news coverage patterns of climate change (the “greenhouse effect,” at that time) matched up quite closely with Downs’s expectations. Trumbo also offered a narrative of the issue that fit well with Downs’s theory. Trumbo did not connect his findings to public support for climate change and thus did not make the final connection of agenda-setting theory, but he set the stage for later work.
More importantly, Trumbo brought the framing language into the debate. He saw three “phases” of news coverage that he labeled 1, 2, and 3. As we will see, the term “frame” can mean almost anything, but for Trumbo it meant broad categories of types of articles that could be presented (“problems,” “causes,” “judgments,” “remedies”). In simple terms, he found that stories focused on problems and causes dominated Phase 1, and that judgments and remedies became more prominent over Phases 2 and 3.
In the late 1990s more studies were mining the admittedly spotty journalistic record on climate change. The many ways in which journalists frame things led to different ways to set up studies. For instance, in unpublished data, Shanahan, Trumbo, and Good (1998) found an evolution in terminology describing climate change (from 1980 to 1997) that suggested an evolution from “greenhouse effect” to “global warming.” After their data became known, “climate change” became the even more dominant term. Framing devices as simple as how the issue is named (and the shifting grounds that it can arguably create for public uncertainty) increasingly came to be seen as either causes or symptoms of the fact that claims-makers were seeking to inject a significant degree of uncertainty into ideas about climate change and that structural problems in the press were either permitting or encouraging these.
As attractive as it is, not all perspectives have adhered to Downs’s overall view that there is some sort of “natural” cycle to environmental coverage. Indeed, Downs’s perspective seems to encourage the idea that journalistic coverage behaves something akin to a natural law, and yet we intuitively know that journalistic coverage is nothing more than the decisions of individuals working within institutions. Therefore, it makes sense to pay attention to the behaviors of these individuals and institutions—it may be that it is from their decisions at the micro-level that observable macro-cycles emerge. The type of research that examines how agendas are made from the decisions of actors and institutions is known as agenda-building. Whereas agenda-setting tells us how public agendas are determined, agenda-building looks at complex interactions of claimsmakers, the journalistic institutions themselves, and real-world events as factors that influence what eventually gets on the agenda. Also, there are ways to explore how individuals’ policy agendas emerge from sources other than news items.
Certainly, the early first phase of climate coverage was more suited to a cyclical analysis than the later coverage patterns would prove to be. Simply, what happened was that there turned out to be more than one cycle, and so Downs’s ideas—which were geared essentially to a single rise and fall—had to be reworked. After the first cycle ended in 1992, later ups and downs showed that, at the very least, Downs’s idea would have to be reiterated to make sense as the issue advanced. In other words, what prompts repeated instances of the cycle? The question is still relevant today, as news coverage of climate change has changed in some very important qualitative ways since 1988–1992.
Boykoff and Boykoff (2007) thought that Hilgartner and Bosk’s (1988) “public arenas model” made more sense to explain why coverage would go up and down. They saw more peaks in the coverage than other analysts did and sought to explain them by citing adherence to norms in journalistic coverage (“first-order” journalistic norms—personalization, dramatism, novelty—and their connection to “second-order” norms of order and authority). Boykoff and Boykoff have a lot to say about how the press responds to outputs from scientists (such as IPCC reports) and the ability of powerful actors (John Sununu, for instance) to frame the debate toward uncertainty about climate science. Mainly, their analysis is devoted to showing how the traditional norms of journalistic practice interfere with informationally accurate coverage of the issue of climate change.
As noted above, an issue that has been allied with agenda-setting is the issue of “framing.” A variety of conceptualizations for it have been put forward. The base idea is that all issues can be presented in multiple ways, so journalism can play an important role by selecting some aspects of the issue to focus on while other aspects can be pushed to the rear. Needless to say, there are many complexities to the climate change issue, so how it is portrayed is of prime importance.
Typically, early agenda-setting research focused only on issue salience. However, over the years, agenda-setting researchers made a claim for framing as a “2nd level” of agenda-setting, in which perceptions of attributes of issues are also influenced by journalism. This was in addition to the very voluminous research on framing that was going on in other fields, especially in relation to psychological studies of reaction to frames (often associated with the risk communication literature) and more politically focused studies on framing “contests” in the press.
Concerning second-level agenda-setting—given that there are many ways to define framing—framing itself became a much more common explanation of phenomena in the communication literature (Weaver, 2007) and to some extent replaced the agenda-setting idea, which was played out. Studies of framing and climate change became common, including the following studies of audience reaction to specific frames:
• Myers, Nisbet, Maibach, and Leiserowitz (2012) found that public health frames were the most likely to elicit positive audience reactions.
• Nisbet, Hart, and Myers (2013) found that individual differences moderate the effects of frames, in this case looking at “competitive” frames versus “non-competitive” ones.
• Hart and Nisbet (2011) found that individual differences and political partisanship could actually produce “boomerang” effects, with intended communications having the opposite impact.
There are many such studies, and it is safe to say that the literature has not concluded that there is any best way to communicate with people in a way that sets a positive agenda.
A different perspective on framing comes in the form of research that sees it as a rhetorical technique that can be more or less mastered. Lakoff (2003, 2010), among others, has persuasively argued that Republicans and conservatives have been especially adept at using terms to frame the debate in ways that serve their agenda:
And looking back to the past, we find these quotes from a 2003 language advisory by Frank Luntz to the Bush administration, called “Winning the Global Warming Debate: An Overview”:
It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming … “Climate change” is less frightening than “global warming.” … Stringent environmental regulations hit the most vulnerable among us—the elderly, the poor and those on fixed incomes—the hardest … Job losses … greater costs … American corporations and industry can meet any challenge, we produce the majority of the world’s food, … yet we produce a fraction of the world’s pollution.
In the climate debate, the variety of terms that have been used (greenhouse effect, global warming, and climate change) can have different effects depending on the degree to which audiences perceive them as dire. Lakoff’s perspective would argue that climate advocates have not done as good a job on this aspect of framing, although it may be that it is easier to make frames that create doubt than to make frames that spur action.
While the framing perspective is powerful, it is also much too broad. Many studies have been shot out in wide shotgun-pellet patterns, and it is difficult to summarize them all with respect to climate change. Many of the studies are experimental and difficult to generalize to the actual media environment. Also, conceptually, it is hard to know where a frame ends and something like a narrative begins.
Uncertainty, Manipulation, and PR: The Influence of Lobbies and Doubt
There is no doubt that “uncertainty” became a dominant trope in media coverage of climate change early on, so whatever we think of the role of framing in the agenda-setting process, we need to think about the uncertainty frame. The question is, who creates uncertainty? For some views of this process, it takes nothing more than a look at the “balance” ethic of American journalism to find the problem. For others, there are more sinister attempts to manipulate journalism to prevent public action on a topic.
Oreskes and Conway (2011) have investigated a strategy of creating doubt about environmental and health issues that extends from the days of the tobacco controversies to today’s debates about the certainty of climate models. They have persuasive evidence that the same claims makers (basically conservative scientists with a pro-business agenda) have been able to fund and publicize science that could be used to counter health or environmental claims. In the long run the strategy seems to fail (e.g., tobacco, ozone hole, acid rain) but arguably is still very effective in the climate arena. The view of climate denial as a conspiracy strategy can be related to cycles by seeing them as a suppressive factor. On this view, concern emerges from scientific findings, natural catastrophes, etc. Then, as science mobilizes public opinion, pro-business groups mobilize to knock it down. From Oreskes and Conway’s perspective, climate science may be the most spectacular example of the “Merchants of Doubt” strategy.
It is uncontested that there has been significant activity by the carbon lobby to portray climate change as either an unsettled or possibly even beneficial phenomenon. The “Greening Earth Society” was a non-governmental organization (NGO) set up to create positive spin on climate change; funding came from the Western Fuels Association. It produced a video called “The Greening of Planet Earth,” which argued that increased CO2 in the atmosphere would be beneficial for agriculture, leading to larger and more fruitful crops. The video was seen by many journalists and even members of the Bush administration.
Others, such as Boykoff and Boykoff (2004), picked up on the “balance” ethic in American journalism. They note that a scientific issue such as climate change is essentially as uncontroversial as evolution: all scientific opinion agrees that it is happening. Yet American journalistic norms provide for “balanced” coverage of all issues; thus, scientific cranks and industry-funded PR flacks get more attention than they deserve. The result is an American opinion still divided on climate change even at the present writing. One final relevant point is that American journalism is not without its ties to the business agenda. While ideally objective in its approach, the institutional ties between the business and journalism sectors mean that balance and uncertainty strategies go hand in hand.
Social science tends to look for single variables that explain phenomena. But a science/technical issue in a national context is a complex thing. We need to recognize that news audiences don’t consume variables, they consume stories. But narratives are much harder to study than some of the single variables that we have discussed here. While all narratives have some things in common (plot, character, moral), after those similarities, narratives can diverge significantly. They can be difficult to operationalize in social science surveys and experiments.
McComas and Shanahan (1999), examining elite newspaper coverage of climate change and starting from Downs’s natural history perspective, moved toward a narrative explanation. For them, the up and down of the initial cycle was dictated as much by narrative conventions as by other factors. The data, while consistent with Downs’s cyclical view, was also consistent with the arc of a meta-narrative that went from alarmism to uncertainty in the course of four years.
From a narrative viewpoint, the switch in story line and the decrease in newspaper attention combined to suggest that a resolution was near: global climate change was being taken care of, if indeed the condition existed at all, and public attention and concern could move on to other more pressing issues.
(McComas & Shanahan, 1999, p. 51)
They also noted:
Toward the latter part of our sample … we also saw that the early narrative enthusiasm for dire greenhouse predictions seemed to fuel an eventual “backlash.” William K. Stevens, a reporter for the New York Times, discussed in September of 1993 the attempt of some scientists to counter the characterization of global warming as a hysterical “flash in the pan.”…
[The] rhetoric is the mirror image of some that was heard five years ago, at the height of the North American heat wave, when some environmentalists and politicians warned of climatic apocalypse on the basis of assertions by a minority of scientists that global warming was already under way.
(Stevens, 1993, p. 1)
So, a natural news cycle may be nothing more than a narrative arc. Many social scientists have recognized that news cycles can be constructed differently based on narrative strategies, but the complexities of defining and operationalizing narratives makes them harder to study in quantitative social science contexts. When does a narrative begin and end? What separates a narrative from a frame? When is a narrative an argument? What are the smallest definable units of a narrative? There have been no easy answers.
It is true that narrative is getting more attention these days in environmental communication research (e.g., Dahlstrom, 2010). There are some interesting studies on particular narratives; the film The Day After Tomorrow is a good example (Leiserowitz, 2004; Lowe et al., 2006). This research tells us that specific narratives can have effects on public opinion, even though they may be evanescent. As with much of mass communication research, in the environmental sphere the effects of mass media are always embedded within a welter of individual differences, structural factors, and other reasons for the minimal effects we typically see.
And yet we know that, at the macro-level, these messages do make a difference. Where we do account for the effects of mass communication at this macro-level? In environmental communication research, the cultivation perspective has argued that mass communication creates contexts that are structurally opposed to environmental attitude formation. While there is not very much cultivation research on climate change in particular, there is quite a bit on the environmental issues that would be relevant.
Shanahan and McComas (1999) summarize this research. Because mass communication systems, especially television, are themselves an industrial institution, it is somewhat naïve to expect them to take on pro-environmental messages as a matter of course. So, while there have been many attempts to “green” the media, it is still the case that television and its advertising imperative exist to promote and organize consumption. Also, when looked at from a wider view, environmental messages don’t appear that often on television. Thus, it has not been surprising that heavier television viewers tend to be less environmentally concerned. This issue was explored more interpretively by Bill McKibben in his Age of Missing Information (1992). Good (2007) has demonstrated that personal materialism plays a large role here: heavy television viewers are both more materialistic and less environmentalist.
The public opinion problem of climate change has not yet been resolved. Many individuals still think that the problem is not real. It is also obvious that there is a long way to go to resolve the issue. Unlike problems such as acid rain that could be resolved with relatively easy fixes, there are none for climate change. In the past 30 years, international environmental action has yet to put us on the final and correct course. As we have seen, numerous communication factors contribute to these failings, and not all of them can be easily cured.
However, progress has been made. Most media, even relatively conservative outlets, now accept that climate change is real. There is less outright prevarication about the issue, as climate change acquires something of a received-wisdom and common-sense view. From the cyclical perspective that we adopted earlier, it may be that each repeat of an up-and-down cycle contributes to a much larger meta-narrative of obviousness and inevitability—the question is where such a meta-narrative leads. One possible reaction is heroic action, much as when the nation adopted a common purpose to land on the moon. Another is resignation and adaptation, in which the forces of nature and unregulated free markets are left to sort out the issue for themselves.
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