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date: 24 April 2017

Agenda Building, Narratives, and Attention Cycles in Climate Change News Coverage

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

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 has been explained in numerous ways, often from a cyclical perspective. This perspective suggests that news attention varies up and down, often cued by certain focusing events that draw attention for a time, after which it wanes again. These observations are usually matched with the perspective that attention should normatively not be cyclical, that the issue deserves continuous attention until it is resolved. Yet the assumption of continuous, if not linear, growth in coverage of climate change in the news, overlooks what we know about how attention to climate news varies, and what we can expect such news to do in the future.

Understanding cycles of news attention to climate change must also take into account significant doubts about the objective role of newsmakers in this process. The issue of climate change has cut across a period of news evolution in which objectively neutral news has become less prominent than it once was, if it ever was. News outlets with specific ideological agendas, a plethora of bloggers and websites, each with an axe to grind, and a variety of conspiracy theories 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 wonder whether the issue can ever receive a fair hearing from a scientific perspective.