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date: 25 September 2017

Impact of Journalistic Background, Professional Norms, and Culture on Climate Change Coverage

Summary and Keywords

Among the factors that influence news decisions relative to climate change, journalistic background, professional norms, and culture are particularly important. There is empirical evidence that conservative journalists and media outlets are less likely to support the scientific consensus on climate change and more likely to promote climate change contrarianism.

Journalists with less expertise on climate change may produce less accurate coverage, investigative journalists may be more critical towards science, and journalists with a positive attitude towards the subject of climate change may make it more salient in the news.

There is also indication that climate journalists abandon the norm of balance and increasingly employ strategies of novelty, dramatization, personalization, and localization. The climate journalists also tend to synchronize their coverage to the policies of their governments.

Finally, journalists from the interpretive community around the IPCC or from science-friendly cultures are more likely to support the consensus on climate change, while journalists from collectivist cultures are more likely to endorse binding international agreements.

Keywords: journalists, professional norms, culture, news decisions, knowledge, balance, professional role, news values, media logic, interpretive community

Climate change can be regarded as one of the most relevant, complex, controversial, and normative issues of our time. Due to the phenomenon’s intangibility and unobtrusiveness, the social task of transmitting it to the population lies, by and large, with the media (Carvalho, 2010; Moser, 2010; Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). Therefore, the influence of the media on the audience’s perception of climate change should not be underestimated.

Boykoff (2011, p. 167) argued that the media negotiate meaning and influence the sense-making process (see also Boykoff, McNatt, & Goodman, 2015). The impact of the media coverage on the public concern for climate change has also been demonstrated empirically (e.g., Brulle, Carmichael, & Jenkins, 2012).

In particular the way in which climate change is represented or framed in the news media may influence the audience (Corbett & Durfee, 2004; Hart, 2011; Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Vaughan, 2013; Nisbet, 2009). The media representations or frames are, in turn, the outcomes of journalistic decisions (Dunwoody, 1992).

This article focuses on the antecedents of these news decisions. From a media sociology perspective, the factors influencing news decisions can be arranged in a model of concentric spheres from the micro level of the individual communicator over the meso level of media routines and organizations to the macro level of culture and ideology (Shoemaker & Reese, 2014). All these factors have in common that they are channeled through the communicator, which emphasizes the role of the individual climate journalist in the process.

This general theory of media content (Shoemaker & Reese, 2014) can also be applied to climate change communication, as has been done both implicitly and explicitly in this volume. While Gibson (in this volume) covers the organizational level and Anderson (in this volume) deals with the influence of the news sources, this article is dedicated to the journalistic background, professional norms, and culture (Figure 1).

Impact of Journalistic Background, Professional Norms, and Culture on Climate Change CoverageClick to view larger

Figure 1. Factors influencing news decisions relative to climate change within Shoemaker and Reese’s hierarchy of influences.

Definition of Journalistic Background, Professional Norms, and Culture

Definition of Journalistic Background

In a narrow sense, journalistic background only refers to a journalist’s biography and demographics, such as nationality, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, income, and residence (see Figure 2).

Impact of Journalistic Background, Professional Norms, and Culture on Climate Change CoverageClick to view larger

Figure 2. Factors from the journalistic background influencing news decisions.

These characteristics, however, are crucial for the journalists’ professional experience because they determine if, when, and how they start their career. The demographics also shape the journalist’s personal attitudes, values, and beliefs (which will be subsumed under the label “personal opinion” in the following) (Shoemaker & Reese, 2014). The personal opinion and professional experience, in turn, have an impact on the professional role, which is an expression of the journalist’s code of ethics, his individual occupational identity, and his function in society. Common professional roles include the disseminator, adversary, interpreter, and mobilizer (Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes, & Wilhoit, 2007; Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996).

Moreover, the demographics and the professional experience may affect the subject-related knowledge, which refers to the scientific expertise on climate change. Both the personal opinion and the subject-related knowledge may be mediated by the subject-related attitude, which is, again, directed towards climate change. All these factors are interrelated and jointly affect news decisions and media content (Shoemaker & Reese, 2014). Therefore, it may be appropriate to broaden the understanding of journalistic background and to subsume all the above-mentioned factors under this label.

Definition of Professional Norms

Professional norms are ideals of how journalism should be exercised. They usually take the shape of informal rules or guidelines. Professional norms contribute to a common occupational identity, help the superiors to discipline their subordinates, and ensure the quality of the media content. A journalist discovers and internalizes these norms during the professional education in the training school or the newsroom. This process is widely referred to as socialization (Breed, 1960; Shoemaker & Reese, 2014).

Within the context of climate change, Boykoff and Boykoff (2007) distinguish between first-order and second-order norms. The authors assign the criteria personalization, dramatization, and novelty to the former category which is elsewhere referred to as “news values” (Anderson, 2015; Smith, 2005). The latter category is combined of the concept of “authority order” which is related to the practice of “indexing” (Bennett, 1990), and the principle of balance which can be regarded as a subdimension of objectivity (Tuchman, 1972). Boykoff and Boykoff (2007) implied that first-order norms tend to influence both the selection and presentation of news events while second-order norms rather affect the structure of the news story and the selection of sources and speakers.

Beyond this dichotomy of first-order and second-order norms, there is the more abstract and general concept of “media logic” (Altheide & Snow, 1979) which is frequently used as an umbrella term for various professional imperatives. This concept also serves as another common heuristic in climate change communication research.

Definition of Culture

Culture is an extremely complex, ambiguous, and normative term. For analytical purposes, it is helpful to follow Hanitzsch (2007, p. 369) who defines culture as a set of ideas, practices, and artifacts. In the area of journalism, culture may vary with the newsroom and manifest itself as specific thematic focus, journalistic style, or political line, which may also be reflected in a national journalism culture (Weaver, 1998). Finally, culture may occupy the middle ground between organizational and national level and take the shape of an interpretive community. Such a community allows journalists to handle and interpret media events in a common manner through mutual exchange and co-orientation (Zelizer, 1993).

Journalism culture does not stand alone but is embedded in a larger arrangement of other macro-level cultures within society. As climate change communication is situated at the intersection of science communication and political communication (Scheufele, 2014), the political culture (e.g., Almond & Verba, 1963) and the scientific culture (Godin & Gingras, 2000) are of particular importance.

Even though culture and ideology are similar concepts, it is useful to analytically distinguish them. Culture is generally conceived as the more encompassing term and can be conceived as the “arena” (Hanitzsch, 2007, p. 370) in which diverse ideologies struggle over domination, such as Lippmann’s (1922) and Dewey’s (1927) concepts of journalism.

Impact of Journalistic Background


Gender. For a first impression of the gender ratio among climate journalists, it is helpful to consult Brüggemann and Engesser (2014), who surveyed the authors of articles on climate change across various reporter beats from Germany, India, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Almost three quarters of their sample were male. These figures closely resembled the gender ratio of U.S. environment reporters (Sachsman, Simon, & Valenti, 2010) and U.S. journalists in general (Weaver et al., 2007).

To assess the effects of gender, a good starting point is empirical analyses of the overall population. There is evidence that women express slightly greater concern about climate change than men (McCright, 2010) and white males are more likely than other Americans to endorse climate contrarian views (McCright & Dunlap, 2011a). The reason behind this observation may be what Kahan, Braman, Gastil, Slovic, and Mertz (2007) refer to as “identity-protective cognition” (p. 469). This concept implies that men are more likely to deny climate change because it challenges activities as harmful that may be more integral to the male cultural identity than to the female one (e.g., eating meat or driving cars).

However, among international climate journalists, there was no relation between being male on the one hand and supporting the scientific consensus on the factuality of climate change or favoring the equal treatment of climate contrarians by the news media on the other hand (Brüggemann & Engesser, 2014). This may lead to the conclusion that the cultural identity of male climate journalist differs from the general cultural identity of males (maybe by being less stereotyped) and, thus, that climate change does not constitute the same kind of “cultural identity threat” (Kahan et al., 2007, p. 467). Consequently, the effect of gender on news decisions relative to climate change is supposed to be rather small.

Education. For descriptive purposes, it is again useful to draw on Brüggemann and Engesser (2014), who found that more than half of the international climate journalists held a master’s degree, while the respective figures were substantially lower for U.S. environmental reporters (Sachsman et al., 2010) and U.S. journalists in general (Weaver et al., 2007). This means that climate journalists seem to enjoy a higher level of formal education than their colleagues, which can be explained quite naturally by the complexity of their subject.

General empirical evidence for the explanative power of education is provided Lee, Markowitz, Howe, Ko, and Leiserowitz (2015), who conducted a representative survey in 119 countries. They identified educational attainment as the strongest predictor of climate change awareness. However, the authors conceded an interaction effect with political leaning. As further elaboration, they referred to McCright and Dunlap (2011b), who uncovered a positive relation between education and climate change concern among liberals but a negative one among conservatives.

Among U.S. environmental journalists, Wilson (2000) also found a positive impact of education on scientific knowledge of climate change. However, for their sample of international climate journalists (from five countries and across various reporter beats, such as science and environment), Brüggemann and Engesser (2014) could not show any influence of education on climate change perceptions. While this may have been due to a ceiling effect related to the very high overall education level in their sample, it is probably representative for the entire population. Therefore, education may affect climate journalists as a whole and contribute to high overall levels of climate change awareness and concern. At the same time, education’s responsibility for any differences within climate journalists is presumed to be negligible.

Personal Opinion

Political leaning. Among all the personal attitudes, beliefs, and values, political leaning has attracted the most attention within the field of journalism research (Shoemaker & Reese, 2014). Empirical studies have indicated that a journalist’s political leaning may influence news decisions and media coverage. Patterson and Donsbach (1996) showed that the journalists’ political orientation within the left–right spectrum influenced how they evaluated newsworthiness, formulated headlines, and selected visuals. Watson (2014) demonstrated that the journalists’ political leaning affected their attitude towards the oil industry and, indirectly, the tone of articles about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In terms of climate change, Brüggemann and Engesser (2014) found that climate journalists leaned a bit more to the left than U.S. journalists in general (Weaver et al., 2007). This is in line with figures for environmental reporters, who were half as likely to be Republican as compared to U.S. journalists in general (Sachsman et al., 2010).

There has been empirical evidence that climate contrarians are more widespread among US conservatives (McCright & Dunlap, 2011a, 2011b) and that conservative columnists promote climate contrarianism in their editorials (Elsasser & Dunlap, 2013). This is presumably due to the close connections between conservatism, economic liberalism, and the fossil fuel industry in Western countries (Dunlap & McCright, 2011).

Accordingly, Brüggemann and Engesser (2014) could show that international climate journalists who politically leaned to the right were more likely to favor an equal treatment of climate contrarians by the news media. The correlation between right-wing ideology and support of the scientific consensus on the factuality of climate change was also substantial and may have proven significant in a slightly larger sample. In summary, it is not unlikely that a climate journalist’s political leaning influences his news decisions in the sense that right-wing journalists challenge the scientific consensus on climate change and give more room to climate change contrarians than left-wing journalists.

Religion. Religion seems to play a minor role in the life of the average climate journalist. In Brüggemann and Engesser’s (2014) study, very few climate journalists (from five countries and across various reporter beats) considered themselves religious. In contrast, roughly a third of U.S. environmental reporters (Sachsman et al., 2010) and a third of U.S. journalists in general (Weaver et al., 2007) stated that religion was very important to them.

In the overall U.S. population, Smith and Leiserowitz (2013) found that evangelicals were less likely to support the scientific consensus on climate change than non-evangelicals. However, the authors admitted that this group was far from homogenous and that it was highly polarized in terms of their attitudes towards climate change. Wilkinson (2012) even demonstrated that certain subgroups of U.S. evangelicals were driving forces behind climate activism. In Australia, Morrison, Duncan, and Parton (2015) found that Christians were more dismissive of climate change than secularists, while Buddhists had stronger engagement and support for climate change policy than secularists. The authors concluded that the differences depended on how strongly a religion adhered to the belief in the human rule over nature and on how closely the religion associated this belief with support for the environment.

In their analysis of climate journalists, Brüggemann and Engesser (2014) also came across a negative relation between religiousness and the support of the scientific consensus on climate change, as well as a positive association between religiousness and favoring an equal treatment of climate contrarians by the news media. These effects did not turn out to be significant, but this may have had to do with the limited size of the sample or a floor effect related to the low overall levels of religiousness. So, it cannot be ruled out that the lack of religiousness affects climate journalists as a whole or accounts for differences within climate journalists. However, it seems appropriate to differentiate between religions and even between denominations within the same religion (such as different types of evangelicals).

Subject-Related Knowledge

Facing the abundance of information and the increasing complexity in our society, Patterson (2013) emphasized the need for “knowledge-based journalism” that contextualized news events and provided background information. He argued that knowledge may be the journalists’ instrument for orienting themselves in an increasingly complicated world and to avoid mistakes. Donsbach (2014) followed this rationale and stressed the importance of a journalist’s subject-related knowledge which he referred to as “subject competence” (p. 668). This kind of knowledge enabled the journalists to evaluate the newsworthiness of events, select appropriate sources, and remain autonomous.

Nisbet and Fahy (2015) pointed out that a journalist’s knowledge was particularly important in politicized science debates such as climate change. Wilson (2000) surveyed U.S. environmental journalists and found deficits in their knowledge about the current state of climate change research. For instance, the journalists underestimated the scientific consensus regarding the increase in global cloud cover and overestimated the consensus regarding hotter summers in the United States. Wilson argued that such deficits might cause inaccurate climate change reporting. However, he found that the lack of knowledge was smaller among journalists who drew on scientists as sources, had gained more experience in environmental reporting, and had achieved a higher level of education.

Despite all the theoretical arguments there has hardly been any empirical study that systematically investigated the impact of subject-related knowledge on news decisions and media content. So, we can only hypothesize that a lack of knowledge may cause journalists to depict climate change in a way that is not in line with the scientific debate.

Subject-Related Attitude

A journalist’s attitude towards his subject of news coverage is one of the best-established antecedents of news decisions and media content. There has been empirical evidence that the journalist’s subject-related attitude influences his assessment of newsworthiness (Kepplinger, Brosius, & Staab, 1991; Patterson & Donsbach, 1996). Other authors have demonstrated that a journalist’s attitude towards public affairs topics (Flegel & Chaffee, 1971), nuclear energy (Rothman & Lichter, 1987), or the oil industry (Watson, 2014) may have an impact on the tone of his news stories.

Against this backdrop, it appears plausible that also a journalist’s attitude towards climate change may influence his professional behavior. Brüggemann and Engesser (2014) created an index that measured how strongly climate journalists supported the scientific consensus on the factuality of climate change. They also theorized that a journalist’s cognitive support of this consensus might be reflected in his news stories.

Journalist Frames

A special hybrid of subject-related knowledge and attitude are the cognitive frames of journalists. These frames can be regarded as “knowledge structures” (Dunwoody, 1992, p. 78) that guide journalists through story construction. It is widely assumed that the journalist frames influence the frames in media coverage (Brüggemann, 2014; Entman, Matthes, & Pellicano, 2009; Scheufele & Scheufele, 2010). Engesser and Brüggemann (2015) identified five distinctive cognitive frames among the climate journalists in their sample that varied between attributing the responsibility for climate change to lobbying and national interests, blaming the consumerist culture and the capitalist system, and expressing technological optimism. However, it falls to future studies to empirically analyze the impact of journalistic frames on news decisions and media content.

Professional Role

Numerous scholars have theorized about the meaning of professional roles in journalism (Shoemaker & Reese, 2014; Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996). These professional roles play also an important role in science journalism (Fahy & Nisbet, 2011), environmental journalism (Sachsman et al., 2010; Tandoc & Takahashi, 2014), and climate journalism (Brüggemann, in this volume). However, the empirical findings on the professional role’s impact on news decisions and media content have proven rather inconsistent (Mellado & van Dalen, 2014; Tandoc, Hellmueller, & Vos, 2013; Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996).

One of the most illuminating studies on professional roles was conducted by Stocking and Holstein (2009). They investigated how journalists responded to rhetorical claims from hog industry actors who discredited and discouraged science. It became clear that the journalists used these claims of ignorance to fulfill their professional roles and marginalized the claims when they interfered with their roles. While the disseminator journalists neutrally transmitted the claims to the audience, the interpretive/investigative journalists critically assessed and dismissed the claims. These results could also be transferred to the case of climate change communication and climate contrarians.

Accordingly, Brüggemann and Engesser (2014) found positive relations between the investigative/critical role and the analytical/interpretive role on the one hand and the support of the IPCC consensus on climate change on the other hand. This implies that, as in the study by Stocking and Holstein (2009), both investigative and interpretive journalists are more likely to take scientific facts and empirical evidence into account.

Impact of Professional Norms

News Values

News values are a long-established concept in communication research. They are regarded as professional criteria of news selection that emerged from biological evolution and cultural contexts (Galtung & Ruge, 1965; Shoemaker & Cohen, 2006). News values have also found their way into climate communication research. According to Smith (2005), news values are based on intuition, co-orientation, and the constellation of events.

Throughout the field, several scholars have compiled extensive lists of news values, such as status, relevance, proximity, negativity, and entertainment (O’Neill & Harcup, 2009). Boykoff and Boykoff (2007), however, singled out three values they considered particularly important with regard to climate change: novelty, dramatization, and personalization. Unfortunately, climate change is an abstract phenomenon and not well suited to fulfill these news values. Therefore, journalists are tempted to either completely disregard many climate change events or to amplify certain aspects of the events in order to push them beyond the threshold of newsworthiness. The journalists may focus on celebrities instead of power structures, concentrate on disasters instead of climate change science or policy, and prefer short-term developments over chronic social problems. This is said to lead to “biased” or “trivialized” (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007, p. 3) climate change coverage.

Anderson (2015) mentioned drama, novelty, and conflict as important news values in environmental communication. Besides, she argued that the potential for visualization increased the chances of an environmental issue to be picked up by the news editors.

Authority Order

There is a general tendency of journalists to rely on official sources from politics, business, and science (Bennett, 1996). Boykoff and Boykoff (2007) argued that this also applied to climate change communication where journalists preferred to consult authority figures to reassure the public that the social order will be maintained. This behavior is closely related to the principle of “indexing” (Bennett, 1990) which means that the voices and viewpoints in the media are synchronized to the positions of the government.

It is not surprising that the norm of authority order or indexing is particularly strong in countries with an authoritarian political system. In China, the absence of climate contrarians in the press is said to reflect the government’s support of the scientific consensus on climate change (Xie, 2015). In Russia, the mass media seem to strongly rely on official sources and to rarely question the government’s position (Poberezhskaya, 2015).

However, authority order and indexing can also be found in Western democracies. Carvalho (2005) argued that the press’s discourse on climate change in the United Kingdom was shaped by the government’s discourse. Based on an empirical analysis of Swedish newspapers and a secondary analysis of studies in France and Germany, Olausson (2009) concluded that the relatively high levels of uncertainty in U.S. climate change coverage and the rather low levels in the European news media could be associated to the policy discourses in the respective countries. The “tight relationship between the political elite and the media” prevented the latter from “offering any alternative frames” (p. 433).


The professional norm most frequently discussed with regard to climate change is the principle of balance. This norm can be traced back to the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It is related to the principles of equality, fairness, and objectivity, and has become one of the best-established norms in Western journalism (Donsbach & Klett, 1993; Hallin & Mancini, 2004; McQuail, 1992). Balance is usually implemented by telling “both sides of the story” and by equally weighting the two most dominant actors or positions in a public debate (Entman, 1993; Gans, 1979; Tuchman, 1972).

While this approach may be appropriate for the political news coverage in a two-party system, applying it to climate change communication is problematic. Here, the scientific debate is increasingly dominated by a broad consensus on the factuality of climate change (Anderegg, Prall, Harold, & Schneider, 2010; Cook et al., 2013; Oreskes, 2004). On the other hand, there is a small but well-organized group of climate contrarians that challenge this consensus (Dunlap & McCright, 2011; Oreskes & Conway, 2010).

Nonetheless, Boykoff and Boykoff (2004) found that the leading U.S. newspapers weighted both sides equally in more than half of their news stories from 1998 to 2002. This means that the media representation diverged greatly from the proportions within the scientific debate. In light of these results, Boykoff and Boykoff (2004) criticized the norm of equal weighting and coined the combat term “false balance.” They argued that the disproportionate portrayal of climate contrarians increased uncertainty concerning the factuality of climate change in the population. This assertion has been substantiated in experimental studies (Corbett & Durfee, 2004; Lewandowsky et al., 2013).

However, a follow-up study uncovered that the share of balanced reporting dropped substantially from 2003 to 2006 (Boykoff, 2007). Schmid-Petri, Adam, Schmucki, and Häussler (2015) supported this finding in 2012. Simultaneously, Hiles and Hinnant (2014) interviewed a small sample of U.S. environmental journalists and found that, in the decade from 2000 to 2010, they had abandoned the norm of equal weighting and had adopted the more sophisticated practice of “weight-of-evidence reporting” (Dunwoody, 2005). This professional norm provides attention to actors according to the substance and robustness of the empirical evidence on which they base their arguments. Gibson, Craig, Harper, and Alpert (2016) confirmed this finding by analyzing another small sample of journalists.

Media Logic

Media logic is a very popular but slippery concept. According to Altheide and Snow (1979), who initially coined the term, media logic refers to the structure, style, and focus of media communication. Dahlgren (2009) defined media logic as genre-specific imperatives. Accordingly, Esser (2013) divided media logic into three sub-dimensions: ideals, commercial imperatives, and technology.

Within the context of environmental communication, Anderson (2015) mentioned the salience, sourcing, and framing of issues as elements of the media logic. Berglez (2011) operationalized media logic by the two indicators of style and framing.

Based on interviews in Sweden, Berglez (2011) identified three strategies journalists used to deal with the media logic of their respective publication outlet: First, they integrated the subject of climate change into the media logic by using “discursive metaphors” (p. 455) such as polar bears, disasters, and celebrities. Second, they admitted that climate change was “untranslatable” (p. 456) into the language of media logic and followed scientific logic instead. Third, they argued that it was not the issue climate change that should comply to the rules of media logic but that it was media logic that should adjust to climate change.

Gibson, Craig, Harper, and Alpert (2016) conducted a very similar study in the United States and identified two additional strategies of how science journalists integrated the issue of climate change into the media logic. One the one hand, the journalists reported that they found a “local angle” (p. 9), such as wildfires in Colorado, coastal flooding in Miami, and mudslides in Washington State. On the other hand, they reported that they “wove” (p. 9) climate change into other issues such as biodiversity, energy, and politics.

Both studies illustrated what had already been postulated by Boykoff and Boykoff (2007): Climate journalist draw on news values, such as novelty, dramatization, and personalization (but also localization) to make their subject of coverage comply to the rules of media logic. These news values also help climate journalists negotiate with their superior editors (Anderson, 2015; Gibson et al., 2016; Smith, 2005).

Impact of Culture

Political Line of the Newsroom

A natural place for journalism culture to manifest itself is the newsroom or editorial unit. Newsroom culture can be dividedinto the professional newsroom culture, on the one hand—which is experienced through the professional norms and which was already described in the previous section—and a political newsroom culture or political line, on the other hand.

The political line is usually predetermined by the editor-in-chief or publisher and affects the tone of the editorials and commentary. In countries and media outlets where the separation of opinion from fact is not so strict, the political line may also find its way into straight news coverage (Kepplinger, 1988; Schönbach, 1977).

Within the context of climate change, Carvalho and Burgess (2005) found that the British newspapers The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times assumed different positions towards national policy, which the authors attributed to diverging “ideological cultures” (p. 1467). The authors showed that The Times, at least during certain periods of time, downplayed the risks of climate change and discredited the IPCC. In a follow-up study, Carvalho (2007) argued that the political line of a newspaper even influenced the interpretation of facts and the selection of sources. She also identified an “ideological division” (p. 237) within The Independent. This underscored the premise that political (newsroom) culture can be regarded as an arena of competing ideologies.

In the United States, Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, and Leiserowitz (2012) found that the conservative television network Fox News took a more dismissive tone toward climate change than its more liberal counterparts CNN and MSNBC. Feldman, Hart, and Milosevic (2015) showed that, among leading U.S. newspapers, the conservative Wall Street Journal was the least likely to discuss the impacts of climate change and the most likely to highlight the negative economic consequences of taking action. They also demonstrated that the influence of the political line was not restricted to opinion pieces but included non-editorial coverage.

Painter and Ashe (2012) analyzed leading newspapers in Brazil, France, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They concluded that there was a “strong correspondence” (p. 7) between the newspaper’s political leaning and the presentation of climate contrarians in opinion pieces, particularly in the U.K., the U.S., and to a certain extent in France as well.

Interpretive Communities

Zelizer (1993) introduced the concept of interpretive community to journalism research. She argued that journalists can form this sort of community through the common interpretation of key events. Brüggemann and Engesser (2014) applied the idea to climate change communication. They argued that an interpretive community of international climate journalists from leading media outlets had evolved around the IPCC and its assessment reports, and that the participants in this community were connected by direct or mediated interactions. This could explain why international journalists shared high levels of support for the scientific consensus on the factuality of climate change. Lück, Wozniak, and Wessler (2016) demonstrated that journalists’ interpretive communities may also include the news sources by identifying coproduction networks between climate journalists and NGOs at the United Nations Climate Change Conferences.

National Journalism Culture

Brossard, Shanahan, and McComas (2004) compared the climate change coverage of Le Monde and The New York Times. They found that the former paper focused on the aspect of international relations while the latter emphasized the negative consequences of climate change and used more industry actors as sources. The authors concluded that these differences could be traced back to national journalism cultures, such as the balance-oriented reporting in the United States. However, the design of the study (only one newspaper per country) did not allow one to distinguish between the newsroom and the national level. So the political line of the newspapers may also have played an important role, as the authors admitted themselves.

National Political Culture

Almond and Verba (1963, p. 12) conceived of political culture as the entirety of political attitudes. This broad definition includes a multitude of different aspects, but two of them have proven particularly relevant: As climate change is a global problem and affects humankind as a whole, it appears plausible that a society’s position between the two poles of individualism and collectivism (Hofstede, 1980) influences how the issue is represented in the news media.

Evans (2016) contrasted the climate change coverage reprinted from Western news agencies to the coverage written by domestic journalists in leading Filipino newspapers. He found that the Filipino-penned articles were more likely to express collectivist values and endorse binding international agreements to reduce emissions than wire articles.

Another important aspect of political culture with regard to climate change is the role of civil society in a given country. Grundmann and Scott (2014) analyzed the climate change coverage in leading newspapers from Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The authors showed that environmental NGOs and pressure groups were much more visible in Europe than in the U.S., a fact they attributed to a different political culture (p. 231).

National Scientific and Technological Culture

Godin and Gingras (2000) defined scientific and technological culture as “modes through which individuals and society appropriate science and technology” (p. 44). Among all the elements of national scientific culture, it is presumably the perception of science which exerts the strongest influence on climate change coverage.

Asayama and Ishii (2014) argued that the relatively strong approval of science in the Japanese society may explain the positive portrayal of the IPCC and the downplay of uncertainty in the IPCC reports. Brossard, Shanahan, and McComas (2004) concluded that the high level of technological optimism in the United States as compared to Europe is also reflected in the news coverage of climate change.

Summary and Discussion

Summary of Journalistic Background

In terms of a journalist’s background, the literature review indicated that personal opinion, subject-related knowledge, and professional role may have a substantial impact on climate change coverage. Journalists who lean to the right are less likely to support the scientific consensus on the factuality of climate change and more likely to give climate contrarians a voice. The same may apply to religious journalists, although it is recommended to differentiate religious groups according to their basic values, such as the belief in the human rule over nature.

Besides, it is possible that journalists with insufficient subject-related knowledge produce climate change coverage that is not internally coherent, not congruent to scientific consensus, or not supported by empirical evidence. One can also assume that climate journalists depict climate change in a way that allows them to fulfill their professional roles and that they refrain from news coverage that opposes their role perceptions. For instance, a disseminator journalist may neutrally transmit the claims of climate contrarians to the audience, while investigative and interpretive journalists may scrutinize the IPCC reports.

Additionally, a journalist’s demographic profile and professional experience may indirectly influence his news decisions. This indirect effect may be rather small, as in the case of gender, which does not seem to activate the same kind of “identity-protective cognition” among males as in the general population. Education, on the other hand, is likely to play an important role because it predicts the subject-related knowledge. Furthermore, it may enhance the effect of political leaning in such a way as higher-educated conservative journalists may be even more likely to oppose the scientific consensus on climate change than lesser-educated ones.

Apart from this, the impact of personal opinion, subject-related knowledge, and professional role on news decisions is presumably mediated by the subject-related attitude. What a journalist thinks specifically about climate change is probably crucial. Journalists who consider climate change to be a highly relevant and interesting topic are likely to make it more salient than journalists who are tired of climate change reporting, are more interested in other issues, hold science in low esteem, or dislike the IPCC.

Summary of Professional Norms

With regard to professional norms, empirical studies have indicated that journalists emphasize news in order to adjust the issue of climate change to the rules of the media logic. They reported that they use the strategies of novelty, dramatization, personalization, and localization. Some journalists presented climate change as a natural disaster or human tragedy, connected the issue to celebrities, or highlighted the geographic proximity of its impacts. This behavior can either be regarded as negative because it contributes to the sensationalization of news (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007) or as positive because the journalists use creative ways to transmit the issue of climate change to the audience (Berglez, 2011; Gibson et al., 2016).

The norm of balance that dominated climate change coverage in the 1990s has become less important since the beginning of the 21st century. It has been gradually replaced by weight-of evidence reporting, which takes the scientific foundation of a position into account. This change has occurred in contrast to Boykoff and Boykoff’s (2007) assumption that professional norms are very stable concepts (p. 12). One of the explanations for this change of journalistic practice could be the influence of the interpretive community around the IPCC.

In contrast, the principle of authority order or indexing does not seem to have lost influence. While it is particularly prominent in countries with authoritarian political systems such as China and Russia, some authors also found climate change coverage in Western democracies to be dominated by the positions of the government. To a certain degree, an incumbency bonus makes sense because the government’s viewpoints inform its decisions and are more relevant to the audience than the voices of other social actors. On the other hand, authority order and indexing becomes harmful for democracy when alternative frames are marginalized or disappear completely from the media landscape.

Summary of Culture

When it comes to culture, the political line of the newsroom proves to be the strongest influencing factor. Several studies have demonstrated that conservative media outlets in the United Kingdom and the United States, such as The Times, Fox News, and The Wall Street Journal, have a clear stance on climate change policy and give more room to climate change contrarians. There is even empirical evidence that editorial lines may infringe upon the separation of opinion from fact (Carvalho, 2007; Feldman et al., 2015) and dominate the norm of objectivity.

Furthermore, climate journalists from leading media outlets participated in an interpretive community that had evolved around the IPCC. Consequently, they were likely to share the scientific consensus on the factuality of climate change. The cohesive power of this interpretive community could also be a reason why climate journalists abandoned the norm of balance in favor of weight-of-evidence reporting.

Both the newsroom cultures and the interpretive communities are also embedded in national journalism cultures. These journalism cultures are in turn influenced by national political and scientific cultures. There are indications that a country’s individualism, civic society, and approval of science may influence news decisions related to climate change.

However, it has remained difficult to distinguish cultural influences on the organizational and national level in a theoretically well-founded and methodologically sound manner. This problem was illustrated by the fact that Brossard et al. (2004) were not sure if differences in climate change coverage between France and the United States should be attributed to divergent national journalism cultures, political lines of the newsrooms, or scientific cultures. Olausson (2009) even argued that those differences were not due to cultural influences but to different positions of the respective governments towards climate change.

Conclusion and Outlook

Macrotrends within the media landscape, such as globalization, the erosion of traditional journalistic business models, and the rise of participatory journalism and social media can be regarded as superordinate influences (or metafactors) that affect journalistic background, professional norms, and culture.

One can speculate that globalization diminishes the role of national cultures and increases the importance of transnational interpretive communities which are linked together through social networks and global events (e.g., the United Nations Climate Change Conferences).

It is also possible that the financial crisis of the upmarket press in numerous countries may further reinforce the shift from specialist to generalist journalism, which entails a decrease of professional experience and subject-related knowledge among climate journalists, which, in turn, may lead to less accurate climate change coverage.

Besides, the proliferation of social media and weblogs, due to higher orientation towards the audience than legacy media, may strengthen the first-order professional norms personalization, dramatization, and novelty. At the same time, however, these individual platforms can also weaken the second-order norms of authority order and balance which seem to require the social cohesion of a newsroom to be successfully cultivated.

The research community that investigates the impact of journalist background, professional norms, and culture on climate change coverage is rather small. Most scholars have a background in journalism and mass communication but there are also representatives of sociology, psychology, and environmental studies among them.

One major branch of research is informed by Boykoff and Boykoff’s (2004) seminal article and focuses on the norm of balance and its alternatives. Another tradition aims at revealing how political ideologies and power structures influence climate journalism, mainly by means of content analyses. A third strand of research is interested in international differences of climate change coverage. The final group of scholars conducts in-depth analyses on the process of news production.

Most studies focus on the United States, the United Kingdom, and Sweden, but Asian countries are increasingly being taken into account as well. However, scholarship from Africa and television studies are lacking, as are combinations of content analyses and surveys (see Table 1).

Table 1. Selected empirical studies.




Key Findings

Asayama and Ishii (2014)

Content analysis

Japanese press

Scientific culture influences climate change coverage.

Berglez (2011)


14 Swedish journalists

Journalists use three strategies to deal with media logic.

Boykoff and Boykoff (2004)

Content analysis

U.S. press

Majority of climate change coverage is balanced.

Boykoff and Boykoff (2007)

Content analysis

U.S. press and TV

Professional norms influence climate change coverage.

Brossard et al. (2004)

Content analysis

NYT and Le Monde

National culture may influence climate change coverage.

Brüggemann and Engesser (2014)


64 journalists (CH, DE, IN, UK, US)

Climate journalists form interpretive communities, journalist background influences attitude towards climate change.

Carvalho and Burgess (2005)

Content analysis

British press

Editorial culture influences climate change coverage.

Elsasser and Dunlap (2013)

Content analysis

U.S. op-eds (N = 203)

Conservative columnists question climate change.

Engesser and Brüggemann (2015)


64 journalists (CH, DE, IN, UK, US)

Journalists have five cognitive frames of climate change.

Evans (2016)

Content analysis

Filipino press

Collectivist culture influences climate change coverage.

Feldman et al. (2012)

Content analysis

U.S. TV networks

Conservative networks question climate change.

Feldman et al. (2015)

Content analysis

U.S. press

Conservative press questions climate change.

Gibson et al. (2016)


10 U.S. journalists

Journalists abandon norm of balance, journalists use two strategies to deal with media logic.

Grundmann and Scott (2014)

Content analysis

Press (DE, FR, UK, US)

Political culture influences climate change coverage.

Hiles and Hinnant (2014)


11 U.S. journalists

Journalists abandon norm of balance.

Lück et al. (2016)


78 journalists and NGO members

Interpretive communities include news sources.

Olausson (2009)

Content analysis

Swedish press

Governmental position influences climate change coverage.

Poberezhskaya (2015)

Content analysis

Russian press

Governmental position influences climate change coverage.

Stocking and Holstein (2009)


5 U.S. journalists

Science journalists use ignorance claims to fulfill their professional roles.

Wilson (2000)


249 U.S. journalists

Education increases knowledge and knowledge increases accuracy.

Xie (2015)

Content analysis

Chinese and U.S. press

Governmental position influences climate change coverage.

Based on the current state of research, there are five major avenues for future studies. First, it may be worth analyzing how similar the general population and the special group comprising climate journalists are in terms of psychological and social mechanisms. A large quantity of empirical evidence on climate change concern and climate activism is derived from representative surveys (e.g., Brulle et al., 2012; Lee et al., 2015). However, it remains an open question as to how easily these findings can be generalized to journalists. Do demographics and personal opinion have the same impact on the predominantly male, highly educated, and largely secularist subpopulation of climate journalists as they have on “ordinary” people? There have been reasons to assume that journalists perceive climate change as a lesser “cultural identity threat” than do males in general. At the same time, the interaction effects of education and political leaning on concern about climate change is likely to be stronger among climate journalists than among the overall population. These problems could be investigated by replicating existing studies with climate journalists or by explicitly contrasting samples of the overall population to samples of climate journalists.

Second, a journalist’s subject-related knowledge and subject-related attitude have been frequently neglected in the process of news production. The literature review, however, demonstrated that a journalist’s knowledge may not only facilitate his news decisions but also both prevent him from making mistakes and ensure his professional autonomy. Furthermore, a journalists’ specific attitude towards his subject of coverage is presumably the most easily activated cognition in the process of news production. Therefore, both the subject-related knowledge and subject-related attitude should be included into future theories of media content. The same applies to the cognitive frames of journalists which can be regarded as a special hybrid of subject-related knowledge and attitude.

Third, any further attempts to theoretically define and disentangle news values, professional norms, media logic, newsroom culture, and interpretive communities would be worthwhile. Boykoff and Boykoff (2007) already made considerable steps in this direction by differentiating between first-order and second-order norms. However, it still remains largely obscure how exactly the professional norms interrelate. Any further clarification would be helpful, in particular when professional norms compete or conflict with each other, such as balance and authority order. What happens when there is a discrepancy between national professional norms (e.g., balance) and an international interpretive community (which practices weight-of-evidence reporting)? This could be analyzed by interviews and observations in the newsroom. Besides, the ambiguous concept of media logic should be further specified. The progress in this regard that has been made in the field of political communication (e.g., Esser, 2013) could inspire climate change communication research.

Fourth, the scientific efforts should be intensified to identify and systemize the cultural factors on the national level that influence news decisions. The literature review already showed that the degree of individualism, the role of the civil society, the approval of science, and the extent of technological optimism may have an impact on climate change coverage. However, this list is far from exhaustive and could also include additional concepts such as “consensual culture” (Lijphart, 1999), “political parallelism” (Hallin & Mancini, 2004), and “uncertainty avoidance” (Hofstede, 1980). The influence of these cultural factors could be analyzed by means of international comparative research.

Fifth, a potential methodological gold standard for future research on the impact of journalistic background, professional norms, and culture on news decisions related to climate change could be the multilevel analysis (Hayes, 2006; Snijders & Bosker, 2012). This rather sophisticated method would enable the scholars to integrate the micro level of the individual journalist, the meso level of the newsroom, and the macro level of the national culture. It would also allow to identify interaction effects between the different levels. What happens when a journalist’s individual political leaning, the political line of a newsroom, or the government’s position collide? This is certainly one of the questions that will occupy the field of climate journalism research in the future.

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