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date: 22 May 2017

TV and Cable News Coverage of Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

Television and cable are two routes by which broadcasters reach the public. Citizens are known to rely on a variety of media sources; however, television is seen by people in a very wide range of geographical locales, as a main or major source of reliable and trusted information. The coverage of climate change by broadcasters is, however, modest relative to press coverage of the topic and reports on topics other than global warming. Journalists in the televisual media can struggle to justify the inclusion of climate change in programming because it can lack the “newsworthiness” that draws editors and reporters to other issues. A range of incentives and pressures have tended to ensure that commentary and claims that stand outside the scientific consensus are represented in “balanced” reporting. The literature on broadcast programming output on climate change is highly diverse and often country specific. Nevertheless, certain features do stand out across locales, notably a focus on alarming (and possibly alarmist) commentary, limited reporting on the causes and consequences of climate change, and widespread reproduction of climate sceptic claims. These common forms of coverage seem unlikely to prompt full understanding of, serious engagement with, or concern about the issue.

Keywords: television, cable, broadcasting, journalism, climate change, coverage, news, documentary, international


Near consensus has been reached on climate science fundamentals (Cook et al., 2013), and there is some indication that scientists have actually been rather conservative in their predictions on the pace of change and its associated dangers (Gavin & Marshall, 2011a). However, around the globe there is also considerable public misunderstanding of the phenomenon, underappreciation of the nature of the threat it poses, and lack of concern (Weber, 2010), alongside considerable skepticism that the dangers are real, especially in Anglophone countries (Painter, 2011). The media contribute to public understanding of environmental issues. Therefore, broadcast coverage, as a trusted and reliable source for citizens in many locales, is worthy of consideration.

Televisual material is transmitted in many different ways, including through satellite and cable, and via terrestrially based signals. In addition, television and cable sources are not hermetically sealed off from other media—like the Internet—because the output can also figure on broadcasters’ web space (Holmes, 2009). Nevertheless, they share some features in the way the programming is handled editorially, as well as how it is packaged and presented. As outlined in the following research overview, there is a rich and diverse literature on broadcast coverage of climate change. But in a context of widespread political, economic, and social changes—where media systems vary so greatly—few generalizations hold across a wide range of countries or extend over considerable periods of time. Nevertheless, the following assessment highlights the common patterns that can be discerned, as well as signaling where there is country- or context-dependent variability.

Importance of Broadcasting and the Prominence of Climate Change

Unlike other publicly debated topics, in the climate-change domain the media may be particularly important. Global warming is unlike issues such as crime, economics, or health, where people have immediate and direct experience. In contrast, with climate change, citizens are more dependent on the media to place the issue in context (Wilson, 2000). Weber puts this eloquently:

Because climate change is so hard to detect and judge accurately based on personal experience, one might argue that its detection should be left to experts, namely climate scientists, and to their social amplifiers, the media and educators. Such delegation makes climate change a phenomenon for whose existence and likely magnitude and time course people have to rely on their beliefs in scientific observation and modeling, in expert judgments, and/or on reports about all of these in the mass media. Indeed, most people’s knowledge and exposure to climate change has been almost entirely indirect and virtual, mediated by news coverage and film documentaries of events in distant regions (such as melting ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica) that ascribe these events to climate change, events and arguments for which people’s personal experience does not provide concurring evidence.

(Weber, 2010, p. 334)

But on which media do the public rely? Assessing the importance of television coverage of climate change requires an appreciation of its position relative to other media. One important dimension is a person’s inclination to use it as a source for general or climate-related news. Another consideration is trust in various media as reliable or accurate sources. To this is added an additional layer of geographic complexity because populations around the world may differ in how they view various media. Nevertheless, from the evidence a general picture emerges of broadcasting’s relative importance, and several examples are provided here:

  • In the United States, television has consistently been more important than the press as the place where citizens get their news, and by a considerable margin (Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 2012a; Saad, 2013). Additionally, in terms of “believability”, broadcasting sources have constituted five of the top six sources specified (Pew Research Center for People & the Press, 2012b). Television is a primary source of climate-change knowledge (Wilson, 1995), and it is the dominant channel for encountering science (National Science Board, 2012). Furthermore, television news is, on balance, ahead of newspapers as a trusted source of environmental information (Boykoff, 2008). And “science television”—presumably including documentary coverage—is way ahead of both (Brewer & Ley, 2013).

  • In Britain, the picture is clearer. Television is, by far, the main source of news (Ofcom, 2007; Ofcom, 2013; YouGov, 2016). And when people are asked the single source they are most likely to turn to for trusted, reliable or accurate news, television—and the BBC in particular—is far ahead of other media, including online news aggregators (Populus, 2012; YouGov, 2012; BBC, 2013). Television also leads the press and—by a considerable margin—the Internet, as a source for science (Ipsos-MORI, 2014) and climate-change information (Whitmarsh, 2009; Anderson, 2011; Painter, 2014).

  • In Newman and Levy’s (2013) study of media habits, television far outstrips all other media as the most popular way for German citizens to access news. And according to Hasebrink and Hölig (2013), specific channels, such as ARD and ZDF, and specific programs, like Tagesschau and Heute, are renowned news sources. Importantly, German television is also the main source of news about climate change, and the more trusted medium (Schäfer, 2012; Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014).

  • In India, television is roughly neck-and-neck with the press as the most important and trusted general source of news (BBC/Reuters/Media Centre Poll, 2006). Nevertheless, the most trusted single source is Aaj Tak, the Hindi news channel (Painter, 2014). Leiserowitz and Thaker (2012) also note that television is ahead of the press as a source of climate-change information in this country.

Similar stories could be told about Spain (León & Erviti, 2015; Meira, Harto, Heras, & Montero, 2011) and Australia (Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2011; Painter, 2014). Notably, however, the evidence suggests only the relative significance of broadcasting rather than its dominance. From this perspective, other media do—decidedly—count. Furthermore, the evidence outlined in the preceding list relates to whole populations, and specific segments of populations may have particular preferences (Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2009; Metag, Füchslin, & Schäfer, 2015). For instance, Wilson (2000) suggests that American college students prefer television (often its local variant) to the press as a source of climate change information, and by a large margin. But few relied on television, a feature of variegated and overlapping exposure among the well-educated elsewhere (Haklay, 2002). Age-related demographics are also important, with older generations more likely to rely on television for news (Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 2012a; Newman & Levy, 2013).

But what are people exposed to when using this medium? How much climate coverage is there on television? The broad contours of press coverage are well known (Nacu-Schmidt et al., 2016), but longitudinal assessments of television’s climate change reporting are, in comparison, relatively scarce (Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014), so “prominence” is difficult to gauge. Estimates vary from country to country. But while press stories per year are often counted in the hundreds (if not thousands), the number of broadcast “segments” is typically very much smaller. Boykoff’s (2007) assessment of America’s ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN channels suggests a year’s worth of stories amount to tens rather than hundreds, a feature that did not change markedly after 2007 (Media Matters, 2016). This picture is replicated elsewhere: in Spain (González, 2014; León & Erviti, 2015), Britain (Hargreaves, Lewis, & Speers, 2003), and in cross-national assessments (Lester & Cottle, 2009). Nevertheless, there are sharp spikes in coverage around significant events, such as climate negotiations, and during UN IPCC reports. However, these spikes typically produced only an additional few tens of stories (Gavin & Marshall, 2011a; Boykoff, 2012; Konieczna, Mattis, Tsai, Liang, & Dunwoody, 2014; Liang, Tsai, Mattis, Konieczna, & Dunwoody, 2014; Media Matters, 2016; Gavin, 2016).

A number of important issues need to be considered when assessing the prominence of climate change in broadcasting. First, in many quarters, coverage has diminished from a peak in the late 2000s (Boykoff, 2008; Jenkins, 2011; Hart & Feldman, 2014; Aram & Prem Nivas, 2015; León & Erviti, 2015). Second, the number of climate stories should not be viewed in isolation. To date, only a few studies have compared press coverage of climate change against the weight of reports on other topics, i.e., assess its “relative prominence.” And the number of climate change stories are extremely modest indeed, compared to reports on bread-and-butter issues like “health” or “crime” (Gavin, 2009). For broadcast news, too, limited relative prominence of climate coverage is evident (Hargreaves, Lewis, & Speers, 2003; Tyndall Report, 2007; León & Erviti, 2015). Finally, particular broadcasters or channels can give the topic greater or lesser prominence, with Fox News falling into the former category (Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2011; Ahern & Formentin, 2016) and commercial television in Britain, the latter (Hargreaves, Lewis, & Speers, 2003).

However, “news” is not the only form of broadcast programming in which climate issues surface. Documentaries are arguably the place where they get the most sustained and cohesive treatment; programming can extend to over an hour in contrast to news packages, which typically last little more than a few minutes (Hargreaves, Lewis, & Speers, 2003). Documentaries are also as important as news, as an information source (Ashworth, Jeanneret, Gardner, & Shaw, 2011). Research in this domain is very limited, and also tends to focus on cinema-based formats (Spoel, Goforth, Cheu, & Pearson, 2008; von Mossner, 2013; Aaltonen, 2014; McGreavy & Lindenfeld, 2014; Salazar, 2015). Alternatively, emphasis is placed on isolated cases of particular documentaries (e.g., The Great Global Warming Swindle (Mellor, 2009), Are We Changing Planet Earth/Can We Save Planet Earth (Doyle, 2011) or I Can Change Your Mind About Climate (Debrett, forthcoming), on hybrid “docudramas” (Reid, 2009), or on narrow facets of commentary, such as visual rhetoric (Hughes, 2012). Long-term, exhaustive assessments of climate-change documentaries are, however, rare (Gavin, 2007). But existing work suggests that, in Britain at least, while there was a hiatus during the global financial crisis, there was a peak in the late 2000s, followed by a distinct dip thereafter (Gavin, 2016). Duting this peak, between six and nine documentaries were broadcast in 2006, 2007 and 2009, with a subsequent decline to one or two (and sometimes none) thereafter.

Journalistic Practice and Broadcasting around Climate

One explanation for the relative distribution of broadcast coverage—and changes in its prominence over time—is the perception of the topic’s “newsworthiness” in editorial judgements (Harcup & O’Neill, 2001; Harcup & O’Neill, forthcoming). This perception is part of a broader set of journalistic norms conditioning decisions about the (non)placement of stories, including the personalization and dramatization of topics, the search for novelty, and regular consultation with authority figures as sources (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007). Climate change, as a topic, suffers in these respects. The science is highly complex and technical and does not lend itself to personalization. Global warming can also lack celebrity or entertainment dimensions that render stories “newsworthy” (Boykoff & Goodman, 2009), and it is intermittently and inconsistently championed by political elites (Bourk, Rock, & Davis, forthcoming). The dramatic manifestations of global warming’s consequences are also often geographically “distant” in relation to the preoccupations of audiences in the developed world. Thus, broadcasters, like their press counterparts, find it difficult to justifying covering it, a problem that can be compounded by lack of understanding of the science by senior editorial staff (Smith, 2005; Jai cited in Shanahan, 2009).

Importantly, though, the role of “visuals” in making issues newsworthy is generally underexplored in such assessments (Caple & Bednarek, 2016). León and Erviti (2015, p.184) claim that research on climate-change broadcasting has “virtually neglected” their role. Nevertheless, the analysis of visualization in climate coverage has generally tended to emphasize still imagery and the printed media, rather than television (amongst others, Doyle, 2007; DiFrancesco & Young, 2011). Where the focus is broadcasting, however, research suggests that coverage is limited due to the scarcity of attractive, non-clichéd visuals, or imagery characterizing climate change consequences as geographically remote (Speers, 2005; León & Erviti, 2015; Bourk, Rock, & Davis, forthcoming).

Seeking “newsworthiness” is not the only factor animating broadcast journalists. There is also a strong impulse to consider “balance” in editorial decision making: notably—but not exclusively—in countries with a strong public-service broadcasting presence. Such balance is manifest in equal (or near-equal) air time given to climate science alongside contrarian commentary. This balance is evident in news coverage (Boykoff, 2008) and documentary programming (Debrett, forthcoming). A range of commissioning and editorial calculations underpin this approach. Balancing commentary between competing claims is important for due impartiality in public service broadcasting, and it is also often seen as a technique for achieving objectivity or neutrality (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004, 2007; Illman, 2015) or signaling distance from issues that imply inherent sets of value positions (Smith, 2005). In Britain, calculations on balance across a whole schedule’s output were certainly an element in Channel 4’s justification for airing the highly controversial contrarian documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle. (See also Defining Objectivity, False Balance, and Advocacy in News Coverage of Climate Change.)

The pressures under which balance becomes an important editorial factor can have a variety of roots that differ considerably from country to country. In some locales, journalists have wrestled rather uncomfortably with their negotiation of “balance.” The issue is particularly problematic when there is an attraction to sensational and newsworthy stories and where there are well-connected, active, articulate (and sometimes flamboyant) advocates of contrarian positions. For instance, the BBC, in an internal 2007 assessment of editorial practice, seemed to accept that, while blanket exclusion of contrarians was undesirable, a straight arithmetic balance between them and climate scientists was inappropriate (BBC Trust, 2007). Instead, it was recommended that “weight of evidence” should be the principal factor in editorial decisions, something also acknowledged by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2011). Nevertheless, for the BBC and ABC, this idea is capable of substantial modification. The lure of dramatic, sensational and newsworthy developments—particularly around “Climategate”—coupled with political pressure, seems capable of significantly moderating “weight of evidence” calculations.

The BBC has certainly been subject to criticism from Members of Parliament that sceptics have been excluded (Pearce, 2010), likewise from contrarians outside Parliament (Jones, 2011). This negative commentary occurred at a time when the organization was clearly sensitive to the criticism that it excluded from coverage particular political positions on many topics (Hill, 2011). Such pressures, it is claimed, prompted a reappraisal of editorial policy: “Reporters say they have been under pressure from editors to ‘get more sceptics on’… ‘We are’ one correspondent said privately, ‘back to the false-balance days that chiefs swore had been left behind’” (Pearce, 2010, p. 190). Around the same period, Australia saw the arrival of flamboyant contrarian activist Christopher Monckton, who was vocally supported by the opposition leader (and ardent contrarian) Tony Abbott, Abbot’s senior colleagues, and a press expressing strong criticism of ABC’s supposed exclusion of sceptics (Chubb & Nash, 2012). Thus, Monckton regularly appear in ABC news and radio broadcasts, balanced against climate scientists, and this development engendered levels of disquiet amongst journalists comparable to those expressed by their BBC counterparts (Chubb & Nash, 2012).

In other locales, different sets of pressures drive the impulse to balance, or in some instances, squeeze climate change out of news commentary. For example, in the United States, it has been alleged that Fox News reporters have come under internal institutional pressure to handle climate change in a manner favoring contrarian commentary (Farhi, 2010) or that contributors have been urged to de-emphasize the issue (Moyer, 2014). These instances are consistent with the finding that Fox News has a distinctive agenda on climate not shared by other broadcasters (Ahern & Formentin, 2016). Indeed, Ahern and Formentin (2016) note, “in an effort to emphasize the idea that the science of global warming is unsettled, FNC [Fox News Corporation] reporters, editors, and commentators take every available opportunity to raise the issue and contextualize it in the desired fashion…” (p. 61). However, the FNC approach makes sound commercial sense, especially where opinion on climate change is highly polarized along partisan lines, and its audience is disproportionately Republican (Morris, 2007).

Comparable commercial pressures are at work elsewhere on American television, though manifesting themselves differently. Notably, very few specialist environmental or science reporters are active on the networks (Sachsman, Simon, & Valenti, 2008; Wilson, 2009; Maibach, Wilson, & Witte, 2010). This affects the overall editorial capacity to generate fully informed climate-change commentary. But it is also understandable in highly competitive and resource-constrained enterprises where the flexibility and pay levels of generalist reporters are important considerations. In this environment, “weather forecasters”—considered a trusted source of information by viewers (Wilson, 2008; Homans, 2010; Maibach, Witte, & Wilson, 2011)—have a higher profile in communicating climate change issues than they might otherwise. Their overall direct contribution to climate coverage can vary (Maibach, Wilson, & Witte, 2010), but they have been characterized as “… the most prominent weather communicators in US society…” (Wilson, 2008), and they contribute to broader societal debate via personal and station blogs and web sites, or via radio work, invited television appearances, and newspaper columns (Homans, 2010; Maibach, Wilson, & Witte, 2010).

Importantly, a third of this community considers global warming a scam, whereas just under two-thirds hold views that are inconsistent with the climate-science consensus (Wilson, 2009, p.1462; Homans, 2010; Maibach, Wilson, & Witte, 2010). Others are suspicious of the perceived politicization of, or the uncertainty around, the science (Schweizer, Cobb, Schroeder, Chau, & Maibach, 2014). In this environment, many consider it expedient to cover the topic in a balanced fashion or to shy away from the topic altogether because they are leery of alienating viewers in a polarized political environment (Maibach, Wilson, & Witte, 2010). “Climategate” further eroded certainty about climate change among weather forecasters, a factor most pronounced among the politically conservative (though politically liberal weather forecasters were also affected) and affected those unsure about climate change (Maibach, Witte, & Wilson, 2011). Evidently, their editorial positioning on climate change is not fixed, and—somewhat like their U.K. counterparts—is sensitive to a combination of contextual and institutional developments and pressures (see TV Meteorologists as Local Climate Change Educators).

The U.K., Australian, and U.S. experiences are not, however, uniformly applicable to climate-change journalism around the globe. Researchers note that in these countries, debate on climate change is highly polarized; the scientific consensus is not universally accepted in journalistic and governmental circles; and climate sceptics are extremely well organized, highly active, articulate and effective in ways scientists often are not (Dunlap & McCright, 2010; Painter, 2011). In France and Germany, where such features are not as clearly evident, climate-sceptic commentary is much less often used to balance broadcast output (Weingart, Engels, & Pansegrau, 2000; Peters & Heinrichs, 2008; Aykut, Comby, & Guillemot, 2012). With regard to journalism and editorial decision making, localized practices are highly sensitive to societal, institutional, and occupational pressures, but the geographical context is also at work.

Broadcast Output on Climate Change

A meta-analysis of research on “the media and climate change” suggests that, by a considerable margin, much more work is done on newspapers than on broadcasting and that America is the country most often studied (Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). This trend also extends to research on climate coverage. A focus on press coverage is explicable given the ready availability of comprehensive, machine-searchable databases like “Lexis-Nexis.” However, in the absence of comparable television databases, like the U.S. “Vanderbilt Television News Archive,” researchers often need to adopt a time-consuming and costly “record-watch-transcribe-analyze” approach in assessing what is often scattered or light coverage. This may explain why a good many assessments of broadcasters’ climate coverage focus on fairly narrow time periods (Olausson, 2010; Höijer, 2010), or on specific short-term events, such as UN IPCC reports (O’Neill, Williams, Kurz, Wiersma, & Boykoff, 2015; Painter, 2014; Gavin, 2016) or climate conferences (Painter, 2007; Petersen, 2007; Gavin & Marshall, 2011a; Gavin & Marshall, 2011b; Boykoff, 2012; Erviti & De Lara, 2012; Konieczna, Mattis, Tsai, Liang, & Dunwoody, 2014). Most research is also often country specific, with fairly limited explicit comparative analysis (O’Neill, Williams, Kurz, Wiersma, & Boykoff, 2015; Liang, Tsai, Mattis, Konieczna, & Dunwoody, 2014). Furthermore, extended geographical reach can necessitate a considerable narrowing of the time frame explored (Lester & Cottle, 2009; Painter, 2014).

The literature on climate coverage is also highly varied. For instance, it can differ in the methods adopted, ranging from broad-brush, narrative, or descriptive assessments of coverage (Petersen, 2007; Lester & Cottle, 2009; Boykoff, 2012) through framing analysis (Hart & Feldman, 2014; Konieczna, Mattis, Tsai, Liang, & Dunwoody, 2014) and critical discourse analysis (Boykoff, 2008) to heavily structured quantitative content analysis (O’Neill, Williams, Kurz, Wiersma, & Boykoff, 2015) or hybrid approaches mixing qualitative and quantitative techniques (Gavin & Marshall, 2011a). Moreover, the themes, issues, and concepts that are the primary foci of studies can differ very starkly: the social construction of climate risk (Peters & Heinrichs, 2008); climate coverage’s emotional connections (Höijer, 2010); climate coverage and EU identity (Olausson, 2010); broadcast journalists’ sources (Konieczna, Mattis, Tsai, Liang, & Dunwoody, 2014; Bourk, Rock, & Davis, forthcoming); climate protests (Gavin & Marshall, 2011b); the causes and effects of climate change in commentary (Speers, 2005; Liang, Tsai, Mattis, Konieczna, & Dunwoody, 2014); the visualization of climate change (Lester & Cottle, 2009); and links in the coverage to “ecological modernization” (Petersen, 2007). Finally, the channels/networks assessed range from single broadcasters (Olausson, 2010; McKnight, 2010; Huertas & Adler, 2012) through limited focus on large audience channels (Gavin, 2016) to multistation evaluations (Boykoff, 2007) and regional television (Peters & Heinrichs, 2008).

This is an extremely rich and diverse body of evidence, but these qualities also mean that the research does not lend itself easily to stable or broad generalizations across a wide range of geographical locations. Nevertheless, a few themes emerge with a degree of consistency. First, in a wide range of contexts, countries and channels, the theme of climate change as alarming or threatening figures fairly consistently in the output, involving portrayal of the phenomenon as disastrous (O’Neill, Williams, Kurz, Wiersma, & Boykoff, 2015; Painter, 2014), dangerous or extreme (Peters & Heinrichs, 2008; Lester & Cottle, 2009; Gavin, 2016), severe (Hart & Feldman, 2014), even catastrophic (Höijer, 2010) or running amok (Petersen, 2007). This prevalence is explicable in terms of the news values noted earlier; stories encompassing these themes are intrinsically dramatic, offering a hook for stories that might otherwise struggle to achieve newsworthiness.

Second, much research has focused on how broadcast coverage portrays the causes and consequences of climate change. Though not always a central or prominent part of broadcast commentary, such themes are clearly important to public understanding. Here, a more varied picture emerges. Some studies only look in broad terms at the relative weight given to “causes” and “consequences,” with the latter more prominent (Speers, 2005), or at the visual imagery associated with them (Lester & Cottle, 2009). One comparative study notes that, “Those stories that did articulate causal connections tied climate disruption … to countries other than the home country in both the United States and China, while the majority of the Canadian stories that mentioned causality blamed Canada itself …” (Liang, Tsai, Mattis, Konieczna, & Dunwoody, 2014, p. 262). Furthermore, Gavin (2016) observes that in British TV commentary, the causes of climate are almost invariably generalized to “mankind,” “humans,” or fossil fuel use. In contrast, in Germany (Peters & Heinrichs, 2008) and Denmark (Petersen, 2007), broadcasters touch explicitly on developed, rich, or industrialized nations’ disproportionate responsibility. Meanwhile, in a range of locations, the impacts of climate change are frequently portrayed as distant from the country where the broadcaster is located: Spain (Erviti & De Lara, 2012), America (Hart & Feldman, 2014), Denmark (Petersen, 2007), and the United Kingdom (Gavin, 2007).

But one of the most prominent themes in the assessment of televisual output is the exploration of the incidence of climate skepticism. As already noted, in a few contexts, such as Germany and France, this aspect is almost wholly absent from broadcast coverage (Painter et al., 2016; see also Climate Change Communication in Germany). This near absence has also been evident in Spain (González, 2014). In other environments, such as Denmark, contrarian commentary has crept into coverage when it was formerly absent (Petersen, 2007). Further studies suggest more prevalent forms of contrarian claims making, particularly in the United States (Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2011), though also in Sweden (see Olausson, 2010). On a range of American channels, balanced commentary has manifested itself in a heavy emphasis on nonanthropological causes of climate change, (Boykoff, 2008; Media Matters, 2016), i.e., the natural processes figuring in much skeptical discourse (Dunlap & McCright, 2010). Furthermore, skepticism is particularly prevalent on Fox News, where this discourse moves beyond a studied balance, and where contrarian claims are warmly embraced and often framed in a tone highly dismissive and critical of climate science and those advocating global warming action (McKnight, 2010; Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2011; Boykoff, 2012; Huertas & Adler, 2012).

But the incidence of skeptical commentary in broadcast coverage may, in some instances, be underestimated. Here the issue turns on how skepticism is defined and measured. Some studies have focused on particularly prominent facets of skeptical claims making, such as the nonanthropogenic causes of warming already noted (Boykoff, 2008) and on notions of scientific uncertainty or contest (Liang, Tsai, Mattis, Konieczna, & Dunwoody, 2014; Painter, 2014; O’Neill, Williams, Kurz, Wiersma, & Boykoff, 2015). But a range of authors note that contrarian claims and discourse extend beyond these issues to include establishment/media exaggeration of the problem, the drop-in-the-ocean futility of economically damaging mitigation policies, or critiques of climate regulation (Gavin & Marshall, 2011a; McKewon, 2012; Elsasser & Dunlap, 2013). Studies overlooking these tangible expressions of skepticism have suggested that, in New Zealand for example, there is limited contrarian commentary in evidence (Bourk, Rock, & Davis, forthcoming). There is the same supposed absence in American coverage around the Copenhagen climate conference (Liang, Tsai, Mattis, Konieczna, & Dunwoody, 2014). In contrast, studies assessing a broader range of contrarian themes suggest that there is a significant (Gavin & Marshall, 2011b), and occasionally almost uniform (Gavin, 2016), presence of identifiably skeptical discourse, at least in some British television coverage.

Finally, what is absent from coverage must be considered. Identifying such omissions can be important for the framing of an issue (Entman, 1993). Although establishing what these absences might be is problematic, they can still be ventured where excluded themes have a strong evidential basis (Philo, 2007; Gavin & Marshall, 2011a). First, in some contexts, such as Honduras and Jamaica (Harbinson, 2006), coverage of climate change itself can be almost entirely absent. In more populous countries, such as Mexico, Russia, and India, coverage of important events, such as the UN IPCC, can also be very limited indeed (Painter, 2007). But where climate is covered reasonably extensively, one significant omission is, “health.” As O’Neill, Williams, Kurz, Wiersma, and Boykoff (2015) note, the connections between climate change and health have been flagged by a wide variety of national and international organizations. However, they also note the theme’s absence in coverage in the United Kingdome and the United States during the 2013–14 UN IPCC. For limited rather than absent treatment of the connection, see also Hart and Feldman (2014).

Two more latent themes are worth noting. First, British coverage of the UN IPCC reports (Gavin, 2016) suggests virtually no reference to emissions from specific nations (set in historical context), in favor—as noted earlier—of man, mankind, and humans as the cause of climate change. In so doing, the coverage seriously downplays the “differentiated” component of the UN FCCC’s Article 3(1) acknowledgment of the “common but differentiated responsibility for climate change.” Lastly, and more controversially, among the whole corpus of research findings outlined in this section, only one touches on underlying societal and economic structures that play a significant role in climate change, and it does so only to note their absence in commentary:

… New Zealand television news broadcasts [covering climate change] focus on market-driven progress and avoid fundamental questions pertaining to present societal structures that reinforce greater consumption patterns and reliance on growth.

(Bourk, Rock, & Davis, forthcoming, p. 15)


As this article has noted, there is an expansive body of research on broadcast coverage of climate change. Nevertheless, there are significant gaps in knowledge. If television and cable are considered potentially significant contributors to public debate on climate change, more must be known about how broadcasters in all countries cover the topic in the longer term. It has been suggested that television output can and should be judged for its accuracy, balance and authenticity only in a longitudinal perspective, that is, “on the basis of the general picture painted over time” (Davis, 1998, p. 158). But this idea presents researchers with formidable practical difficulties, especially where easily searchable archives of televisual material are often not readily available, even in developed Anglophone countries.

Such facilities are in development; however, they will surely be needed to assess and analyze the broader context in which a more complex media environment emerges. Television sources may be significant, but it is evident that the new media carry material whose general format is indistinguishable from conventional broadcasts and bulletins. These media sources include YouTube, or some of the material mounted by the likes of the Huffington Post, Vice, and Buzzfeed (Painter, et al., 2016). This coverage is potentially important for the growing segments of the population (often younger) who are inclined to use the Web as a source of information (Ofcom, 2013, p.48). In addition, a great many broadcast organizations across the globe mount their own web-based coverage and clips. This has seldom been the object of serious and sustained analysis (although, see Holmes, 2009). However, it may be increasingly important because this material is easily refracted through social media (Newman, Dutton, & Blank, 2012). More attention certainly needs to be given to such “broadcasts.”

Perhaps the most glaring gap in understanding relates to how (or whether) broadcast coverage influences those exposed to it. As O’Neill, Williams, Kurz, Wiersma, and Boykoff (2015, p. 383) rightly note, it is important to be aware of how the broadcasters frame climate change, but more “[a]udience studies examining the impact of exposure to different frames [are] also required.” This awareness is part of a broader, recurrent theme in communication studies: the need for greater integrated knowledge across the whole mediation process. In other words, linking contextual factors, such as the economics and politics of the newsroom, with an understanding of conventional and citizen journalist practice, the coverage it produces, its impact, and subsequent implications for the body politic. But this is a tall order indeed.

Limitation on knowledge aside, the research outlined in the body of this article is that broadcasting is still an important and respected source of information for many citizens in a wide range of countries. Thus, it is significant that the coverage on this medium is so modest and may even be declining. And as Nisbet (2009, p. 15) notes:

With so many different content choices via cable television and the Internet, an individual uninterested in science or public affairs news can easily avoid such coverage, paying attention to entertainment genres or, perhaps more problematically, his or her preferred ideological source of commentary.

The research on agenda-setting (McCombs, 2005) suggests that, in the light of such distractions, the coverage is unlikely to be a powerful driver of public concern about the issue. And the news values animating broadcast journalist do not give confidence that climate change will rebound decisively back into view, particularly when political elites have a very wide range of other issues clamoring for their attention.

This trend poses a significant challenge for broadcast journalists. How can they make the topic relevant to, and understandable for, viewers? Clearly, the considerable gaps in coverage may impede public understanding. If the causes of climate change are too often represented as general (as in “man” or “mankind”), or if developing countries, such as China, are seen as driving carbon emissions, or if the pressures of consumer culture are absent from reports, citizens may well get only a partial understanding of the dynamics underlying the problem. Likewise, if the impacts of climate change are represented as “distant,” that is, as happening in locations far away from the country where the coverage is broadcast, then it does not offer cues personally relevant to audiences. And a growing body of research suggests that people will, therefore, accord low priority to the issue or will find it unengaging (Leiserowitz, 2006; Spence, Poortinga, & Pidgeon, 2012; Scannell & Gifford, 2013; Wiest, Raymond, & Clawson, 2015).

To give the topic resonance, a temptation might be for broadcasters to flag the more alarming aspects of climate change. Here, broadcast journalists may struggle to negotiate competing pressures. Alarming messages may actually disengage rather than galvanize the public (Moser, 2007), especially in cases where coverage does not convey the sense that either citizens or governments are capable of taking effective action to change things (Hart & Feldman, 2014). On the other hand, as Risbey (2008) noted even before the recent spate of shattered temperature records, scientific research suggested that climate change was genuinely alarming, rather than just “alarmist.” Thus, editors and journalist may struggle to maintain the delicate balance between the maintenance of audience engagement, and faithful representation of developments.

Additionally, despite observations that television coverage often suggests, the science is settled on global warming (Olausson, 2010; O’Neill, Williams, Kurz, Wiersma, & Boykoff, 2015), climate-sceptic claims and commentary are still highly likely to intrude into broadcast stories, especially—but not exclusively—where stations and channels seek to pander to or reflect the predispositions of their audiences. Even considering the weight of research suggesting the public are not passive actors, sponging up the messages conveyed to them (Whitmarsh & O’Neill, 2011), such coverage is still likely to cause confusion (Butler & Pigeon, 2009). This trend may be particularly problematic where the stories come from weather forecasters, as they can have a discernible influence on the climate-related opinions of the viewing public (Zhao et al., 2014). It scarcely matters that such coverage is fairly minimal overall; Gavin and Marshall (2011a, p. 1038) note that “… it should be remembered that sceptics rarely seek to dominate debate, merely cloud it. It is enough to keep the seeds of doubt alive …”

Broadcasters, then, face a range of difficulties in covering climate change, perhaps especially so as world temperature records are now being broken regularly. How they negotiate these difficulties will be important for public debate and citizen understanding, given the trust that audiences put in broadcasters as information sources. Hopefully, they will successfully rise to these challenges.

Further Reading

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Feldman, L., Maibach, E. W., Roser-Renouf, C., & Leiserowitz, A. (2011). Climate on cable: The nature and impact of global warming coverage on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. International Journal of Press/Politics, 17(1), 3–31.Find this resource:

Gavin, N. T., & Marshall, T. (2011a). Mediated climate change in Britain: Scepticism on the Web and on television around Copenhagen. Global Environmental Change, 21(3), 1035–1044.Find this resource:

Lester, L., & Cottle, S. (2009). Visualizing climate change: Television news and ecological citizenship. International Journal of Communication, 3, 920–936.Find this resource:

O’Neill, S., Williams, H. T. P., Kurz, T., Wiersma, B., & Boykoff, M (2015). Dominant frames in legacy and social media coverage of the IPCC fifth assessment report. Nature Climate Change, 5(4), 380–385.Find this resource:

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