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date: 22 March 2018

Media Coverage on International Climate Summits and Negotiations

Summary and Keywords

The annual climate summits (Conferences of the Parties, or COPs) are major political events that receive considerable media attention. In this way, the topic of climate change returns regularly to both the media and the political agenda. It makes sense, therefore, that communication research regards COPs as occasion to investigating how the media cover climate change. Nevertheless, this strategy has two shortcomings: On the one hand the focus on the conferences might provide a distorted picture—because of the political character of the conferences, the role of political actors and policy-related frames might be overestimated. On the other hand, the political character of the conferences is not always considered appropriately. Most research is mainly interested in the coverage on climate change in the context of the conferences and not in the political discussions taking place at the summits. Future research should address these discussions more intensively, giving more attention especially to the debates in the various online media.

Keywords: conference of the parties, Synopsis, climate summits, climate change, global warming, media coverage, political negotiations, content analysis


This article provides a literature overview of research on media coverage of international climate conferences published in English, German, and Spanish. The article begins with a short introduction to the history of the summits and their relevance for political debates on climate change. Subsequently, the findings from some longitudinal content analyses are summarized identifying the international climate change summits as major events stimulating media attention to climate change. Building on that research taking such conferences as occasions to analyze the media’s framing of climate change as well as its coverage on scientific uncertainty and climate skepticism is summarized. Yet the summits themselves played just a minor role in all these studies. Research that analyzes media coverage of the political process and negotiations during and in the context of the conferences is quite rare, and the role of civil society and a sound analysis of conflict constellations are limited to a few studies. Therefore, the final section of the article reveals unpublished findings of a content analysis of the Copenhagen summit that might serve as a framework for future research to take the political character of the summits better into account.

A Short History of International Climate Summits

The annual Conferences of the Parties (COPs) organized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are without a doubt major political events in the context of climate change and the most relevant decision-making body of the convention: “All States that are Parties to the Convention are represented at the COP, at which they review the implementation of the Convention and any other legal instruments that the COP adopts and take decisions necessary to promote the effective implementation of the Convention, including institutional and administrative arrangements” (UNFCCC, 2016b).

The history of the international climate summits started in 1995, when the first COP was hosted in Berlin. But the process of political negotiations on climate change began much earlier in 1979, when the first World Climate Conference took place in Geneva. Nine years later, in 1988, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up to constantly summarize and evaluate science related to climate change (UNFCCC, 2016a). Even though the IPCC is not a political organization, its assessments are policy-relevant as they “provide a scientific basis for governments at all levels to develop climate-related policies, and they influence negotiations at the UN Climate Conference” (IPCC, 2013). Consequently, the IPCC reports are used to anchor the political debate on climate change and to justify political actions. However, the influence of scientific progress on the negotiations has been limited. National interests and, above all, economic considerations ruled out any scientific concern about the hazardous nature of the risk.

Regarding the actual process of political negotiations on climate change, the UNFCCC website provides insights into the dynamics. The major stages of the negotiations are highlighted under the headline “Climate Change in Context.” However, before COP 15, held in Copenhagen in 2009, only five summits were documented: COP 1 in 1995 (Berlin), COP 3 in 1997 (Kyoto), COP 7 in 2001 (Marrakesh), COP 11 in 2005 (Nairobi), and COP 13 in 2007 (Bali). Since then all COPs have been listed.

It is not in the scope of this article to analyze the objectives and the outcomes of the summits in detail. However, the history of the summits between Kyoto (1997) and Paris (2015) can be understood as a series of attempts to come to a binding agreement between the nations. Especially before COP 15 in Copenhagen (2009), it was expected that the Parties would come up with such a contract, but it took until the Paris conference to obtain such a result. In the meantime, the results of the conferences were quite modest. Some advances were made: for example, in Cancun (2010) the Green Climate Fund was established, in Doha (2012) an amendment to the Kyoto protocol was enacted (but not entered into force), and in Warsaw (2013) a rulebook for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation was agreed upon.

It is remarkable that the UNFCCC only recently started to more comprehensively document the conferences on its website, although the history of political negotiations on climate change is almost 40 years old. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that these changes are related to an increasing public awareness of the issue and that the UNFCCC has realized that COPs are not just crucial events in the political negotiation process but have turned into global media events that receive much media coverage and therefore attract much public attention (Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer, 2013).

Climate Summits Shape Media Coverage on Climate Change

The first insights into the relevance of summits and political events as occasions for the media to cover the topic of climate change are provided by longitudinal content analyses of media coverage. In light of Downs (1972) concept of issue attention cycle, Trumbo (1996) examined the development of U.S. media coverage on climate change between 1985 and 1995. Likewise, McComas and Shanahan (1999) analyzed the role of narratives in U.S. climate coverage between 1980 and 1995. Although the time period investigated in these two studies ended in the year when COP 1 was held in Berlin, the findings indicate that the amount of media coverage increased somewhat in the context of the first summit. Furthermore, the studies reveal that other major political events, more precisely the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 and the announcement of President Clinton’s Climate Change Action Plan in 1993, also caused changes in media coverage. In a later study from Brossard, Shanahan, and McComas (2004), who compared French and U.S. climate coverage between 1988 and 1997, the time period comprised several climate conferences, and therefore their research showed for the first time that the summits have considerable impact on the intensity of media coverage. However, this finding was only true for the French press, whereas the New York Times gave little attention to the first summits. It was not until the COP in Kyoto in 1997—when the first international binding agreement to fight climate change (Kyoto Protocol) was signed—that the conferences received much coverage in both countries (Brossard et al., 2004).

Carvalho and Burgess (2005) conducted a longitudinal analysis of the development of climate discourse in British print media between 1985 and 2003. They identified three phases with different levels of media attention, wherein the volume of climate coverage was the highest in the last phase, from 1997 to 2003. Moreover, the authors identified the launch of the IPCC reports as well as the climate summits COP 1 in Berlin and especially COP 3 in Kyoto as critical discourse moments that stimulated media coverage and had the potential to cause changes in the climate discourse. This finding was confirmed by Gordon, Deines, and Havice (2010), who also found that the intensity of media attention to climate change was higher in Mexican newspapers during the conferences in Buenos Aires (2004), Montreal (2005), and Nairobi (2006) than at other times of the year. Boykoff and Boykoff (2007) obtained similar results for the U.S. coverage between 1988 and 2004. Political events like the climate summits triggered increased news releases. This finding also holds true for the following years both in the United States and in the United Kingdom (Boykoff, 2007).

Similarly, the results of a study of Schmidt et al. (2013), who analyzed media coverage on climate change in 27 countries between 1996 and 2010, reveal that the amount of coverage increased considerably in all countries over time, in particular in the phase between 2006 and 2009. They found that natural disasters or climate characteristics have little influence on the media coverage of climate change, while major political events, especially the COPs, have a statistically significant effect on the amount of coverage. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that only some of the COPs transformed into major news events. The highest peak was triggered in all countries by the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP 15). The remarkable amount of coverage on COP 15 in many countries can probably be explained by the high expectations associated with the summit. It was expected that a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol would be negotiated ensuring a more effective fight against climate change for the future. This is apparent from the wordplay used by many participants and also by the media: they talked about “Hopenhagen” instead of Copenhagen, indicating the promise connected with the summit.

The high media attention that COP 15 created can be explained conclusively, but the question as to why others received less media attention remains unanswered. Furthermore, it must be recognized that in some countries even Copenhagen received very limited media attention (Eide & Kunelius, 2010). Finally, it should be mentioned that findings from a meta-analysis reveal that the increase in media coverage also stimulated research analyzing climate change coverage, especially since 2009 (Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014).

However, the general conclusion—that the amount of coverage increases during COPs—is put into context by the findings of Castilla, Quesada, and Rodríguez (2013), who provided a longitudinal investigation of editorials published in El País (Spain) and the New York Times (United States) starting with the Kyoto conference in 1997 and ending with the Durban COP in 2011. Surprisingly, they found that the editorial comments were not confined to the summits and remained at the same level over the period under study. Less than 10% of the El País editorials and less than 5% of the New York Times editorials were motivated by an international event focusing on climate change. Thus, the results of their study indicate that the summits might have a strong impact on the volume of news items but not necessarily on the amount of opinion items. Furthermore, findings from Boykoff and Mansfield (2008) indicate that, at least in Great Britain, the relevance of the COPs is lower for tabloids than for the quality press. Their data show that the amount of coverage is positively influenced by such conferences but that in tabloids their impact is outmatched by natural disasters and celebrity spectacles like the release of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth.

That the amount of media coverage on climate change fluctuates both between and within the years was confirmed by other studies (Boykoff, 2012; Boykoff & Mansfield, 2008). These studies clearly show that the coverage is more intense when major climate-related political events such as the annual climate summits take place, while the rest of the year the coverage is lower. One of the reasons for that general “political event–focused” structure of media coverage is that climate change is an unobtrusive issue because of its lack of tangible causes, distant and often future impacts, and the lack of immediacy (Moser, 2010). Consequently, the issue is not only difficult to understand for the public and challenging for political decision-making but also quite demanding for the media because it doesn’t fit well with their logic (Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). Therefore, journalists need events that meet the professional criteria of news selection to justify paying attention to climate change (Painter, 2010; Schulz, 1976; Shoemaker & Reese, 2014). COPs can be considered especially newsworthy. They are much more than a forum for scientific debate, they are political events. Beside scientists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governmental representatives from all over the world, in particular ministers and even many heads of state and presidents, participate in the meetings. Thus they contain factors considered newsworthy such as conflict, political influence, and elite nation status. An additional news factor that noticeably influences the intensity of coverage is proximity. The news coverage in a region where a conference takes place is much higher than in other areas of the world (Arcila-Calderón, Mercado, Piñuel-Raigada, & Suárez-Sucre, 2015; Kunelius & Eide, 2012).

This holds true even if the conference has a limited scope. Takahashi and Meisner (2012) reported that in 2008 the Peruvian media covered the Latin America and European Union summit, with climate change as one of the two most important topics, much more than the COP in Copenhagen in the following year.

Media Coverage on Climate Change in the Context of Climate Summits

As the media cover climate change primarily in the context of the COPs, it is reasonable that researchers take these events as a starting point for their investigations (e.g., León & Erviti, 2011). But it is not only the amount of coverage that qualifies the COPs as suitable starting points, they also provide an ideal situation to examine media’s performance in transferring the junction of global challenges and local/national interests to the public (e.g., Konieczna, Mattis, Tsai, Liang, & Dunwoody, 2014; Roosvall & Tegelberg, 2013). Scholars implicitly assume—or sometimes explicitly state—that the media will take the conferences as an opportunity to cover not only the event but also the scientific, environmental, economic, and social problems related to global warming. Findings from Germany on COP 15 support this assumption (Arlt & Wolling, 2012), showing that in 51% of the articles climate change itself was the main topic and not the conference. However, Eide and Kunelius (2010, p. 22) observed that from Bali to Copenhagen, in many countries media attention to the “political drama” at the summit increased while the problem of climate change received somewhat less coverage. Castilla et al. (2013) criticize the tendency of Spanish quality newspapers to refer too frequently just to political and economic aspects discussed at climate summits instead of exploring the environmental problem. Moreover, some communication scientists complain that the media, instead of discussing the actual topic, pay too much attention to the event itself, distracting people from the “real problem”—the environmental situation. In contrast, Hulme (2009) argues that climate change is not only a physical but also a societal phenomenon. A variety of justified views on climate change exist, and it appears that the “real problem” has many, sometimes incompatible, facets.

In the numerous studies that examine media coverage on climate change in the context of climate summits, three main research questions are addressed: How do the media cover the issue of scientific uncertainty? How do the media frame climate change? What kind of actors were incorporated and cited in the context of the summit?

Uncertainty and Climate Skeptics

The first strand of research examines how the media represent scientific uncertainty or controversy and climate skeptics in the context of the climate summits. Several researchers analyzed to what extent scientific controversy or uncertainty is absent, mentioned, denied, or seriously discussed in news items. The so-called “uncertainty discourse” has been one of the most relevant research issues in the analysis of climate change coverage almost from the beginning (Zehr, 2000). It received constant scientific attention, but especially in the context of Copenhagen, when the Climategate scandal created new concern about the reliability of climate science, the issue of climate uncertainty was prominent in both the media and on the research agenda (León & Erviti, 2011). Gunster and Fraser (2011) found that in Canada there was a difference between editorial and opinion pages, on the one hand, and hard news, on the other hand. Sceptic views on climate change appeared predominantly in the opinion sections of the media. Collins and Nerlich (2016) found that in British media uncertainty played a bigger role in the context of Copenhagen than it did in the forefront of Paris (2015). In contrast, Maurer (2011), who examined how German journalists dealt with scientific uncertainty in the context of the climate conferences between 1979 and 2007, found that the great majority of predictions of the consequences of climate change were presented as certain.

Closely linked to media’s presentation of uncertainty is the topic of climate skepticism. For example, Gavin and Marshall (2011) examined the attention given to climate skepticism in British TV coverage and online publications in the context of Copenhagen. The results show that the scientific uncertainty discourse still appeared in some outlets. Furthermore, they found that skeptical voices referring to China as a major polluter questioned the suitability of renewables as an adequate alternative to fossil fuels. Beyond that the results reveal that in online media the amount of climate skeptic arguments is much greater and the tone is much more aggressive than on TV. Painter and Gavin (2016) examined the development of climate skepticism in British newspapers. They investigated three major events related to climate politics—two of them were COPs. The results show that the room given to sceptic views differed between the three events. They argued that the scandal of Climategate in the context of Copenhagen justified the consideration of sceptic views, while at the other two points in time no such justification was present. They found that from 2007, when two IPCC reports were released, to 2009, when the COP in Copenhagen took place, the percentage of articles containing skeptical views increased significantly from 7 to 22%. Apparently the effect of Climategate was long-lasting, because the number of skeptical articles remained high in the context of Cancun. The percentage of opinion pieces including these views increased between Copenhagen and Cancun. These findings are not limited to Britain. The study of Kaiser and Rhomberg (2015) on German press coverage of the Durban climate summit in 2011 reveals that 15% of all articles contained skeptical statements accusing climate science of being unreliable and questioning the existence, causes, and negative consequences of global warming.

Taken together, the observed differences concerning media coverage on climate (un-)certainty clearly demonstrate that the national media primarily reflects the political mainstream in their respective countries. While the issue of climate change is rather strongly disputed in Anglo-Saxon countries, in Germany, in general, there is a broad political consensus on that matter. Nevertheless, a recent study observed a surprisingly high number of critical statements in Germany. This might be due to the massive extension of renewable energy resources (Energiewende) during recent years. As this development is primarily motivated to fight against climate change, a new collision of opponents and skeptics is emerging.

Frames in the Media

The second main type of research examined the media’s framing of climate change in the context of climate summits, whereas the framing of the conference was not the main focus. Most studies used predefined frames in their analysis. Although uncertainty and climate skepticism were not at the heart of these studies, they frequently identified an uncertainty/skepticism frame.

Examining Swedish and U.S. newspaper coverage in the context of the Kyoto and Bali climate summits, Shehata and Hopmann (2012) found that global warming was predominantly framed as a significant social problem caused by human activity. In contrast, counterframes like the economic consequence frame were less salient, and the scientific uncertainty frame was almost absent. Gordon, Deines, and Havice (2010) found similar results analyzing the coverage by a Mexican newspaper between 2004 and 2006. As in Swedish and U.S. media, social consequences were identified as a very important frame, while in the Mexican press the effects on the environment came in second place. Consistently with former results they found that the economy and the uncertainty frames were less important. Dirikx and Gelders (2010) analyzed the appearance of four predefined frames in the coverage of climate change in Dutch and French newspapers between 2001 and 2007. They decided to analyze the coverage during the conferences, which they considered as critical moments for climate discourse. Although the authors were chiefly interested in the coverage on climate change, some of their findings also reveal the framing of the COPs itself. Even though the climate-related consequences and responsibility frames were covered most frequently, the conflict frame that refers to contentions between different countries ranked third. Thus, when the conflict frame appears in the coverage, the articles are predominantly about the conference itself. As the conflict frame comes only in third place the French and Dutch quality press obviously focus more on climate change than on the conference itself.

Framing analyses were also conducted as part of an expanded international comparative study organized by Eide, Kunelius, and Kumpu (2010). The findings obtained by Roosvall (2010) and Tegelberg (2010) within this project analyzing Swedish and Canadian data show that in both countries two major frames were applied by journalists. The political game frame emphasized the political debates at the summit, while the issue frame focused on topic-related aspects of climate change. Sarwono (2010) analyzed the corresponding data from Indonesia and identified two frames on political conflicts. While the “international blame frame” highlighted the conflicts between the countries, the “domestic tension frame” focused on the conflicts between the national actors about the appropriate political strategy.

Actors Covered in the Context of Climate Summits

The aforementioned studies reveal that in some framing analyses uncertainty was included as one of several frames. Furthermore, it becomes clear that the framing approach can help to identify and characterize articles focusing more on the conference. Nevertheless, this approach does not provide a better understanding of political process during the conferences. More insight into the political discussions at the summits is provided by studies analyzing the kinds of actors were mentioned in the media.

The comparative study from Eide et al. (2010) on the coverage of the Copenhagen and Bali summits reveals that newspaper coverage in many countries of the world privileges the voices and frames of national government actors. From their findings, journalists all over the world looked at the summits as a “power play between nations” (Eide et al., 2010, p. 24) Furthermore, they found that the share of civil society actors differs considerably among nations. Especially the media from countries in northern Europe paid great attention to these actors, while in countries like Pakistan, El Salvador, and Israel they were almost ignored. Authors argue that these differences might be attributed to the presence vs. absence of journalists at the conference. As many NGOs were present in Copenhagen and tried to get the attention of journalists, only media from countries with reporters present knew of these activities. That the attendance of a journalist from a particular medium affects the selection of specific aspects of a topic was also considered in other studies. Findings indicate that only the media that have their own reporters on the ground are able to cover the political processes at the conferences in an appropriate way (Ali, 2010; Duarte, 2010).

Shehata and Hopmann (2012) did a comparative content analysis of the coverage of the Kyoto and Bali summits in Swedish and U.S. newspapers. They analyzed which sources were cited when the events were covered. They found that Swedish media rely mainly on sources from abroad, while in the United States domestic political elite actors are mentioned as sources more frequently. Arlt and Wolling (2012) investigated not only which actors were mentioned as effecting climate change, they also analyzed which ones were mentioned as active participants or counterparts in the negotiations at Copenhagen. They found that in German media in the context of the conference, chiefly political actors were cited, while actors from the realms of science, economy, or civil society played just a minor role. Similarly, Sucre, Calderón, and Raigada (2013) analyzed the coverage of Spanish online media of the conferences of Cancun and Durban. They reported which actors were simply mentioned and which were involved in conflicts, highlighted problems, or proposed solutions. In contrast to the findings about the German print media, the Spanish online media give less space to political actors. In the Spanish online media, affected witnesses of climate change come in first place. But with respect to the proposal of solutions for the struggle against climate change, even in online media political actors are the dominant sources.

As most scholars are concerned with the problem of climate change and not with the negotiations at the COPs, the studies presented in the first part of this work focused not on political discussions at the conferences but on the media’s approach to covering the issue of climate change (in the context of the conferences). Some scholars even explicitly excluded all coverage of the negotiations. Painter (2010), for example, who analyzed the media coverage of the summit in Copenhagen in 12 different countries, limited the analysis just to articles directly related to climate science, though the vast majority of articles was about the negotiations. Consequently, his results do not provide any reliable information about the coverage of the conference itself. Other studies just analyzed how the outcome of the conferences was covered. Castilla, Quesada, and Rodríguez (2014) scrutinized the editorials published in El País and the New York Times between Kyoto and Durban. They found that the achievements of most of these summits were qualified as modest and that the absence of binding agreements was criticized.

Nevertheless, some of the studies provide at least some basic insights into how both climate change and the discussions at the conference were covered by the media. Furthermore, some revealed which actors played a major role at the conferences. Taken together, the relevance of the conferences as promoters for the issue is recognized by almost all scholars. Nevertheless, most of the studies ignore the dynamics of the debates and the course of events. How the discussions developed at the conferences is mostly disregarded. This was already criticized by Gunster and Fraser (2011), who argued that the focus upon science may have led communication researchers to disregard the way in which the politics of climate change has been framed.

Furthermore, this strategy may also lead to some distortion in the results. As the conferences are political events, the number of political actors mentioned in the media or the assigned relevance of proposed political solutions might be higher than at other times. It is important to keep this in mind when interpreting the aforementioned results.

Insights into Negotiations and Processes During Climate Summits

Although the majority of studies take the COPs as occasions to examine media coverage on the issue of climate change, at least some research predominantly analyzed how the media covered the processes, conflicts, and discussions in and around the conference hall and the dynamics of the negotiations.

A qualitative discourse analysis was conducted by Carvalho (2005), who took a closer look at articles published in three British newspapers directly related to the climate conferences in Berlin and Kyoto. Findings show that some of the British newspapers delegitimized COP 1 by discrediting the promoters as “extreme greens” and “obsequious politicians” and by emphasizing statements saying that any political action to fight climate change is doomed to failure. Furthermore, she found that the media omitted any discussion about the impact of institutional arrangements on the international distribution of power or addressed the issue only in simplistic terms. For COP 3, Carvalho (2005) found that the Guardian and the Observer attributed a positive role to some members of the British government in leading the negotiation process and achieving results at Kyoto, while the Times only rarely quoted government members and occasionally ridiculed them. The findings indicate that in the United Kingdom not only the coverage on climate change is highly influenced by political leaning, but also the coverage on the negotiations at the conferences. However, it must be noted that Carvalho’s analysis did not focus on the discussions at the conference but aimed to reconstruct the political positions of British politicians and the discourse in British newspapers related to the British perspective.

A second qualitative content analysis in this field was conducted by Krøvel (2011), who examined the narratives used in television and newspaper coverage on the negotiations and political conflicts at the Bali conference. The first narrative, labeled “the drama itself is the story,” highlights the emotions of delegates (e.g., anger or sorrows). These reports frequently have the typical structure of dramas and short stories. The second narrative, called “we are not to blame,” emphasizes the conflict between the United States and countries from the rest of the world, especially the global south. These countries criticize that they are paying the price of the environmental degradation caused by the United States. Krøvel (2011) argues that the representative of Papua New Guinea—an important player in this story—reminds of many folk tales in which an underdog is standing up against an omnipotent superpower. In the newspaper coverage the distribution of roles was somewhat different: while the opponent in the narratives remained the United States, the role of protagonist turned out to be variable. Many journalists assigned their national politicians the part of the hero, who convinced or forced the United States to accept the agreement. Finally, the author criticizes the identified narratives because most of the stories focus on who is winning, while relevant facts, figures, and alternative perspectives are excluded. Furthermore, he blamed journalists for uncritically adopting national interests in their reporting on the Bali conference.

A study from Lück, Wozniak, and Wessler (2016) analyzed the coproduction networks of journalists and NGOs during the summits in Cancun, Doha, and Warsaw and therefore provide some insights into the processes taking place backstage at the conferences. By conducting interviews with journalists and NGO representatives, they identified four networks of coproduction and meaning-making. Yet, as the study is based on interviews, it provided no evidence as to how these interactions became manifest in the media content.

Due to the perceived extraordinary relevance of the summit in Copenhagen, which “was the most significant meeting since Kyoto in 1997” and where “unprecedented urgency surrounded it because of the pending expiration of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012” (Konieczna et al., 2014, p. 490), the negotiation processes at COP 15 received more scholarly attention than others.

For example, Gunster and Fraser (2011) analyzed how Canadian media portrayed the political aspects surrounding the Copenhagen summit. Their findings indicate that the Canadian media drew a thoroughly depressing picture as they mainly focused upon the gridlock and inertia of dominant political institutions, thereby framing the conference as pure public relations in which those in power just pretended to be committed to climate action while nothing concrete got done. Consequently, the media portray the relevant political actors as just pursuing national self-interest and therefore any confidence in finding international solutions to oppose the risks of climate change appear naive.

Based on data from the above-mentioned international comparison of media coverage on the Copenhagen summit in 13 countries, Kunelius and Eide (2012) conducted additional analyses and found two different types of media discourse during the conference: an advocatory discourse related to the problem of climate change and a discourse on transnational power relations. In the first type of discourse scholars found that at the beginning of COP 15 journalists expressed a strong sense of hope, while at the end this shared perspective mostly turned into a language of disappointment and critique of the UN. With respect to the representation of the various actors, they found that newspapers all over the world almost neglected to mention scientists in the context of the conference, thereby giving the impression that science was not involved in the political bargaining. In contrast, civil society actors received much more media attention and favorable coverage and were even framed as “agents of hope” by many journalists.

The second type of discourse identified by Kunelius and Eide (2012) is a more traditional global summit journalism in which transnational relations, strategies, and tactics are related in the language of power. National political actors are at the center of this discourse, while international actors play a minor role. Media coverage focuses on the conflicts between the national actors, which increased during the conference when it became more evident that no binding agreement would be obtained. Finally, the authors detected that the role of domestic actors varies largely across countries. These differences can be attributed to several factors, but national economic interests seem to play the most relevant role. In countries without major fossil fuel industries, politicians frequently present themselves as concerned actors and are covered as such by the national media. This puts national politicians in a favorable light and increases the amount of coverage on the conference. Other relevant factors influencing the coverage are internal national political conflicts or vulnerability to the effects of climate change.

Communication Activities of Civil Society Actors in the Context of Climate Summits

Another relevant aspect that characterizes the coverage on the conferences is the consideration of political protests, positions of civil society, activities of social movements, and the representation of ethnic minorities. For example, Gunster and Fraser (2011) scrutinized how Canadian traditional mainstream and alternative media covered protest in the context of the Copenhagen summit. Their results show that although alternative media give more room to the perspective of social movements, the mainstream media were also sympathetic with the protesters. Nevertheless, the relevance of their actions was mostly discounted, as the conference was framed as a closed-door affair between governments. Likewise, Roosvall and Tegelberg (2013) analyzed how indigenous people that participated in the Copenhagen summit were covered by Swedish and Canadian news media. They argued that the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) challenged official climate change policies by producing alternative media coverage of the event. The mainstream media mostly ignored indigenous people or simultaneously framed them as victims and heroes of the climate negotiations in which they played no significant role.

Due to the fact that in the modern media environment it has become much easier for NGOs and even ordinary people to create content and networked news, Russell (2013) expanded her research from traditional journalism to the publications of different NGOs involved in climate summits. She combined interviews with NGO activists and content analysis of the various communication materials produced by the NGOs during the Durban conference. She found that the vast majority of content was produced not in ordinary story form but rather as “an ongoing flow of audio, video and text updates and links circulating via the organizations’ web platforms, Twitter, and to a lesser extent Facebook” (Russell, 2013, p. 909). The information provided by the NGOs was much more intense than that of traditional media. For example, the One Climate Channel website hosted ongoing coverage of the debates and detailed analysis and responses to the outcomes, while USA Today and the New York Times published only 14 and 17 stories, respectively, during the entire summit (Russell, 2013, p. 910). Moreover, traditional sources ignored important incidents during the conference like the protest on December 9 that erupted inside and outside the conference.

The role of NGOs in the coverage of summits was also examined in a study from Wozniak, Wessler, and Lück (2016). The authors analyzed newspapers from Germany, India, South Africa, the United States, and Brazil in the context of the COPs in Cancun (2010), Durban (2011), Doha (2012), and Warsaw (2013). Their findings showed that NGOs are quite successful in imposing their visual frames on the media agenda. Nevertheless, it must be noted that this by no means indicates that NGOs are also successful in influencing how the media frame the conference or the topic of climate change in their textual frames.

Finally Gaitán and Piñuel (2013) analyzed Spanish television coverage on the climate summits in Cancun (2010) and Durban (2011). They identified three kinds of discourse: (a) discussions between two opponents, (b) monologs and (c) alternative discussions, in which more than two mostly political participants are involved. They found that for Cancun the media presented more discussions between activists and politicians (a), while for Durban monologs of politicians (b) and discussions among only politicians (c) prevailed. The authors argued that this change indicates a decline in quality, which they attributed to the financial crisis that prevented Spanish media from covering the conference adequately. This highlights the significance of comparative and longitudinal studies, because comparing countries or different time periods allows us to examine whether differences and changes in the coverage might be stimulated by external and contextual factors that are related neither to the topic of climate change nor to the events taking place at the conferences.

Media Coverage on Conflict Constellations in the Context of Climate Summits

Review of the literature reveals that the political processes at the conferences were not at the focus of most content analyses. Neither the development of the negotiations during the conferences nor the role of the different participants was analyzed comprehensively. Although several studies analyzed the time before, during, and after the event, the different phases were not compared. Moreover, most studies failed to analyze how the participants of the summits interacted.

To detect and quantify such relationships between the relevant actors, a relational content analysis is needed (Adam, 2008). The relational content analysis identifies the respective opponents and the disputed topics between them. Thus with this method not only the content but also the structure of conflicts can be revealed (Früh, 2007; Roberts, 1997). Analyzing conflict constellations can help us understand why specific aspects of the negotiations are covered intensely while others receive little media attention. Furthermore, such analyses show to what extent the media draw a transparent and complete picture of the controversial issues and the viewpoints of the opponents. Ultimately it might also help us better understand why some negotiations fail and others are successful.

Arlt and Wolling (2012) applied such an approach by coding actor-conflict-actor relationships in order to examine how the media covered the various conflict structures between actors during the Copenhagen conference. As these results have not yet been published, we present here some findings in order to provide preliminary insight into the opportunities such a relational approach provides.

Table 1 shows which conflict constellations in the context of the Copenhagen conference were covered most frequently by journalists. Moreover, it shows which topics were disputed in the different constellations of conflict parties: the conflict between the EU and the other industrialized countries was mainly (64%) about the question whether a binding agreement should be pursued. The conflict between emerging countries and industrialized countries was also dominated by this issue (55%). In the conflict between the EU and the emerging countries, two aspects were chiefly disputed. Again the conflict on the need for a binding agreement (42%) was discussed between these parties. Likewise, they disputed about the fundamental general willingness to come to any agreement (42%). The questioning of willingness to come to an agreement was also the main topic in the conflicts between industrialized and non-governmental actors. The most prominent conflict of the developing countries with the EU was about the procedures of the conference (36%), while with the other industrialized countries disagreed about financial aid (38%) and the need for a binding agreement (38%).

Table 1. Conflict Constellations and Objects of Conflicts

Conflict Constellations

EU vs. developing countries

EU vs. industrialized countries

Industrialized vs. emerging countries

Industrialized vs. developing countries

Industrialized vs. nongovernmental actors

EU vs. emerging countries

UN vs. nongovernmental actors

Nongovernmental vs. nongovernmental actors

Number of conflicts between two parties

n = 25

n = 22

n = 22

n = 21

n = 12

n = 12

n = 12

n = 12

Conflict objects

Binding climate agreement









Willingness of actors to come to an agreement








Financial aid for developing countries






Certainty claim of climate research





Conference procedures








Interestingly, conflicts in which only non-governmental actors were involved or conflicts between non-governmental actors and the UN were to a high degree about the question of the (un)certainty about climate research (75%/50%). Thus the main topic of many studies on media coverage of the conferences—the issue of uncertainty—apparently played no significant role in the political realm of the conference.

The findings clearly show that a multipolar conflict structure was observed at COP 15 in Copenhagen. Conflicts were present between all major actor groups. Most notably, the conflicts were just marginally about science or concrete issues (financial aid). Most of the conflicts were about fundamental and rather abstract questions. This might be one explanation as to why it was impossible to come to an agreement in Copenhagen.


Since the beginning of the 1990s, when Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, requested the international community take action against climate change, the issue finally left the exclusively scientific arena and entered the political sphere. This shift had some serious consequences. The most important one is that the scientific concept of “probability” entered the political discussion under the label of “uncertainty.” Today the issue of “uncertainty” remains a major topic on the research agenda of communication scientists. But this science-centered focus on political discourse might be a mistake, because it assumes that the political discussion follows the logic of a rational scientific debate, which is obviously not the case. Political actors at the COPs do not discuss scientific uncertainty, they negotiate about agreements and contracts concerning climate policies. As representatives of their countries, they follow their national interest and the COPs provide a stage where politicians’ performances in the negotiation process become observable to the international public and the respective national audiences. Other actors like NGOs enter the stage and promote their views and interests, but they are almost never part of the political decision-making process.

In many countries of the world climate change is still an unobtrusive and therefore minor issue, while in other parts of the world the consequences of climate change are already undeniable. However, given strong national political and economic interests, many countries still ignore the urgency of the threat and the foreseeable negative consequences. Consequently, the issue is not on the top of their political and public agenda. But with the creation of the COPs, a routine was established that brings the topic continuously back on both the media and the public agenda and therefore applies pressure on political actors to put it on their agenda. This is without doubt the main function of the COPs.

As the literature review shows, the research on media coverage of international climate summits is far from being conclusive as most studies use the COPs as an occasion to examine media coverage on climate change rather than focusing on the political negotiations at the summits and the surrounding processes. Those studies that actually concentrate on the COPs provide findings from a variety of countries analyzing various forms of media coverage of different COPs by applying diverse methodological, theoretical, and topical foci. Therefore, any attempt to summarize these findings is rather challenging. Nevertheless, some general observations about the characteristics of the current state of research on the issue can be made, and some preliminary conclusions can be drawn.

First, as in almost all fields of communication research, research on the COPs is dominated by studies that analyze media coverage in Western countries, especially in North America and Europe. Nevertheless, perhaps because of the international character of the events and the fact that climate change is a global issue, there is an astonishing amount of research comparing media coverage across different countries that at least occasionally includes countries from the Global South. Second, most scholars limit their analysis to large national media, namely printed quality press; few include tabloids or local/regional newspapers. The number of studies that analyze televisions news, online media, or even alternative non-mainstream media is quite limited. The same holds true for comparing the coverage between different types of media. Thus, to provide more comprehensive insights into the processes and events related to COPs, future research should include various forms of media. By focusing mainly on powerful political actors and on the negotiations inside the conference halls, the mainstream media somehow neglect the various events and processes surrounding the summits in which mainly non-political actors such as scientists, NGOs, or other civil society actors are involved. They might find a communication space in alternative media. These observations are obviously not limited to climate change. To track the whole picture, communication scientists should no longer limit their analysis to the mainstream media. On other topics such as the refugee issue, a significant and sometimes quite different discussion takes place outside of mainstream publications.

Finally, not surprisingly, almost all studies applied some kind of content analysis to investigate the coverage. The dominant method is the quantitative approach, but qualitative content analysis and especially discourse analysis are used. A very common approach is the combination of different methods. In several papers quantitative data were illustrated by examples from qualitative studies. Computer-assisted content analysis was not used, and other methods (like interviews) played a negligible role. Wozniak, Lück, and Wessler (2015) argued that especially for international comparative research on climate change coverage, a combination of methods is needed. They underpin this argument with findings demonstrating that four different narrative themes and tones weaved around the same combination of frame elements—this demonstrates that (1) frame analysis alone would not have grasped the narrative tone and theme behind the issue frames and (2) narrative analysis alone would not have captured the common thread of issue frames that persists despite the different narratives.

Future research should more strongly approach the conferences as what they are: major political events for climate diplomacy that might also be exploited by journalists to cover the topic of climate change. By reducing the analysis of the discussion about climate science or aspects directly related to climate change, the research falls short because the importance of politics, political negotiations, and the public understanding of these political processes is ignored.

However, to research and understand the complex negotiation processes, a multimethods approach is needed. First of all, a combination of quantitative content analysis and qualitative approaches like discourse analysis should be employed. Within the realm of the quantitative approach, systematic analysis of actor-networks by relational content analysis is required. Furthermore, it would be useful to interview journalists and the participants of the conferences to better understand their perception of COPs, their intentions in covering the conferences, or their efforts to influence the coverage. Finally, the scope of the media under investigation should be broadened: content analyses are still mainly focusing on newspapers. Future research should include not only television and mainstream online media but also alternative sources publishing information and views on blogs, video platforms, or other social media available on the Internet.


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