The Relationships Between Climate Change News Coverage, Policy Debate, and Societal Decisions
Summary and Keywords
This article considers the relationship between news media and the sociopolitical dimensions of climate change. Media can be seen as sites where various actors contend with one another for visibility, for power, and for the opportunity to communicate, as well as where they promote their policy preferences. In the context of climate change, actors include politicians, social movement representatives, scientists, business leaders, and celebrities—to name a few.
The general public obtain much of their information about climate change and other environmental issues from the media, either directly or indirectly through sources like social media. Media have their own internal logic, and getting one’s message into the media is not straightforward. A variety of factors influence what gets into the media, including media practices, and research shows that media matter in influencing public opinion.
A variety of media practices affect reporting on climate change─one example is the journalistic norm of balance, which directs that actors on both sides of a controversy be given relatively equal attention by media outlets. In the context of global warming and climate change, in the United States, this norm has led to the distortion of the public’s understanding of these processes. Researchers have found that, in the scientific literature, there is a very strong consensus among scientists that human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change is happening. Yet media in the United States often portray the issue as a heated debate between two equal sides.
Subscription to, and readership of, print newspapers have declined among the general public; nevertheless, particular newspapers continue to be important. Despite the decline of traditional media, politicians, academics, NGO leaders, business leaders, policymakers, and other opinion leaders continue to consume the media. Furthermore, articles from particular outlets have significant readership via new media access points, such as Facebook and Twitter.
An important concept in the communication literature is the notion of framing. “Frames” are the interpretive schemas individuals use to perceive, identify, and label events in the world. Social movements have been important actors in discourse about climate change policy and in mobilizing the public to pressure governments to act. Social movements play a particularly important role in framing issues and in influencing public opinion. In the United States, the climate change denial countermovement, which has strong links to conservative think tanks, has been particularly influential. This countermovement is much more influential in the United States than in other countries. The power of the movement has been a barrier to the federal government taking significant policy action on climate change in the United States and has had consequences for international agreements and processes.
This article examines the relationship between news media and the sociopolitical dimensions of climate change. From the perspective of field theory (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012), media can be seen as sites where different actors contend with one another for visibility, for power, and for the opportunity to communicate, as well as where they promote their policy preferences. Various actors try to get their message into the media. In the context of climate change, the key actors include politicians, social movement representatives, scientists, business leaders, and celebrities—to name a few.
The general public obtain much of their information about climate change and other environmental issues from the media, either directly or indirectly through sources like social media. Media have their own internal logic, and getting one’s message into the media is not straightforward. A variety of factors influence what gets into the media, including media practices.
The article begins by examining the role and importance of media. This is followed by a consideration of social media. Next, the factors affecting media coverage are explored, including the issue−attention cycle, media practices, ideological stance and corporate influence, newsworthiness/reader interest/drama, balance, polarization, and the effects of the decline of traditional media.
The article provides a brief overview of the idea of policy networks and of media as a forum for policy discourse. One argument for why media are important is their effect on the general public. The article then introduces the perspective of social constructionism as a framework for understanding environmental problems. The discussion considers the concept of framing and briefly considers the importance of images and imagery in climate change communication. Some of the dominant discourses in the media in different locales are also reviewed.
The article proceeds to examine the relationship between media and public opinion. Following this, attention is focused upon social movements and climate change, as well as on the corresponding climate change denial countermovement. The final section of the article introduces a model of the dynamics of media production and reception. Figure 1 shows the entrance to the grounds of the Paris COP meetings, the most important international climate change meetings of recent years. Figure 2 shows a mini-Eiffel tower on the COP grounds, intended symbolize the fact that the meetings were being held in Paris.
The Role and Importance of Media
Research on media and climate change in English-speaking countries emerged in the mid 1990s (see Trumbo, 1996; Ungar, 1998) and has expanded since the mid 2000s (Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). Perspectives on the role of media in society are varied. A widely held lay view is that role of the news media is to inform the public. From the perspective of media owners and shareholders, the role of the media is to sell a product (either the direct sale of newspapers and magazines, or the selling of advertising). Some within the journalism profession feel that the media’s role is to tell compelling stories (Dean, 2009; Revkin, 2005). Media workers also have a set of professional guidelines, norms, and ethics that guide their work (Boykoff, 2011; Callison, 2014). Some outside the profession feel that the media’s role is to educate people (Callison, 2014). Others feel that its role has evolved primarily to entertain people (Postman, 2006). Some commentators feel the news media should be objective and provide balance (Boydstun, 2013), while others feel that objectivity is a quaint idea and that, whether it is acknowledged or not, all news media report from a point of view (Berglez, 2011; Broersma, 2010; Ward, 2015) .
In the context of considering climate change policy, while media workers are not directly involved in climate governance, they help “enact” social reality (Kember & Zylinska, 2012). (Although it might be noted that there are some examples of media workers who transitioned into government roles and who work on environment and climate change files. Peter Kent, a former TV journalist, and former federal Minister of the Environmental in Canada, is an example.) Media workers play a role in translating and performing conflict about climate change policy for audiences as they select and emphasize particular perspectives and opinions.
Research shows that media matter. As Boydstun (2013, p. 25) noted, “News coverage frequently shapes which issues people think about, how they think about them, and often what actions government takes.” While it is true that subscriptions and readership of print newspapers have declined among members of the general public, nevertheless, particular newspapers (newspapers of record; Myers & Caniglia, 2004) continue to be important, and politicians, academics, NGO leaders, business leaders, policymakers, and other opinion leaders continue to consume print media (Takahashi & Meisner, 2014). Furthermore, articles from particular outlets (such as The New York Times) still have significant readership via new media access points, such as Facebook and Twitter. Traditional media continue to be important for actors in framing policy issues, and for actors who are trying both to affect and to gauge public opinion. This said, it must also be noted that a variety of factors affect what appears in the print media, such as journalistic norms of balance, reliance on routine sources, the ideological slant of the publisher and/or editorial board, perceived newsworthiness, dramatic appeal, resonance with broader public understandings of issues, and so on.
Media consumption has been increasingly individualized through the use of Facebook, Twitter, and other customizable platforms, and the media polarization of climate discourse makes it easier for audiences to expose themselves to news stories that mesh with their ideological standpoints. Algorithms also play an increasingly important role in determining the structure of interactions online, producing a “calculated public” where, for example, recommendations about what might be of interest from “friends of friends” and “customers like you” are generated by Facebook and Amazon’s private algorithms (Gillespie, 2014). The process of individuals tailoring their media feeds to their own ideological perspectives is sometimes referred to as “narrow-casting,” although, technically, this term more accurately describes transmission of messages to narrowly targeted audiences, which is one option provided by social media (Cappella, 2017). This process risks bolstering trends toward the political polarization of climate change, which may make it increasingly difficult to construct policy solutions to the issue. Social media likely play a significant role in the polarization of views on climate change in the United States, but their role has not been researched extensively and is an important direction for future research on climate change communication.
In the context of thinking about social media and political processes in relation to climate change, it is useful to consider the relevance of social media for social movements. In recent years, social media (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) have become prominent in many spheres, including in the social movement sector (Earl & Garrett, 2017). Alternative media (the Internet, social media) have become more important to social movements in general, and the environmental movement in particular. To the extent that social movement actors are linked together through the Internet and related media, we can think of the Internet as comprising a social network dimension of activism. These new media also provide opportunities for social movement leaders to recruit individuals who may be less accessible through traditional media, such as television and newsprint. Furthermore, the new media may increase opportunities for interaction by rank and file members of the movement. Climate change social movement leaders have been particularly adept at utilizing new media: examples are Bill McKibben with 350.org, Mike Hudema with Greenpeace Canada, and Canadian intellectual Naomi Klein.
While mainstream media were previously considered to be able to perform an agenda-setting function for public discourse and might have been able, for example, to place and to keep an issue like climate change in public view, the media landscape has changed immensely (Levy & Nielsen, 2010; Picard, 2014; see also McCombs, 2014). Legacy media like newspapers have been in steady decline in terms of subscriptions and revenues; however, particular newspapers, such as The Globe and Mail in Canada and The New York Times in the United States, are still important as the outlets of record. Yet, to some extent, social media and legacy media have a symbiotic relationship. While fewer people subscribe to mainstream newspapers, many access individual stories through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. Furthermore, increasingly, legacy media are turning to social media as a source for stories. What this means for climate change coverage is an ongoing and intensive area of research.
Factors Affecting Media Coverage
Boydstun (2013) noted that news coverage tends either to overrepresent or to underrepresent the frequency that key events take place. She identified eight variables that affect news coverage (2013, p. 28). Several of the variables involve media practices, some are bound up in the political economy of the media, and others involve external forces.
While a variety of factors are intrinsic to news stories, or are connected to the culture of journalism, what gets selected into media is important. As Crow and Boykoff put it, “Media representations . . . are critical links between people's perspectives and experiences, and the ways in which dimensions of climate change are discussed at a distance between science, policy, and political actors” (Crow & Boykoff, 2014, pp. 2−3).
By selecting issues and news sources, journalists and others working in the news media are important organizational actors in climate governance, as they shape representations of climate change impacts and solutions, and select for audiences who can authoritatively “speak for climate” (Boykoff, 2011, p. 107).
Downs (1972) described the issue−attention cycle, a concept that describes the public’s limited attention span for environmental problems and other social and public policy issues, and that refers to the fact that the urgency or significance of a given problem usually lasts longer than the public’s attention to it. To the extent that media coverage is influenced by what the media’s audience is interested in, the issue−attention cycle also applies to media.
Downs (1972) identified stages in the issue−attention cycle: (a) The pre-problem stage, when an undesirable situation exists but has not yet captured public attention. (b) The alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm stage, when the public become aware of a problem and are motivated to do something about it. (c) Realizing the cost of significant progress stage, when people realize that the cost of solving the problem is quite high. (d) The gradual decline of intense public interest. At this stage, people become discouraged because they recognize the difficulties of solving the problem, or others become bored with the issue. (e) The post-problem stage. In this stage, the problem has been replaced by other issues as a focus of public concern. Downs (1972) saw environmental concern as a classic case of a topic that was susceptible to the issue−attention cycle.
Concern about climate seems to fit this pattern, or at least some stages of the pattern (Trumbo, 1996). For example, in a study of national newspaper coverage of climate change in Canada between 1997 and 2010, Stoddart, Haluza-DeLay, and Tindall (2016) found that media coverage of climate change peaked around 2007, when the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment was released, and the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Al Gore and the IPCC (Figure 3). Coverage declined on average after that. However, by 2007, no significant, effective policy measures had been implemented at the federal level to reduce greenhouse gases, and emissions in Canada continued to rise after that year, as have average global temperatures. (See also Broadbent et al., 2016, who provide evidence of a similar trend at the global level.) In Figure 3, Al Gore, former United States Vice President, is shown at the 2015 Paris COP meetings. Gore has been an influential actor in terms of mobilizing public opinion about climate change, and was co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Ideological Stance and Corporate Influence
Most media outlets have an ideological stance. For example, in the United States, The New York Times and The Washington Post tend to be more center-left in terms of the positions of the columnists and news slants, while The Wall Street Journal tends to be more right wing. In Canada, The Globe and Mail tends to be centrist (perhaps center-right), while The National Post tends to be more right wing, and The Toronto Star tends to be more center-left. In the United Kingdom, The Guardian and The Independent are more left oriented, while The Times tends to be more right wing.
Ideological stance does influence coverage. For example, Stoddart and Tindall (2015), in a study of national newspaper reporting in Canada, found that The National Post was more likely to publish stories questioning the reliability of climate science than was The Globe and Mail. Further, The National Post was more likely to rely on think tanks as sources, thus perhaps echoing findings in the United States (Dunlap & McCright, 2015) that conservative think tanks play a role in promoting climate change denial.
To what extent does corporate ownership influence the news? This has been debated in the scholarly literature on media. On the one hand, hiring practices and corporate culture can influence the slant of the news (Doyle et al., 1997). On the other hand, as Gans argued (2004), to some extent professional journalistic norms and culture ensure a degree of autonomy and independence on the part of the newsroom and individual journalists. (See also Callison, 2014 on the culture of journalism and climate change, and Singer, 2007, Deuze, 2005, and Deuze and Witschge, 2017 on changing professional identity and norms.) Gans (2004) speculated that economic pressures affect the relationship between corporate influence and journalistic autonomy. In his study of major American news outlets (including television, newspapers, and magazines) in the 1970s, he found no evidence of direct corporate influence on the newsroom. However, he noted that in the 1970s the news media were thriving financially. In the current period of decline among legacy media, corporate influence over the newsroom could be expected to be stronger. It should also be noted that Gans’s research in the 1970s was prior to the ascendancy of Fox News in the United States; Fox News has a notorious right-wing bias and is often accused of being a booster for the Republican Party. Fox, owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch, also has a track record of giving ample air time to climate change deniers, although it must be noted that the existence of Fox has invigorated more liberal outlets on the left (in a symbiotic-like relationship), such as MSNBC, who have reacted against the positions taken by Fox, and who utilize frames more consistent with concerns about anthropogenic climate change (Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2012).
Lazarus (2008, p. 1159) noted, “Scholars long ago characterized a public-policy problem with the kinds of features presented by climate change as a ‘wicked problem’ that defies resolution because of the enormous interdependencies, uncertainties, circularities, and conflicting stakeholders implicated by any effort to develop a solution.” Lazarus went on to argue that climate change is a “‘super wicked problem’ because of its even further exacerbating features” (Lazarus, 2008, p. 1160).
Climate change is a complex problem that is slow moving and involves many abstract aspects. These features make it difficult to keep it in the news. In addition, a key aspect of whether something gets picked up as “news” is its newsworthiness. A story can be newsworthy for a variety of reasons. Novelty is somewhat important (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007), and, as the issue−attention cycle concept illustrates, audiences tire of repeated exposure to the same topic (Downs, 1972). Direct relevance to the audience is also important, where relevance might be defined in two ways: (1) Is the story locally relevant? (2) Will the audience be affected? As an example of local relevance, consider potential flooding from sea-level rise in a low-lying coastal town. In the latter case, the audience may be affected either directly or indirectly. For example, an indirect effect would be if supplies of an important food product become limited because of a drought in a relatively distant agricultural area.
Figure 4 provides a photo of the People’s Climate March which took place in New York City on September 21st, 2015. This event was organized in response to a United Nations General Assembly Meeting in New York, and was intended to put pressure on politicians in advance of the 2015 Paris COP meeting. At the time, it was the largest climate march to ever take place, and some estimates suggested there were over 400,000 participants.
One issue with the science of climate change is that many aspects of it are abstract, and like much of science, it is probabilistic. This means that it is difficult to attribute specific incidents to global warming and climate change. Furthermore, some people find it difficult to recognize immediate local effects of climate change. Analysts like Norgaard (2011) and Marshall (2015) have documented that people have the ability to discount, to dismiss, or to fail to recognize information that is right in front of their eyes.
In some specific events, news media have played up climate change as a cause (such as in the case of Hurricane Katrina). Indeed, as has been documented by Boykoff (2011) and Callison (2014), in news production, it is usually the editors who provide the title for a news story, and sometimes headlines can be misleading, overly sensational, or just plain erroneous. These media processes have sometimes given fuel to climate change skeptics (Boykoff, 2011).
Climate activists have also been accused of overly sensationalizing uncertain outcomes by providing dramatic images and ominous claims. These criticisms have led to the term climate porn (Lowe, 2006). On the other hand, climate change deniers have often made use of the media’s propensity to focus on drama. One example is US Senator James Inhofe, Chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, who brought a snowball onto the Senate floor in Washington, D.C., and noted that it was very cold outside, and then threw the snowball, to dramatize and ridicule the idea of global warming (Casteel, 2015).
Personalization is another factor that influences the news. Personalization occurs when, rather than focusing on abstract analysis or describing the big picture, journalists frame stories in terms of the actions of individuals (Boykoff, 2011). Although personalization can make journalism more accessible to the audience, it often overly simplifies stories and omits important details and aspects of analysis.
Boykoff (2011) described personalization as a part of the culture of media reporting that can have negative consequences, but others have pointed to it as a useful strategy for climate change communicators to embrace. For example, Marshall (2015) asserted that making arguments purely in terms of the science of climate change is not an effective way of communicating. More effective, Marshall argued, is telling stories in which the audience members can locate themselves in terms of their everyday lives and their own values.
Balance in reporting is a core norm of journalism (Callison, 2014) and is thought to be related to the value of objectivity (Boykoff, 2011). Boykoff made reference to Entman’s (1989) work on this topic, where he described balanced reporting as the procedure by which media workers “present the views of legitimate spokespersons of the conflicting sides in any significant dispute, and provide both sides with roughly equal attention” (1989, p. 30). Boykoff (2011) argued that the practice of balance can provide a “validity check” for reporters who are on a deadline and have limited capacity to assess the scientific validity of claims, or the legitimacy of the sources. Oreskes and Conway noted that the notion of balance as a binary is overly simplistic, because, “In an active scientific debate, there can be many sides” (2011, p. 214).
One aspect of the balance issue has been investigated by Oreskes (2004), who examined trends in published scientific journal articles by conducting a content analysis of 928 articles published between 1993 and 2003 in the top scholarly journals on climate change. She found that 75% of the articles accepted the view that humans are a significant contributor to global warming and climate change, and 25% focused on other issues (such as methods or paleoclimate) and thus did not take a position on the issue. None disagreed with the consensus that anthropogenic climate change is occurring.
More recently, Powell (2015) conducted an analysis of 69,406 peer-reviewed articles on global warming. He found that only 0.0058% (1 in 17,352) rejected anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Powell asserted that “the consensus on AGW among publishing scientists is above 99.99%, verging on unanimity” (2015, p. 121). Boykoff (2007), in studying media coverage of climate science, found that, in the United States, newspaper coverage of climate science showed a significant divergence from scientific consensus in 2003–2004.
Differences between media accounts and scientific accounts may be due to a variety of factors, but one aspect is the norm of balance, and the idea of giving equal time to contrary points of view, even if the views are not representative of scientific opinion. Furthermore, it is useful to consider the issue of balance in an international comparative context. The amount and style of coverage given to climate change varies considerably between different countries (Anderson, 2009; Boykoff, 2011). Research on American media coverage has found that journalistic norms of providing space for opposing positions tends to result in coverage for climate skeptics disproportionate to their standing among climate scientists (Boykoff, 2013; Freudenburg & Muselli, 2010).
In Canada, Good (2008) used content analysis to examine the volume of climate change coverage and the keywords used to frame the issue. She observed that Canadian news media provide greater visibility and attributed greater significance to climate change than US media. Young and Dugas (2011) also studied the two Canadian national newspapers (The Globe and Mail and The National Post) during three peak periods between 1988 and 2008. They found that news hooks (the core message of the story) oriented to ecological events or scientific discoveries had declined over time, but at the same time there was an increase in news hooks oriented to policy debate and proposed solutions. Young and Dugas also found that (as in many countries outside the United States) media in Canada have not attempted to balance voices representing the scientific consensus against skeptics’ voices. Notably, Canadian media have not reproduced the “conflict among experts narrative” that dominates US media coverage (Young & Dugas, 2011, p. 17). In general, newsprint coverage in Canada is relatively more consistent with media coverage in societies outside the United States, such as India, New Zealand, Finland, or Germany (Billett, 2010; Brossard, Shanahan, & McComas, 2004; Dispensa & Brulle, 2003; Grundmann, 2007), although The Globe and Mail’s coverage is more closely aligned with the “climate consensus” model and The National Post is similar to the “false balance” model characteristic of US climate change media coverage.
While balance may be seen as a function of media practices, polarization relates to trends in public opinion and trends in positions taken by policy actors. McCright and Dunlap (2011b) argued that, since 2001, public opinion in the United States about climate change has become increasingly polarized and defined by Democratic or Republican political affiliation. (See also work by Fisher, Waggle, & Leifeld, 2013, and Jasny, Waggle, & Fisher, 2015 on polarization in the United States among climate change policy actors.)
During the early stages of media visibility of climate change, perceptions of the seriousness of the issue were not strongly linked to political affiliation. However, as climate change gained visibility, public opinion aligned with political party affiliation, with Democrats more likely to be climate change believers and Republicans more likely to be climate skeptics (McCright & Dunlap, 2011b). Comparative research on media coverage found that climate skeptics are given more coverage in the United States than in other countries, American media coverage is more event-driven and cyclical than elsewhere, and media in countries like India, New Zealand, Finland, and Germany reflect the scientific consensus on climate change to a greater degree (Billett, 2010; Brossard et al., 2004; Dispensa & Brulle, 2003; Grundmann, 2007).
Jasanoff (2004, 2010, 2011) has more broadly argued that climate science is a form of knowledge that is subject to particular and nationally specific ways of establishing credibility. The United States, she asserted, is particularly contentious and all knowledge claims are subject to “aggressive testing in a competitive forum” where citizens can and will test any knowledge claims (2011, p. 262). The US media might be seen, then, as providing a variety of competitive forums that have only expanded with digital media (Callison, 2014).
Effects of the Decline of Traditional Media
Subscription to, and readership of, print newspapers have declined among the general public; nevertheless, particular newspapers (e.g., newspapers of record; Myers & Caniglia, 2004) continue to be important. While newspaper subscriptions among the general public have decreased, politicians, academics, NGO leaders, business leaders, policymakers, and other opinion leaders continue to consume print media. Further, articles from particular outlets (such as The New York Times) still have significant readership via new media access points, such as Facebook and Twitter. Traditional media continue to be important for actors in framing policy issues and in trying to affect and to gauge public opinion. Figure 5 shows journalists at work in one of the media rooms at the Paris COP Meetings in December 2015.
While some legacy media outlets, such as The New York Times, still command considerable attention and appear to have robust resources, many other media outlets have atrophied. This means that newspapers and other media outlets have fewer and fewer resources to pay for beat reporters in specialized areas, such as the environment and climate change (Callison, 2014; Daley, 2010; Russell, 2006). This is particularly troubling for a wicked problem like climate change, because nonspecialists are ill equipped to evaluate competing claims and to assess the credentials of “experts” (Callison, 2014). The decline of beat reporters has provided opportunities for climate change skeptics and deniers to access mainstream media.
Nevertheless, despite the decline in traditional media, the digital landscape provides a variety of alternative outlets for information about climate change issues, such as NASA Global Climate Change, The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, Desmog Blog, Maribo, Inside Climate News, Climate Central, Skeptical Science, Grist, and others. Andrew Revkin, a longtime reporter turned blogger for The New York Times, as well as a former blogger for Earth.com, has noted that, at the same time that legacy media have declined, there have been exciting developments in alternative digital formats.
Of course, the advent of digital media has provided opportunities for climate change skeptics and deniers. Some examples of their digital outlets are Climate Depot.com, and Watts Up with That.
Policy networks are a set of theoretical perspectives that focus on actors involved in policymaking and the relations among them. This focus involves studying the influence of different individuals and groups, such as government agencies, lobbyists, and nongovernmental organizations, in shaping policy outcomes (Knoke, 2011; Lubell, Scholz, Berardo, & Robins, 2012; Raab, 2002). It is often the case that the policy actors described in the different configurations of policy network theory engage in public discourse about environment and climate change policy in the media. Several different frameworks have been developed to explain the interaction between networks and policy-development processes. The most prominent of these are the organizational state perspective, the epistemic community approach, the advocacy coalition framework (ACF), institutional analysis, and the social learning model. A number of researchers have applied policy network analysis to understanding climate change (Broadbent et al., 2016; Brunner, 2008; Compston, 2009; Fisher et al., 2013; Jost & Jacob, 2004; Kolleck, Well, Sperzel, & Jörgens, 2017; Kukkonen et al., 2018).
For instance, Fisher et al. used policy network analysis to analyze testimony in the US Congress (Fisher et al., 2013). Their findings showed how consensus formed around the economic implications of regulating greenhouse gases and the policy instrument that should do the regulating.
Epistemic communities are networks of knowledge-based experts who define how complex problems are understood and who shape state interests and policy alternatives (Haas, 1992). Epistemic communities are characterized by shared normative beliefs and validation criteria, as well as a common causal understanding of a particular problem. Some have argued that the IPCC constitutes an epistemic community (Betsill & Bulkeley, 2006), because the scientists who comprise the IPCC have a shared understanding of the core processes driving anthropogenic climate change, and of the high probability that severe outcomes will result if greenhouse gases continue to increase in the atmosphere.
The ACF perspective (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1993) suggests that stakeholders with similar values and beliefs form coalitions so that they can compete for policy influence. Network analysis can be used to identify clusters of actors who work together based on shared values, and to characterize different policy communities based on coalition formation across several domains. For instance, Bulkeley (2000) examined both advocacy coalitions and discourse coalitions in the context of climate change politics in Australia. In another example, in connecting an ACF perspective to media analysis, Kukkonen, Ylä-Anttila, and Broadbent (2017) applied network analysis to US national newspaper data in order to identify three distinct advocacy coalitions involved in US climate politics. Dunlap and McCright (2015, p. 320) argued that the ACF perspective (along with the concept of global advocacy networks) is particularly well suited for analyzing the climate change denier countermovement.
A number of research teams have studied environment and climate change policy network discourse via the media in different countries. The researchers include Gebara et al. (2017), who examined the framing of REDD+ in the Brazilian media; Gkiouzepas and Botetzagias (2017, 2018), who examined climate change reporting in Greece; Gronow and Ylä-Anttila (2016), who studied media reporting in Finland; Horta, Carvalho, and Schmidt (2017), who investigated media coverage in Portugal; Ylä-Anttila and Swarnakar (2017), who analyzed media coverage of climate change policy networks in India; and Broadbent et al. (2016), who investigated the global media field of climate change discourse.
Media as Forums for Policy Discourse
Mass media provide publicly observable arenas for debate and contention over appropriate policy responses and approaches to climate governance. Actors who want to influence climate governance also do the “cultural work” of using media to communicate to various audiences and to engage each other in public debate. Through media access, social groups engage in the “cultural politics of climate change,” which Crow and Boykoff described as the “dynamic and contested spaces where various ‘actors’ contend to shape public understanding and engagement with decision-making” (Crow & Boykoff, 2014, p. 2).
Analyses of mass media accounts of climate change can provide insights into the cultural dimensions of climate governance and policy networks. Mass media are relevant because media coverage is the main source of information about the issue for laypeople, and are also important for stakeholders (Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014, p. 143; see also McCombs, 2014). Interaction between news media outlets and climate policy networks allows groups with a stake in climate policy to contend in publicly visible media space (Boykoff, 2011). This allows policy actors to communicate the issue to news audiences and to speak to government indirectly, thereby generating pressure for political responses to the issue. Interactions between particular media sources and preexisting ideological positions among members of the general public play a role in growing polarization in the United States about climate change (Bolin & Hamilton, 2018).
A dominant theoretical framework within sociology and other social sciences is “social constructionism” (Hannigan, 2014; Young, 2014). An environmental issue can be said to be a social construction for a variety of reasons. At some level, everything we become conscious of is observed, described, and interpreted by people. To a large extent, these are “social,” as opposed to “individual,” processes, although they may have individual components.
In some ways, the notion that environmental issues and other scientific topics are social constructions (Dispensa & Brulle, 2003; Young, 2014) is counterintuitive. For example, consider the question, How is it that a physical process like global warming can also be a social construction? This seems as silly as asking people for their opinion about whether the Earth is round, because the Earth’s shape is a physical property. However, people learn most of what they know about the environment and scientific topics through agents of socialization; that is, from social actors, and in social settings where social learning occurs, or from media (McCombs, 2014). Most people do not directly engage in systematic study of the environment and scientific issues. Even for those who do engage in research, only a small fraction of what they know is based on direct observation. People learn about these issues in the context of family, in friendship networks (Knoke, 1994), in communities, in educational settings, in church, and through the media (among other settings). Thus, framing and public opinion can be seen as two outcomes of social constructionism.
The idea of framing is an important concept in the communication literature. Within sociology, the conceptual framework has been most developed within the social movements subarea by Snow and Benford (Benford & Snow, 2000; Snow, Rochford, Worden, & Benford, 1986). In this context, social movement actors rely on “frames” to gain attention, to mobilize support, and to sway public opinion. Frames are the interpretive schemas individuals use to perceive, identify, and label events in the world. “By rendering events or occurrences meaningful, frames function to organize experience and guide action” (Snow et al., 1986, p. 464). In the context of social movements, scholars have pointed to the importance of “frame alignment”—the linking of individual values and interests with those of social movement organizations—as a necessary prerequisite to movement participation (Snow et al., 1986, p. 464). However, the concept of framing is much broader in relevance than just its application to social movements, and it is useful to think of framing as communications undertaken by actors to garner the attention or support of audiences. One way to conceive of framing is that frames are communications that have been crafted in some way to take advantage of aspects of culture, cognitive processing, or dispositions of the audience. Figure 6 shows an individual at the People’s Climate March in New York City, holding a sign that attempts to frame the issue by criticizing Capitalism.
Actors engaging in framing often use images or icons to communicate messages because frames are easy to remember, they are readily associated with other aspects of culture (they have cultural resonance), or because they evoke certain emotional responses. An example would be the use of polar bear images (especially polar bears pictured on melting or diminished ice flows) to symbolize the warming of the Arctic, the melting polar ice caps, and the decline of sea ice. There is a growing body of literature on framing about global warming and climate change. Some examples include Trumbo (1996), Dispensa and Brulle (2003), O’Brien, Eriksen, Nygaard, and Schjolden (2007), McCright and Dunlap (2003), Good (2008), Boykoff and Goodman (2009), Spence and Pidgeon (2010), Nisbet (2009), Greenberg, Knight, and Westersund (2011), Gunster (2011), and Shehata and Hopmann (2012).
Framing is connected to power. Boykoff (2013) cited Leiserowitz (2005, p. 1433) in asserting that “arenas of claims making and framing are ‘exercises in power . . . Those with the power to define the terms of the debate strongly determine the outcomes.’” Trumbo’s (1996) piece in this literature provided a useful example. His analysis of framing in US newspapers showed that scientists tended to be associated with frames emphasizing problems and causes, while politicians and special interests were more likely to offer frames emphasizing judgments and remedies. Trumbo’s findings also revealed that scientists declined as news sources as the issue became increasingly politicized.
There has been a significant amount of debate among climate change communicators about what works and what does not. There is an emerging consensus that simply appealing to scientific arguments is not the most effective strategy of communicating to the general public (Callison, 2014; Hulme, 2009). Similarly, framing messages that emphasize fear do not seem to be highly effective. Rather, several authors have talked about communicating climate change in terms of stories and through appealing to the values of the audience (Haidt, 2012).
As noted elsewhere, climate change is sometimes called a “wicked problem” or even “a super wicked problem.” Some commentators have argued that part of the difficulty is due to the fact that, in order to embrace solutions, the public would need to reject key aspects of a status quo that they have invested in and are deeply embedded in.
Others, like McKibben, have argued that what social movements need is to be able to frame their struggle in relation to a villain. McKibben (2012) argued that the fossil fuel industry is the enemy of the climate change movement.
Dunlap et al. (2000) developed the mostly widely used survey scale in environmental sociology, the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) scale, which measures individuals’ environmental orientation. The NEP scale is comprised of a number of dimensions. Different survey questions tap into different aspects of environmental concern. One aspect of the NEP scale examines the extent to which some people are relatively more anthropocentrically oriented toward the environment (that is, they see nature as a resource to use in any way they see fit) while others are more biocentrically oriented (they see nature as having intrinsic values, and as having rights). Debate about climate change communication is sometimes related to this continuum. For example, consider the question, Is it better to emphasize the risks to humans from global warming (increased risk of disease, flooding, social conflict, refugees) or it is better to focus on environmental framings (loss of polar bear habitat, loss of the Great Barrier Reef, loss of biodiversity)? One area where there could be more research is on how the reception of climate change frames relates to people’s orientation on the NEP scale.
Iconic images and imagery can be very important for the construction of social problems, and as catalysts of social movements (Wilkes, Corrigall-Brown, & Myers, 2010), and they can be very effective in framing. A study by Leiserowitz (2006) found that risk perceptions and policy support were influenced by affect, imagery, and values. He argued that this demonstrates that public responses to climate change are influenced by both psychological and sociocultural factors. Figure 7 shows an example of a social movement organization presenting an iconic image at the Paris COP meeting, Aurora the Polar Bear, to highlight climate change in the Arctic.
Smith and Joffe (2009) analyzed the visual imagery used in newspaper coverage of climate change in the United Kingdom and found notable differences between tabloid and broadsheet news outlets. Smith and Joffe claimed that the images could be classified into three main categories. The first type focused on climate change impacts, including global impacts (e.g., melting glaciers and ice-sheets), as well as images that localized climate impacts by highlighting the British landscape. This mode of visualizing impacts through media coverage “[s]peaks against the argument that climate change science is uncertain” and reinforces the scientific consensus position (Smith & Joffe, 2009, p. 658). The second type of image involved “personification,” by emphasizing politicians and celebrities as authoritative speakers about climate change. The third type involved figures and graphical representations of climate trends and science, and they were more prevalent in broadsheet than in tabloid news outlets.
DiFrancesco and Young (2011) studied images in climate change reporting in Canada. They asserted that the power of visual communication comes from its ability to blend fact and emotion, to engage audiences, and to add narrative complexity to linguistic claims. However, their findings showed a strong disjuncture between images and text in climate change coverage. They argued that, in this case, visual and linguistic communication may pull the reader in different narrative directions. They suggested that the inherent contradictions may confuse different aspects and positions on climate change.
Dominant Discourses in the Media
The notion of discourse is conceptually related to framing. One way of thinking about dominant discourses is that they are communicative themes that frequently appear in a given domain (e.g., the media). (There are others aspects to this notion that deal with the relation of discourse to power, such as the power of particular types of actors to shape the dominant discourses.) Analyses of dominant discourses in the media about climate change have been undertaken in a number of countries. An example is Stoddart and Tindall’s (2015) research on climate change discourse in Canada. In a content analysis of two national newspapers’ coverage of climate change in Canada, Stoddart and Tindall (2015) found the following categories to be most prominent: government responsibility, reliability of climate science, economic costs and impacts of responding to climate change, ecological and meteorological impacts of climate change, and international policy negotiations. A range of other discourse categories focused on policy solutions (i.e., carbon tax, emissions caps, and trade systems), technological fixes (i.e., carbon capture and storage, nuclear power), and issues of economic power and inequality (i.e., corporate responsibility, Canadian dependence on oil, and Third World suffering). However, these categories were less prevalent as discourses for making sense of climate change impacts and political responses. Relatively absent was media debate about addressing attachments to high-carbon lifestyles centered on regular meat consumption and air travel. This relative pattern of invisibility, Hayden (2014) argued, is characteristic of Canadian climate change discourse more broadly.
Moving to the global level, Broadbent et al. (2016) reported on a content analysis of newspaper reporting about climate change in 17 countries. In this analysis, their team identified 131 frames that were used. They found four main dimensions over which there were conflicting perspectives: validity of climate science, the scale of ecological risk, the scale of climate politics, and support for mitigation policy.
Broadbent et al. (2016) then examined the relationship of newspaper coverage to greenhouse gas emissions. They found that, compared with the 1990 baseline, countries were more likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if the newspapers in their respective country tended to accept the findings of the IPCC, to orient to the global level of climate politics and ecological risks, and to support mitigation policies.
Broadbent et al. (2016) noted that, in terms of newspaper coverage, a majority of societies strongly accepted consensus science, particularly in Europe and Asia. Debate and opposition came primarily from a cluster of Anglo states. Opposition was most notable in the United States, but it was also observed in Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. Broadbent et al. interpreted this in the context of conservative think tanks financed by the fossil fuel industry with the goal of creating doubt about climate science. The authors noted that this influence of conservative climate change deniers has spread from the United States to other English-speaking societies. Their findings agree with observations by Dunlap and McCright (2015).
Barkemeyer et al. (2017) also conducted a content analysis of media coverage at the global level, although their study focused more on levels of media coverage, rather than dominant discourses. Their study involved a worldwide sample across 41 different countries for the year 2008 and covered 113 leading national broadsheet newspapers. A cross-sectional regression model was used to assess the extent to which contextual factors affect coverage of climate change. One key finding was a significantly positive relationship between regulatory quality and levels of media coverage. (See also Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer, 2013 for another global perspective on media coverage of climate change.)
Media and Public Opinion
There has been a considerable amount of research on public opinion and climate change (Dunlap, 1998; Leiserowitz et al., 2011; Marquart-Pyatt et al., 2011; McCright & Dunlap, 2011a, 2011b; McCright, Marquart-Pyatt, Shwom, Brechin, & Allen, 2016; Shwom et al., 2015). Brulle, Carmichael, and Jenkins (2012), in reviewing the literature, argued that five major categories of explanation have been used to explain public opinion about climate change: extreme weather events, public access to accurate scientific information, media coverage, elite cues, and movement/countermovement advocacy.
One assertion is that extreme weather events have led to increased public concern about climate change (Weber, 2011). Several authors have compared the effect of weather relative to other social factors on public opinion (Hamilton & Stampone, 2013).
As Brulle et al. (2012) noted, a second explanation, the information-deficit model, is based on people’s access to, and understanding of, scientific information. Here, it is suggested, a lack of information and/or understanding of scientific information is associated with a lack of concern about anthropogenic climate change. Of central relevance is the notion that media coverage directly affects public opinion about climate change. This is consistent with the social constructionist idea that agents of socialization, such as the media, are important for shaping how environmental issues become constructed.
Another line of reasoning regarding media coverage is the agenda-setting hypothesis, which argues that public opinion is a function of the amount and prominence of media coverage (Brulle et al., 2012; McCombs, 2014; McCombs & Shaw, 1972). Increased media coverage makes particular issues more salient. This effect can be produced through the frequency of stories, the frequency of headlines or lead stories, and placement within a newspaper. It is argued that a feedback loop can occur, where increased coverage leads individuals to pursue further stories on the issue, which in turn can make the issue more salient (Zhao, 2009). McCombs (2014) argued that it is not necessarily the case that the media directly affect what people think about particular issues, but that issues that are reported in the media become the priority issues in the consciousness of the public. Thus, actors who can affect what gets into the media can shape the public policy agenda to some degree.
Some analysts have focused on elite cues. According to this line of reasoning, individuals examine media coverage to assess the position of elites and also interpret media coverage in light of their party and ideological orientation (Brulle et al., 2012; Carmichael & Brulle, 2017).
Another explanation focuses on the influence of advocacy groups that organize and lobby governments for particular policy outcomes (Brulle et al., 2012). Some examples include corporations, industry trade associations, and social movement/countermovement organizations. These actors endeavor to influence media attention in a variety of ways.
As in other areas of social science research on climate change issues, there is an overrepresentation of published studies about public opinion in the US case. In an exhaustive review of the literature, McCright et al. (2016) reported that three quarters of all studies on public opinion on climate change are based in the United States.
McCright et al. considered predictors of pro-climate views in 87 studies (McCright et al., 2016). They examined the effects of a variety of different variables on belief in climate change, concern about climate change, support for climate policy, and pro-climate behavior intentions. The variables included environmental values, beliefs, and identity; leftist (vs. rightist) ideology; leftist (vs. rightist) party identification; sex (women vs. men); income; education; postmaterialist values; religiosity; race (whites vs. non-whites); egalitarianism; individualism; self-efficacy; scientific literacy; and trust in scientists.
McCright et al. noted that the theoretical perspectives employed most often were: values-beliefs-norms theory, the anti-reflexivity thesis, gender socialization theory, postmaterialist values, and cultural theory.
McCright et al. (2016, p. 186) argued:
The strongest and most consistent predictors of climate change views (i.e., environmental values, beliefs, and identity and political orientation) closely align with ideological propensity for reflexivity versus anti-reflexivity. As key forces of reflexivity, the environmental movement and environmental science draw attention to problems caused by industrial capitalism and urge ameliorative action. . . . Further, organizations, parties, and groups on the political Right more strongly defend the industrial capitalist system against further governmental intervention than do those on the political Left. . . . Citizens with stronger environmental values, beliefs, and identities and those on the political Left more openly accept evidence of problems caused by industrial capitalism (e.g., climate change) than do their less environmental—or even anti-environmental—and Right-leaning counterparts.
[A]cross countries, the strength and consistency of ideology-based predictors vary by the mobilization and strength of the climate change denial counter movement. In countries where organized climate change denial is more pervasive and powerful . . . the effects of political orientation and environmental values, beliefs, and identities are quite strong. . . . In other countries where the climate change denial counter movement is much weaker or even nonexistent, the effects of these ideology-based predictors are considerably weaker.
(McCright et al. 2016, pp. 186−187)
Bolin and Hamilton (2018) analyzed survey interview data collected in the United States. One key aspect of their findings is that media information sources serve as intervening variables that can both reinforce and amplify existing beliefs about climate change. Thus, Bolin and Hamilton’s findings provide evidence for selective exposure and biased assimilation as mechanisms that serve to expand political divisions regarding climate change in the United States.
Social Movements and Climate Change
Within environmental sociology, there is a sometimes fierce debate between proponents of the treadmill of production (TOP) model (Schnaiberg, Pellow, & Weinberg, 2002) and the ecological modernization (EM) perspective (Mol & Spaargaren, 2002) as explanations for the relationship between society and the natural world (Dunlap & Brulle, 2015). The TOP model takes a somewhat pessimistic view, and argues that the dynamics of a capitalist political economy usually lead nation states to take an unsustainable path. Proponents of the TOP model argue that governments with different ideological orientations may make different choices, with more leftist governments being more concerned about use values and distributive justice, and hence being more likely to take relatively more sustainable policy positions. But, in the end, most governments are committed to economic growth, and to the pressures of facilitating the capitalist system. The argument is that economic growth is usually associated with increased environmental degradation, including increased emissions of greenhouse gases. The EM perspective, by contrast, argues that there is no necessary contradiction between a market economy and ecological sustainability, and that truly sustainable development is a possibility.
These two perspectives have different views about civil society and social movements. The TOP perspective sees the relative power of civil society actors as being one of the factors that can restrain governments from caving in to the worst excesses of the TOP. Hence, TOP scholars see social movements and other civil society actors as largely playing an oppositional role vis-à-vis industry. EM scholars, by contrast, argue that civil society, and environmental groups in particular, can and should play a more cooperative role with industry and government. Environmental groups can play an important role in facilitating consumer choices and in promoting green technology, certification, and green policies.
Environmental groups play a variety of roles in climate change discourse and governance. Some groups, such as Greenpeace, 350.org, and others, focus mostly on protest and pressuring government. Intellectual and climate activist Naomi Klein took a position consistent with the TOP perspective critique in arguing that climate change marks a serious point of crisis for capitalism, and that, in order to solve climate change, a major restructuring of the economy is necessary. She argued that this can be driven by networks of activism that embrace environmental, social justice, and Indigenous rights principles against the continuation of fossil-fuel-based economies, a movement she termed Blockadia (Klein, 2015). Klein articulated this position in a bestselling book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, as well as a documentary film of the same name. Others, such as the Climate Reality Project and the WWF, play a more neutral role vis-à-vis governments and the corporate sector. For instance, Climate Reality Project presenters emphasize the role that green technology and carbon pricing can play in solving the climate crisis. This is consistent with the EM perspective. More generally, the extent to which environmental social movement organizations operate in the roles described by the TOP perspective versus the EM perspective can be seen to be related to the types of communication activities they engage in and the types of frames they construct. Figure 8 shows representatives of the Climate Action Network holding a press conference at the Paris COP meeting in December 2015.
Climate Change Denial
Climate change denial refers to organized efforts of groups and individuals to deny the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. In sociology, a great deal of work has been done on this topic by Dunlap, McCright, and Brulle (see Brulle, 2014; Dunlap, 2013; Dunlap & Jacques, 2013; Dunlap & McCright, 2015; Elasasser & Dunlap, 2013; Jacques, Dunlap, & Freeman, 2008; McCright & Dunlap, 2003).
Dunlap and McCright (2015) described how the climate change denial countermovement has its roots in the politics of neoliberalism that emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s with the election of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and the election of Ronald Regan in the United States. Actors within the movement have a strong belief in neoliberal ideology and market fundamentalism. One reason they are opposed to acknowledging climate change, and to adopting policies to deal with anthropogenic climate change, is that they tend to be opposed to regulation and government intervention in the economy—things that would be difficult to avoid if effective climate change policies were to be enacted. Relatedly, as several analysts have noted, with the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, many activists within the conservative movement turned their attention from attacking Communism to attacking environmentalism and environmentalists. Figure 9 provides a picture of a Sun News van at an Anti-Pipeline Protest in Burnaby, Canada, in May 2014. Sun News (now defunct) took a climate change denial perspective in its reporting.
A prime strategy of the climate change denial countermovement has been to sow doubt about the claims of climate science (Hoggan, 2009; Oreskes & Conway, 2011). Oreskes and Conway wrote a book called Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. The book provided the basis for a documentary directed by Robert Kenner that described parallels between the role of the fossil fuel industry in funding and promoting skepticism about anthropogenic climate change and earlier undertakings by the tobacco industry to cast doubt on the linkages between smoking and cancer. A variety of frames have been developed by climate change deniers, including calling climate science “junk science” (Greenberg et al., 2011; Knight & Greenberg, 2011). The framing perspective has been applied to analyzing this countermovement. Countermovement activists were instrumental in manufacturing the “Climategate” scandal (Leiserowitz et al., 2013), in which the e-mails of scientists were hacked and personal correspondence was then spun to suggest a lack of integrity among climate scientists. In this context, Dunlap and McCright (2015, p. 316) reported that, after Climategate, a US Senator and Chair of the Committee for Environment and Public Works called for criminal investigation of leading climate scientists. Social science researchers have investigated a number of aspects of the climate change denial countermovement.
In their 2003 article, McCright and Dunlap examined the early mobilization of the countermovement, and they detailed how the conservative movement mobilized between 1990 and 1997 to oppose claims about anthropogenic climate change. They argued that conservative think tanks (CTTs) played a prominent role in the project, challenging the claims of mainstream science. McCright and Dunlap argued that countermovement organizations aligned themselves with prominent US climate change skeptics, who were known for their strong criticism of mainstream climate research and their connections to the fossil fuel industry. McCright and Dunlap also examined how the countermovement interacted with Congress and how it played a role in the blockage of significant climate change policy development and adoption.
Dunlap and Jacques (2013; also Jacques et al., 2008) focused on the role of books in the climate change denial movement. They argued that books denying anthropogenic global warming (AGW) serve as an important means of attacking climate science and scientists. Dunlap and Jacques analyzed the links between CTTs and 108 climate change denial books that had been published up to 2010. They found a strong link between CCTs and the production of books denying AGW. They also found that CCTs have helped to spread climate change denial to other countries. Their research showed that increasing proportions of denial books were produced by authors with no scientific training. Their analysis also revealed that at least 90% of denial books do not undergo peer review. Dunlap and Jacques (2013, p. 669) argued that this allows authors or editors to “recycle scientifically unfounded claims that are then amplified by the conservative movement, media, and political elites.”
Brulle (2014) focused on the funding of climate change (denial) countermovement organizations. He used US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data on total annual income for a sample of climate change (denial) countermovement organizations, including advocacy organizations, think tanks, and trade associations. His research focused on the period from 2003 to 2010 and examined the annual income of 91 organizations that were funded by 140 different foundations. His analysis revealed that the 91 organization had an average annual income of just over $900 million, and an average of $64 million in identifiable foundation support. Brulle (2014) concluded that the majority of philanthropic support comes from conservative foundations. Furthermore, he argued that there is evidence of a trend toward concealing the sources of climate change (denial) countermovement funding.
Leiserowitz et al. (2013) conducted representative social surveys to collect data on the public’s perceptions of issues related to climate change. They found that, between 2008 and 2010, there were significant declines in Americans’ climate change beliefs and risk perceptions, and in their trust in scientists. Leiserowitz et al. argued that Climategate had significantly affected public belief in global warming and trust in scientists. However, they noted that the shift was primarily among individuals with a strongly individualistic worldview or politically conservative ideology. Figure 10 shows pro-fossil fuel industry counter-movement demonstrators at an anti-pipeline rally in Vancouver, Canada, in May 2014.
Overall, authors who have studied the climate change denial countermovement argue that the movement has had a significant effect in shaping public opinion in the United States and in slowing down legislation. With the election of President Donald Trump and the appointment of a number of key leaders of the movement to positions in the White House, it seems that the movement is in a strong position to resist and to reverse action on climate change in the United States. Indeed, President Trump has announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
A Model of the Dynamics of Media Production and Reception
Based (in part) on the material introduced and discussed in this article, Figure 11 provides a summary of a number of relationships and processes that are important in linking the political and media spheres.
Figure 11 provides a model of the dynamics of media production and reception.
A variety of actors attempt to engage in climate change discourse through mainstream media and social media. Inequalities rooted in socioeconomic and political factors affect access to mainstream media (e.g., financial resources, expertise, authority). Various media processes (including factors like the issue-attention cycle, the norm of balance, and outlet ideology) also influence which sources and stories get picked up in the media.
The media serve as sites for a number of processes, including the dissemination and contestation of facts and the articulation of policy discourse; they also serve as a record of support for various policy options and as a record of potential support for voting preferences and social movements.
Different actors have different abilities to shape these processes. Media coverage is not a simple record of events, nor does what appears in the media translate directly into public opinion, policy, and legislation; however, the media are an important field for activity concerning climate change communication. They can affect the climate change policy agenda and can influence public opinion on climate change. Also, while there is a large body of work using media data to examine climate politics, including advocacy coalitions and policy networks, much less work examines the influence of media coverage and media workers on policy networks outside the domain of the media or beyond studies of public opinion.
Much more work has been done regarding climate change with respect to mainstream media than work with respect to social media. Researchers need to pay more attention to studying the role of social media (see Kolleck et al., 2017; Segerberg & Bennett, 2011). Currently there is a certain degree of symbiosis between mainstream media and social media. For many people, social media serve as a gateway into mainstream media. Newspaper subscriptions have declined substantially, as have some broadcast news stations. Yet some outlets (e.g., The New York Times) continue to serve as important platforms for news and opinion, and social media often provide a gateway to such mainstream media sources. Further, mainstream media are increasingly drawing upon social media in their reporting. Additionally, some analysts, especially in the realm of the social movement literature, argue that social media have the potential to “level the playing field”—whereby some actors who might have fewer resources than corporations and governments have an enhanced ability to communicate directly with the public. More generally, there has been hot debate about whether social media increase (via increased networking and communication potential) or decrease (via the phenomenon of “slactivism”) the mobilization potential of social movement actors. Relatedly, social media and alternative media websites have become important conveyors of “news” and opinion for climate change denial, and they apparently also played a role in the most recent US presidential election. Related phenomena include the circulation of “fake news” on social media and the employment of maliciously engineered bots to disseminate information (both fake and real) through social media (Bounegru, Gray, Venturini, & Mauri, 2017).
A variety of researchers have noted that the media play an important role in affecting public opinion about climate change. Less well researched is the role of social media vis-à-vis public opinion about climate change. Media selection plays an important role in polarization. Cable television, the Internet, and social media enhance the ability of individuals to select information sources that are consistent with their preexisting positions on issues and to limit their exposure to diverse information and alternative opinions. This process is sometimes termed confirmation bias (Nickerson, 1998). Social network researchers have noted that interpersonal social networks are also important in these processes and individuals often evaluate news and opinions expressed in the media in the context of social comparisons within interpersonal networks. The micro aspects of these processes have been underinvestigated in the context of climate change communication.
Public opinion and support for particular policy options, in turn, are factors that influence governmental decisions on climate change policy. Public opinion is certainly not the most important factor, but it is still significant. A number of the theoretical relationships illustrated in Figure 11 could be further investigated by researchers focusing upon climate change communication.
Work on this article was supported by a Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Research Grant (# 435-2017-0505). The authors thank Adam Howe for assistance in the preparation of the article.
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