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date: 22 October 2017

Methods for Assessing Visual Images and Depictions of Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

Visual representation has been important in communicating and constructing the environment as a focus for public and political concern since the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s. As communications media have themselves become increasingly visual with the rise of digital media, so too has visual communication become key to public debate about environmental issues, no more so than in public debate and the politics of climate change.

This chapter surveys the methods, approaches, and frameworks deployed in emerging research on public-mediated visual communication about climate change. Research on the visual mediation of climate change is itself part of the emerging field of visual environmental communication research, defined as research concerned with theorizing and empirically examining how visual imagery contributes to the increasingly multimodal public communication of the environment. Focused on a sociological understanding of the contribution that visuals make to the social, political, and cultural construction of “the environment,” visual environmental communication research analytically requires a multimodal approach, which situates analysis of the semiotic, discursive, rhetorical, and narrative characteristics of visuals in relation to the communicative, cultural, and historical contexts and in relation to the three main sites—production, content, and audiences/consumption—of communication in the public sphere.

Keywords: visual environmental communication, visualization, multimodal analysis, news photographs, visual signification, image frames, iconic images, visual media

Visual representation has been important in communicating and constructing the environment as a focus for public and political concern since the rise of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s. As communications media have themselves become increasingly visual with the rise of digital media, so too has visual communication become key to public debate about environmental issues, no more so than in public debate and the politics of climate change.

Despite early calls (Graber, 1990) for communication and related research to attend more closely to the increasingly visual nature of communications media, it is only in the present century that there has been a significant methodological development accompanying an increase in research and analysis of how the environment generally and climate change in particular are communicated visually. This is evidenced by the emergence of book-length edited collections (Dobrin & Morey, 2009; Hansen & Machin, 2015; Schneider & Nocke, 2014) and several synthesizing reviews (Hansen & Machin, 2013; Metag, Schaefer, Fuechslin, Barsuhn, & Kleinen-von Koenigsloew, 2016; O’Neill & Smith, 2014; Walsh, 2015).

Visual environmental communication research can be defined as research concerned with theorizing and empirically examining, with a variety of methods, how visual imagery in the broadest sense (photographs, film, scientific/graphical representations using charts and graphs, maps, models, drawings, cartoons, paintings, artistic exhibits, installations, or performances, etc.) communicates and conveys messages about the environment. While communication can take many forms, the focus here is on research into public-mediated forms of communication, including—but not confined to—the communication of climate change through print, broadcast, and digital news media.

The emerging body of visual environmental communication research draws from a range of humanities and social science disciplines. Regardless of disciplinary emphases, a common objective across most approaches is to understand the contribution that visuals make to the wider social, political, and cultural construction and understanding of the environment or of climate change more specifically. As argued elsewhere (Hansen & Machin, 2013), this analytically calls for a multimodal approach, which situates the fine-grained analysis of the semiotic, discursive, rhetorical, narrative and other characteristics of visuals in relation to the communicative, cultural, and historical contexts and in relation to the three main sites—production, content, and audiences/consumption—of communication in the public sphere.

This article surveys the emerging evidence from research on the production, content, and consumption of visual communication about climate change. Examining the research methods/approaches and frameworks used to assess visual climate change communication, the article explores models for understanding the role of mediated visual communication in the politics of climate change and the environment.

The Production of Climate Change Imagery and Visualization

There is a well-developed body of research, built up from the early days of environmental communication research in the 1970s to the present, on the multiple factors influencing the construction/production and circulation of environmental news in the public sphere; but as with news research in general, this has overwhelmingly focused on news as text with surprisingly little attention to the visual construction of the environment.

Research on the production of environmental news has focused on the analysis of media organizational structures, journalistic values, and practices; and the relationship between journalists and their sources, with rather less research focused on the political economy analysis of media organizations. This is also an area that as yet has not been tackled in understanding the visual construction of climate change, despite the recognition that news visuals in the increasingly globalized news environment are to a large extent provided by “globally operating news image agencies such as Associated Press (AP), Reuters, and Getty Images” (Wessler, Wozniak, Hofer, & Lueck, 2016, p. 425). Hansen and Machin (2008) point to the rise of global image banks like Getty Images and note how image banks respond to economic pressures on media organizations by providing stock images that due to their decoupling from specific identifiable geographical locations or scenarios or situations can be flexibly used in a broad variety of news contexts.

Analysis of the production site thus needs to encompass analysis of the political and economic pressures on media organizations, and more widely on how media ownership and financial interlinking between media organizations and other businesses and economic interests may impact on how climate change is reported/framed, including visually. To understand the influences on the visual construction of climate change it is necessary to include analysis of the political economic factors “that shape institutional constraints and opportunities to report on climate change fairly and accurately” (Boykoff & Yulsman, 2013, p. 368). Methodologically, this calls for combining the traditional methods of political economy analysis such as analysis of patterns of ownership, directorships, and commonalities of interest across media and other corporations and financial institutions, with analysis of whether and how patterns of visual representation correlate with political economic interests of media organizations. A straightforward starting point, but one that has not been widely implemented in analyses of climate change imagery so far, is the simple analysis of the sourcing of news images across different news media and organizations.

Using case-study and multimodal approaches, a number of studies have begun to yield particularly rich insights into the production and content of environmental and climate change imagery. A study that in exemplary fashion demonstrates how attending to the production site is essential in providing a nuanced understanding of the factors influencing how climate change is visually constructed in major news media is Wozniak, Wessler, and Lück’s (2016) research on the visual framing of climate change conferences. Methodologically, the study offers careful combination of content analysis of news images with semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders—journalists, government delegations, and NGOs—involved in the visual construction of climate change conferences. Through their production site analysis—interviews with the three groups of communicators—they are able to map commonalities and differences in the visual framing conceptions that these hold. Thus, they find significant overlap in conceptions about what is regarded as powerful visuals between NGO representatives and journalists, further enhanced by a degree of these two types of communicators actively working together in the production of news visuals. By contrast, they find “no substantial similarities in visual frame conceptions between journalists and spokespeople of government delegations” (Wozniak et al., 2016, p. 13).

Comparing the dominant visual framing conceptions of the key communicators with the images/visual frames that are most prominent in the actual news coverage, they are able to show that visually NGOs are “substantially more successful than government delegations in seeing their visual framing conceptions reproduced” (p. 13) in the newspaper coverage, while textually—in terms of whose verbal definitions or pronouncements regarding climate change are quoted—the traditional dominance of politicians, government, and related authority sources prevails.

As a production study, the research by Wozniak and colleagues throws light on many of the complex range of factors that influence—and that consequently need to be analyzed and understood much further—the visual construction of climate change, including the following:

  1. a) Commonalities and differences in the professional framing conceptions of the key communicators involved in the construction of visuals.

  2. b) Organizational/structural dimensions of news production, including in this context questions about where and by whom (journalists or editors) in the news production process visuals are selected. There are interesting opportunities—not yet taken in research on visual environmental communication, but deployed to good effect in visual news research (Schwalbe, Silcock, & Candello, 2015)—to re-engage traditional news production models such as the gatekeeper model for understanding the process by which visuals are selected for news coverage.

  3. c) The difference between “information subsidy” (Gandy, 1982) in the form of producing visually attractive symbolic events or actions– “image events” (Delicath & DeLuca, 2003)—aimed at influencing media coverage, and “information subsidy” in the form of providing ready-packaged visuals/photos/images directly to news organizations. Wozniak et al.’s study thus demonstrates that the visual framing success of NGOs relates to the former, that is, their understanding and strategic use of staged symbolic events that visually meet the requirements of news values and news organizations. Images are thus sourced predominantly from news agencies and—conforming to traditional journalistic values of objectivity and impartiality—not directly from NGOs or other parties with a particular political or ideological agenda.

  4. d) Journalistic practices, professional values, and routines, including how these affect the relationship with (visual) sources. Research on environmental and science journalism has long pointed to the symbiotic relationship that might develop between news journalists and their sources (Dunwoody, 2015; Friedman, 2015). There are indications in the study by Wozniak et al. that some of these dimensions also have important implications for the visual construction of climate change. The successful visual framing by some environmental NGOs can be seen as in part facilitated by their official accreditation as legitimate participants in the climate change conferences (thus clearing the way for their use as sources), and by the relationships cultivated with journalists over successive climate change conferences.

  5. e) Sources’ differential ability and resource access in the visual construction of climate change. The visual power of NGOs varies depending on their size, resource access, and how well established they are.

Significant advances have been made during the first half century of research on environmental communication in understanding the communication strategies of environmental pressure groups and other NGOs, and much of this research has noted the importance of news values, framing, campaigning, information subsidies, and indeed of visual communication in this context. However, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., Doyle, 2007) very little of this research has focused specifically on climate change or on the visual strategies pursued by pressure groups as part of their campaigning.

A number of studies, while not specifically about climate change, are noteworthy for their use of a case-study approach to provide particularly rich insights into how strategic communications objectives are realized visually, and how attending to the production site helps in understanding how visual communication—like verbal communication—is carefully constructed with a view to framing and influencing public awareness, views, perceptions, opinions, and behavior in particular ways.

Schwarz (2013) thus uses a case study approach to analyzing how a collective of activist conservation photographers and an environmental organizations collaborate to create images and image events aimed at creating environmental knowledge and influencing public debate and political decision making, in this case about local/regional restoration and conservation issues. Others, also using a case study approach, have studied the “place-branding” visual communications strategies of regional governments: Takach (2013) examines the Government of Alberta’s (Canada) multimillion campaign to re-brand the public image of the province to restore its public image—tarnished by the large-scale industrial exploitation and extraction of fossil fuels from the province’s large reserves of bituminous tar-sands—as a place of beautiful scenery and pristine nature. Porter (2013, p. 231) examines how a “vision” to define “the identity, values and personality” of a World Heritage landscape in Australia is “translated into a strictly coordinated and copyrighted suite of logos, graphic design, colour, fonts and various photographic styles.”

While these studies are not specifically about climate change, they are methodologically relevant and instructive for research on the visual communication of climate change in that they demonstrate many of the factors, considerations, and processes that go into creating and manipulating the multimodal communication aimed ultimately at influencing public and political meanings, identities, and values. Case studies, as Thomas (2011, p. 23) states, are “analyses of persons, events, decisions, periods, projects, policies, institutions or other systems which are studied holistically by one or more methods.” In this respect, these studies using the case study approach to analyzing strategic visual communication go some way toward reconnecting research on the three main sites of environmental communication (Hansen, 2011): production, content, and audiences/consumption. They combine theoretically informed analysis of image products (attending to, e.g., compositional and narrative dimensions) with the strategic communication aims, objectives, and considerations articulated by image producers, themselves formulated within notions of how public perception, understanding, and opinion are most effectively influenced.

The long tradition of research into the strategic communication practices of environmental pressure groups has only more recently begun to be complemented by research into other key producers of environmental communication. Researchers have thus started to throw light on how the public media and communications environment is being actively influenced and manipulated through the deliberate communication strategies of industry and big business through front groups, think tanks, and coalitions of various sorts keen to promote particular evidence consonant with their vested interests (Miller & Dinan, 2015; Van Aelst et al., 2017). Text-focused research on the strategic communication practices of corporations/companies, governments, environmental pressure groups/NGOs in relation to climate change (Schlichting, 2013) or in relation to environmental disasters, such as major oil spills, has shown the significant power of key sources and stakeholders in competitively influencing how such disasters are defined through public communications media and constructed in terms of causes, attribution of responsibility, and solutions (Merry, 2014; Schultz, Kleinnijenhuis, Oegema, Utz, & van Atteveldt, 2012). These studies are instructive as they demonstrate how strategic communication by pressure groups and corporations is carefully designed to influence, and indeed succeeding in influencing, mediated communication in the public sphere. Again, however, this type of research has been very predominantly focused on text, with little or no analysis of the highly skilled deployment of potent imagery and visual narratives in, for example, corporate videos produced to repair or enhance the image of corporations such as BP in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.

Content: Research on the Mediated Visual Representation of the Environment and Climate Change

While visual research into the public mediation and representation of the environment and nature has encompassed a broad range of media types and genres, the rise in research on mediated visual imagery of climate change has predominantly focused on the analysis of print and broadcast news media content. This is perhaps not surprising given the recognized role of news media in reflecting and influencing public and political debate. Responding to the now commonplace calls for more research on mediated visual representation; there is now a growing number of studies of the mediated visual representation of climate change. Concomitantly synthesizing reviews are beginning to emerge, surveying and summarizing key approaches and findings from this emerging body of research (Hansen, 2017; Metag et al., 2016; Rebich-Hespanha et al., 2015; Wessler et al., 2016).

As a broad characterization, Coleman’s (2010, p. 246) description of dominant methods in visual communication research is equally applicable and relevant to the growing body of research into images and visualization of climate change: “The qualitative and quantitative counterparts of textual analysis and content analysis still are the most predominant methods used to study visual frames.” Qualitative approaches to visual environmental communication have drawn predominantly from semiology, linguistics, critical discourse analysis, and rhetorical theory. Quantitative analyses have applied the standard social science method of content analysis to categorize and enumerate environmental imagery across a range of media genres. And many have advocated and tried to use both. The concepts of framing (Coleman, 2010; Nisbet & Newman, 2015) and narrative/storytelling (Wozniak et al., 2015) have provided further inspiration and productive input into the development of visual environmental communication.

The challenges of combining qualitative and quantitative methods notwithstanding, the key methodological challenges facing visual environmental communication research have been: (1) accounting for the multimodal nature of mediated communication about climate change, including particularly the relationship between visual and textual representation; (2) generating reliable and comparable definitions of frames/framing; (3) accounting for narrative development in visual representation; (4) documenting and accounting for historical change in how climate change is communicated and visualized.

As is to be expected in any emerging field of research such as this, methods and levels of analysis; and, more particularly, ways of categorizing key trends and types of images have varied considerably. Metag et al. (2016) thus, in a helpful schematic overview of key studies of climate change imagery, delineate five visual themes identified in these studies: (1) images of climate change impacts and threats, (2) nature themes, (3) people/“talking heads,” (4) graphs and models, (5) carbon emissions/energy issues. Leon and Erviti (2015), in an analysis of television news, categorize climate change image themes in terms of causes, consequences, solutions, and protests, while Wessler et al. (2016), in their cross-cultural multimodal comparative analysis of news coverage of climate change conferences, identify four core frames: global warming victims, civil society demands, political negotiations, and sustainable energy.

Given variations in the levels of categorization evident in the preceding paragraph, the simple categorization used by DiFrancesco and Young (2011) and others into the following three broad categories is attractive: images of nature/the environment, images of industry/technology, and images focused on people. The former two types of imagery tend to be decontextualized and more open to interpretation or signification through the accompanying text, while the latter—people images—tend to be more specific, showing recognizable or identifiable people in recognizable contexts (political/scientific or other public forums) or “representative people.”

A number of studies (Hansen & Machin, 2008; Lester & Cottle, 2009; O’Neill, 2013; Rebich-Hespanha et al., 2015) have noted that news media visualize the environment through the use of decontextualized “global,” “symbolic,” and “iconic” images rather than those which are recognizable because of their geographic/historical or social/cultural anchoring. This type of imagery has implications not only for the way in which images are “made to mean,” but significantly for the way in which they contribute to public and political understanding and concern about the environment. Hansen and Machin (2008) further argue that an ideological consequence of this form of decontextualization is a visual disconnect from concrete processes such as global capitalism and consumerism.

Global, distant, and/or decontextualized images of environmental damage and suffering are more difficult to relate to and or act upon than those that depict concrete local environmental problems that people can relate to. These findings from studies of mediated representations of climate change thus provide the basis for a body of work examining how generalized/abstract/global versus concrete/specific/national-local images of climate change influence people’s perceptions of salience (of climate change issues) and self-efficacy (ability to take action to tackle or ameliorate climate change problems)—discussed further in the audiences/consumption section.

The often decontextualized, aestheticized, and symbolic/iconic nature of environmental and climate change imagery also point to its semiotic flexibility, in the sense that meanings are not fixed by the image itself but rather dependent on the wider communicative context, including particularly accompanying text, but also the wider historical/cultural context of their consumption. A methodological implication of this characteristic of climate change images, found to be prominent in news coverage, is the need to analyze news climate change images, not in isolation, but in relation to the multimodal communicative context in which they almost invariably appear (Mellor, 2009; Wessler et al., 2016) and from which they derive their meaning.

Historical context and a comparative historical perspective are important in visual analysis because they enable us to recognize how visual interpretations—often of the same type of images—change over time and are indeed historically constructed. Longitudinal comparative research on mediated visuals enable the tracking of such changes over time, and provide the foundation for understanding how the visual construction of the environment both reflects wider historical change and is itself one of the factors feeding back into and driving such changes.

A longitudinal and historical perspective is also important for understanding the dynamic and essentially intertextual nature of visual signification. The elevation of particular images to “iconic” status as images representing a particular meaning, such as “climate change” or “environmental devastation” or “threatened environments,” is an ongoing process of signification where new images derive meaning from, engage with. and perhaps redefine the meaning of images that have gone before. Analyses of place branding and place marketing (Porter, 2013; Takach, 2013) provide particularly clear examples of how the ideological rebranding—largely achieved visually—of places and regions draws significance from both explicit and implicit juxtaposition with earlier visual frames. Visually engaging with conventional, familiar, traditional and expected imagery by reframing such imagery in novel ways is also at the heart of environmental photo-activism (Cozen, 2013; Schwarz, 2013; Thomsen, 2015; see also Brönnimann, 2002, for a historical analysis of how photography and other visualization has been used to “show” climate change). But the significance of examining and placing visuals in historical perspective is not merely about understanding how particular images emerge, become meaningful, and achieve iconic/symbolic status. It also helps in appreciating the dynamic and evolving nature of the visual construction of the environment, which in turn makes it possible to relate these processes to wider political, cultural, and social change.

Several studies of visuals in news coverage of climate change (DiFrancesco & Young, 2011; Lester & Cottle, 2009; O’Neill, 2013; Rebich-Hespanha et al., 2015; Smith & Joffe, 2009) have shown a prominent emphasis on people. While this is not surprising in itself, confirming the “authoritative people” emphasis (politicians, experts, scientists, etc.) of environmental news coverage generally, visual studies have also noted the relative prominence of ordinary people (often shown as victims of climate change). While counting the relative prominence of different types of actors is an important first step, it is in the analysis of how different actors are visually constructed that visual analysis can excel to show how different actors may be variously supported or undermined (Hall, 1981). Lester and Cottle (2009) thus demonstrate how different key actors (politicians, scientists, environmental protesters, victims of climate change, etc.) are visually constructed in ways that associate very different degrees of authority, credibility, and trust with these actors.

Rebich-Hespanha et al. (2015, p. 512) likewise importantly note the different visual framing of ordinary people compared with authority figures. Ordinary people are depicted as “suffering impacts of environmental conditions or engaging in efforts to mitigate or adapt,” while authority figures are shown in active agency roles studying, reporting (scientists), or urging or opposing action (political figures and celebrities). As the authors conclude, this conveys very different visual messages, on the one hand, about who are invested as authoritative “agents of definition” for environmental issues and, on the other hand, ordinary people whose voices are marginalized.

Methodologically, their study confirms the significant insights that are to be gained from applying an inductive coding of themes, augmented by the use of cluster analysis for identifying frames that enable, for example, going beyond mere enumeration of types of people to examine how they are visually constructed and differentially invested visually with very different degrees of authority, agency, and credibility.

Audiences and Social/Political Implications

Implicit in most research on the production and content of visual imagery of environmental issues and climate change is the assumption that visual representation and mediation impact on public perceptions and consequently on the political process through which issues like climate change are addressed. Empirical research connecting analysis of the production and content of climate change imagery with evidence of how mediated representations of climate change imagery impact on, play into, or interact with public perception and political decisions/policies on climate change is still in its infancy, although considerable progress has been made from the first decade of this century onward.

A number of studies have thus sought to examine how publics attend to and make sense of the visuals used in environmental communication: the consumption/audience site of visual environmental communication. Core to this interest has been the accumulating evidence that images, more so than text, have an indexical quality making meaning more directly accessible, grab people’s attention, evoke heightened emotional reactions, and may be more persuasive with regard to personal and political action (Powell, Boomgaarden, De Swert, & de Vreese, 2015).

Much of this work has drawn on psychological theories concerned with the ability of visuals to evoke affective responses and emotions. O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole (2009, p. 355)—in a multi-method study involving focus groups, Q-methodology, semi-structured interviews, and survey research—empirically tested audience reactions to “fear-inducing” and other images of climate change and concluded that while visual imagery is effective in attracting people’s attention to climate change, there is considerable variation in images’ ability to motivate personal engagement. Thus, fear-inducing or threatening imagery was found to be ineffective, while non-threatening imagery that linked “individual’s everyday emotions and concerns” were more likely to motivate personal engagement. A number of studies (Metag et al., 2016; O’Neill et al., 2013; O’Neill & Hulme, 2009) have built on and extended the focus around climate change images and their impact on public perceptions of the salience of climate change and on people’s notions of self-efficacy—ability to engage with and do something about climate change.

Replicating earlier research by O’Neill et al. (2013)—comparing perceptions of climate change imagery in the United States, the United Kingom, and Australia—Metag et al. (2016) study perceptions of climate change imagery in the German-speaking countries of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Replicating the use of Q-methodology to examine perceptions of salience and self-efficacy, they find that overall there is much similarity and relatively little general variation across countries or across the two groups of Anglophone and German-speaking countries: “… certain images are related to respondents’ feeling that climate change is important (salience), and … other images are associated with respondents’ perceptions that they can do something about climate change (self-efficacy)” (Metag et al., 2016, p. 219). Visual images of climate change impacts resonate with perceptions that climate change is important, attracting people’s attention and creating fear, while at the same time also undermining perceptions of self-efficacy, that is, making climate change appear overwhelming and as something that individuals are relatively helpless to do anything about. By contrast a number of less prominent image categories that show ways to reduce carbon emissions (e.g., images of clean and renewable energies and of lifestyle/consumption choices) show clear association with perceptions of self-efficacy. Images of identifiable people and politicians are found not to be related to either perceptions of salience or self-efficacy. Metag and colleagues find some small differences, between their study of German-speaking countries and earlier research on Anglophone countries, which can be explained in terms of particular national/geographical/cultural differences, but they conclude that “climate change imagery … is perceived in similar ways cross-culturally, transcending geographical and linguistic boundaries” (Metag et al., 2016, p. 220).

These studies show that—perhaps paradoxically—the images, that are among the most prominent in the mediated visualization of climate change—images of identifiable people, particularly politicians—are the least influential or effective in terms both of salience and self-efficacy. Images in the prominent category of “climate change impacts” are effective in reinforcing perceptions of the salience and threat of climate change, but also reduce the sense of self-efficacy in that they reinforce notions of climate change as an overwhelming problem that individuals can do little about. Visual research has also attempted, enlisting notions of psychological distance, to identify whether global/distant images are less likely than national or local images of climate change impacts to register as salient or to encourage engagement and action. But the evidence on this is mixed (McDonald, Chai, & Newell, 2015), confirming that interpretations of climate change representations are—not surprisingly—influenced by multiple factors, including not only personal experience, but also people’s prior values, beliefs, and norms, and indeed whether representations are framed in terms that provoke fear and therefore result in disengagement and psychological avoidance.

Taking into consideration some of this complexity of factors influencing and circumscribing interpretations of climate change images, Chapman, Corner, Webster, and Markowitz (2016) deploy a multi-method and cross-national approach to studying public perceptions of climate images. Using both discussion groups and an international survey with an embedded experiment, they examine how different types of climate change imagery are evaluated in the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. Indicating perhaps the method-related nature of findings in research, they find both convergence and divergence between their qualitative (discussion groups) and their quantitative (survey-embedded experiment) research:

… the results of both studies also suggest that clichéd images of climate change produce mixed responses among the public. Images that our survey participants could quickly and easily understand—such as “smokestacks,” deforestation, and polar bears on melting ice—were positively received and associated with the greatest support for climate change policy and action. In the qualitative work, however, while these “classic” climate images were easily recognizable by participants, they also produced a muted emotional response and often prompted cynicism.

(Chapman et al., 2016, p. 180)

A promising methodological development, not least to address some of the contradictory findings across existing audience research, is novel experimental work that recognizes the multimodal nature of mediated communication (Hart & Feldman, 2016; Powell et al., 2015) and seeks to identify how text and images contribute—separately and in combination—to people’s perception and behavioral intentions. In an experimental design notable for its controls on both text and image contributions to perceptions of issue importance, efficacy, and intentions to engage in climate change-related political behavior, Hart and Feldman (2016) note the importance of text in guiding and reinforcing image-based messages including in relation to increasing respondents’ perceptions of efficacy. Their research confirms that perceived efficacy and issue importance is associated—as might indeed intuitively be expected—with behavior change. Most importantly, however, and in contrast to indications from previous studies (Metag et al., 2016; O’Neill, Boykoff, Niemeyer, & Day, 2013; O’Neill & Nicholson, 2009), they find “no evidence that exposure to images of either climate impacts or climate pollution negatively influence perceived efficacy or positively influence perceived issue importance” (Hart & Feldman, 2016, p. 415). Hart and Feldman’s survey-embedded experimental design is promising for its ability to measure the interaction and relative contributions of text and imagery, while also controlling for other factors such as political affiliation and prior perceptions of climate change, known from research on climate perceptions and opinion (Roser-Renouf, Stenhouse, Rolfe-Redding, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2015; Whitmarsh, 2015) to be important.

These studies then contribute valuable insights into how general climate change image categories and their relative prominence impact on public perceptions of the salience of climate change and are differentially associated with perceptions of individuals’ power to do something about climate change. They are, however, also very much focused on very general categories of images and on individual perceptions somewhat decontextualized from the larger social/political and communicative context in which such images are encountered and—perhaps—acted upon, particularly with regard to political engagement on climate change issues. Studies that have made some progress on these matters, signaling a more holistic framework for understanding the dynamic interplay of media, political decision making and public opinion, come from the tradition of agenda-setting research, although again little of this has focused specifically on visual environmental or climate change communication.

The agenda-setting framework has been deployed very productively in environmental communication research since the 1990s, providing key insights into how mediated communication influences and interacts with public opinion and political decision making (Trumbo & Kim, 2015). While traditional agenda-setting research has been text focused, emerging visual agenda-setting research indicates, for example, that photographs and other visual representations influence agenda processes in ways that are distinct from the contribution of textual content, and also suggests that visual content impacts different publics in different ways. Thus, Jenner (2012) finds that news photographs affect policy maker attention, but seem to have a more ambivalent impact on public attention to environmental issues.

Miller and LaPoe (2016), in a study of “visual agenda-setting,” combine image content analysis to establish the distribution and relative prominence of different categories of mediated images of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster of 2010 with a survey of public recall of images relating to the disaster. Methodologically, their research is interesting for its combination of content analysis with survey analysis within a clearly articulated agenda-setting framework. In addition, the survey uses a mixed-methods approach, consisting both of conventional quantitative questions and of more qualitative open-ended questions, probing respondents to identify the “most memorable images,” their articulation of why these images were most memorable, and how they made the respondents feel. Miller and LaPoe’s work gains further strength from their use of inductive coding of respondents’ open-ended answers to their key qualitative questions about recall and emotions associated with oil spill images, thus working from the natural language used by respondents themselves rather than imposing predefined categories of emotions.

The study confirms the basic proposition of agenda setting, that the most prominent images (as identified in their content analysis of media coverage) are also the most memorable (as evidenced by their survey of respondents’ recall). But the study further shows that visual agenda setting is strengthened by emotion. Thus, emotions evoked by oil-soaked animals elevated that set of images to the most memorable, even if these images were not the most prominent in media content (ranking in eighth place in the content analysis). The study confirms the power of mediated images—particularly where people’s principal information source is mediated information, as was the case in relation to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and as is indeed the case to a large extent with climate change information—in setting the public agenda and likely the terms of debate. The implications of this type of research for understanding the wider significance of mediated imagery are eloquently expressed by Miller and LaPoe (2016, p. 61): “Visuals add to the interpretation of an event and often show a deeper meaning that results in action by the audience. That action can include mobilization, activism, and protest, which often lead to changes in procedure or policies—all because someone captured the event on a cell phone and a television station decided to run it.”

Future Directions/Methodological Challenges

Promising and exciting trends are beginning to emerge in research on the visual communication of climate change and the environment generally. Particularly promising is the increasing number of studies, which combine a range of quantitative and qualitative methods and attempt to connect evidence from two or more of the key sites—production, content, and audiences/consumption—of the communication process.

Moving beyond merely bringing together or comparing findings from individual and separate studies from each of these sites/domains, research designs need to be formulated within theoretical frameworks that articulate the relationship and dynamics between the sites. Promising frameworks for this kind of work are already available from the long history of media and communication research in the form of, for example framing and agenda-setting theory, but such frameworks need to be applied rigorously to the field of climate change communication.

The case-study design, although not yet widely used in research on climate change communication, offers a particularly productive holistic container for understanding the relationship between the production, content, and reception of climate change images. A lesson cutting across both research on public interpretations and research aimed at categorizing mediated images of climate change is the need to derive image categories inductively, and to appreciate that audience interpretations of mediated visualizations of climate change invariably are circumscribed—indeed strongly guided—by the communicative (media-context) situation and the social/cultural context in which images are encountered and consumed.

Methodologically, traditional methods such as interviewing and surveys for research on the production or reception of climate change images, and content analysis informed by framing theory for the analysis of mediated content have proved productive. There are also indications from advances in visual communication research generally (Coleman, 2010; Powell et al., 2015) that controlled experimental designs—or as in the climate change research examined here, the “survey-embedded experiment”—can offer productive ways forward in terms of gaining insight into how visual design and content influence audiences’ perceptions, memory, and opinions about issues.

In analysis of the content of mediated visual representations of climate change, the strengths and insights of traditional qualitative approaches (semiotics, linguistics, critical discourse analysis, rhetorical analysis, and narrative analysis) and quantitative approaches (content analysis) need to be mobilized into a multimodal design that considers how “meaning” is shaped through the multiple sign-systems (notably text-image relations, but also comprising sound and color) of digital communication media, and the increasingly diverse nature of communication forms and media. As convincingly argued by Rebich-Hespanha et al. (2015) and by Wozniak et al. (2015), visual environmental research needs to move toward more standardized procedures, both in order to facilitate comparability across studies, but also in order to investigate and understand how visualization of climate change varies across media, time, geographic and cultural regions, political systems, type of audience, etc. Existing advances in framing informed content analysis need to further incorporate, into the standardized measurement of content analysis, the compositional (e.g., perspective, point of view/camera angles, gaze) and other semiotic features (e.g., color) known from qualitative visual analysis to be important signifiers (Wessler et al., 2016).

Understanding the social and political implications of how climate change is communicated visually (and otherwise) is not surprisingly of great interest to anybody concerned with the politics of the environment. But if much or even most of what we as publics know or recognize as climate change comes to us in mediated form, then it becomes equally important to understand how particular images and visualizations shaping that understanding come about in the first place and/or come to dominate the visual construction of the environment in the public sphere. Drawing on promising work in environmental communication generally (e.g., Miller & Dinan, 2015; Williams, 2015), visual analysis thus needs to engage directly with questions about how source-roles (including the visually focused claims-making, “information subsidies,” PR, and news management strategies pursued by key stakeholders such as environmental pressure groups, government departments, industry and big business), journalistic conventions and practices, format constraints and media organizational and economic arrangements interact and impinge on whose (visual) definitions gain prominence and are afforded legitimacy in the news media and in wider public communication.

Suggested Reading

Metag, J., Schaefer, M. S., Fuechslin, T., Barsuhn, T., & Kleinen-von Koenigsloew, K. (2016). Perceptions of climate change imagery: Evoked salience and self-efficacy in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Science Communication, 38(2), 197–227.Find this resource:

Rebich-Hespanha, S., Rice, R. E., Montello, D. R., Retzloff, S., Tien, S., & Hespanha, J. P. (2015). Image themes and frames in U.S. print news stories about climate change. Environmental Communication, 9(4), 491–519.Find this resource:

Walsh, L. (2015). The visual rhetoric of climate change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 6(4), 361–368.Find this resource:

Wessler, H., Wozniak, A., Hofer, L., & Lueck, J. (2016). Global multimodal news frames on climate change: A comparison of five democracies around the world. International Journal of Press/Politics, 21(4), 423–445.Find this resource:

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