Media coverage of UN climate science reports: why it matters

Is climate change an uncertain science, ideological struggle or opportunity? The way it is framed affects public perception

Climate change stories that are framed as ‘disaster’, like floods, are more likely to make it onto TV news. But these sorts of images make people less empowered to take action on climate change. (Pic: Ministry of Defence/Richard Cave)

Climate change stories that are framed as ‘disaster’, like floods, are more likely to make it onto TV news. But these sorts of images make people less empowered to take action on climate change. (Pic: Ministry of Defence/Richard Cave)

By Saffron O’Neill

The release of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should be key moments for policymaker and public engagement with climate change, with the media playing a major role in communicating IPCC findings.

But how newsworthy really is the IPCC? And does it receive the sort of media coverage that is likely to increase non-expert engagement?

We undertook a study which, for the first time, investigated multiple media (TV, newspapers, social media), multiple countries, and the effect of images, in the communication of the IPCC reports.

Understanding these dimensions is important, because while most people get their news from TV (or for younger people, from social media), researchers to date have almost exclusively looked at newspaper coverage only.

And the role of images in climate communication is key, because images influence our emotional response to climate change and can even shape our policy preferences.

Is it news?

First, we explored the newsworthiness of the IPCC reports. The IPCC was far more newsworthy in the UK than the US, gaining almost five times as much TV coverage; a pattern also repeated in the newspaper and Twitter data.

The newsworthiness also differed by working group. The IPCC has three working groups which focus on physical climate science (WGI), impacts and adaptation (WGII) and mitigation (WGIII).

Working group III received far less coverage than either WGI or WGII. This was consistent across all the media sources and both countries we examined.

Framing

Second, we investigated how the IPCC reports were “framed” in the media. Here, frames are the storylines that journalists use to communicate why climate change might be a problem, who might be responsible for it, and what action should be taken.

Frames can be recognised and categorised through elements such as the quoted sources, the narrative theme of the article, metaphors, and distinctive visual imagery.

We found ten frames used across the IPCC media coverage: settled science, political or ideological struggle, role of science, uncertain science, disaster, security, morality and ethics, opportunity, economics and health.

Each of these frames will emphasise or downplay particular aspects of climate change.

Struggle or opportunity?

There were considerable differences in how the media framed each working group report. We found reporting of WGI was often contested and politicised, using frames like uncertain science or political or ideological struggle; whereas the reporting of WGII and WGIII used a more diverse selection of frames including the opportunity and morality and ethics frames.

Some frames are likely to be more effective and engaging people with climate change than others – for example, the opportunity or health frames are both able to link the distant issue of climate change to peoples’ everyday life.

Indeed, research by Ed Maibach and colleagues has shown that using the health frame to communicate the potential health benefits of mitigation-related policy actions (for example, burning less coal) is particularly compelling.

Yet our study found that these more engaging frames are not used much at all in media reporting, with the health frame used just once across our entire sample of news media reports.

Climate story fatigue

There are a number of hypotheses about why newsworthiness and framing differed between the two countries and across the working groups.

Certainly, the sequential release of the three working groups is likely to have played a role in determining how much coverage each one received (WGI was released in Autumn 2013, with WGII and WGIII bunched closely together in Spring 2014).

Perhaps journalists felt a “climate story fatigue” when it came to covering WGIII so soon after WGII.

Dueling experts

It is also likely that the availability of visual content and accessible storylines played a part.

While the “dueling experts” of the uncertain science frame, or the dramatic visual imagery of the disaster frame, are well-used devices, perhaps the story of WGIII is yet to be fully developed – despite potentially newsworthy material around key WGIII questions such as future energy provision, or diet and climate.

It is particularly surprising to see the absence of the health frame, considering the human interest, and thus news values, that this frame offers.

The IPCC mandate is to provide a rigorous and balanced review of the scientific, technical and socio-economic information on climate change to decision makers.

Effective communication is key in delivering this, which the IPCC recognises in its Communications Strategy.

We hope the findings from our study, together with the others in Nature Climate Change’s Focus Issue, contribute to an opening up of the conversation around climate change communication, and development of the IPCC’s communication strategy.

Saffron O’Neill is a senior lecturer in geography at Exeter University

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