Climate change is no longer a mere “scientific” concern of temperature rises or adaptation, but also an economic, political and cultural issue. The media, the medium in which most people get information on climate change, can choose, or are forced, to frame it in one or all of the above ways.
Whilst the above seems obvious, what did not seem so clear to me when I decided to analyse reporting on climate change for my MSc dissertation, was how the right-wing and left-wing media differ in the way they report on climate change.
In a 2002 study of European and US newspapers, Anja Kollmuss found that right-wing newspapers quote climate sceptics more frequently, are more likely to be inconsistent on the message of climate change and more hesitant to acknowledge a problem; whereas left-wing newspapers are more likely to accept the science, and support and suggest mitigation and adaptation strategies. She argued that environmentalism was still seen as a liberal issue and therefore was generally met with wider acceptance across leftwing newspapers.
This was later similarly replicated by Ana Carvalho and Jacquelin Burgess who analysed UK newspapers from 1985-2003; they contended that the difference in tone between left-wing and right-wing newspapers is due to the range of political, economic and cultural measures that will need to be undertaken to combat climate change, and therefore conservative newspapers less likely to adopt a market-oriented view towards resolution.
I wanted to find out whether this was still the case in 2010, and whether ideology could influence the framing of climate change as an issue in itself.
Focusing on the UK media, I analysed 240 articles on climate change from 2000-to 2010. The articles were taken from The Guardian, The Daily Mirror (the “left-wing” newspapers), The Daily Mail, and The Telegraph (the “right-wing” newspapers).
Results indicated that at the beginning of the decade, surprisingly, anthropogenic climate change was mostly accepted across all newspapers as a phenomenon with potentially devastating consequences (only 20% of articles displayed sceptical arguments). There were differences in the framing of climate change, with left-wing newspapers being significantly more likely to frame climate as a cultural issue that would affect the general public. On the whole, climate change was being represented as a mostly scientific, political and ecological issue.
From 2006 onwards, there was a sharp rise in coverage; however there seemed to be no differences in the framing of climate change between all newspapers, and it is now represented mostly as a political and cultural issue. However, right-wing newspapers were now significantly more likely to present sceptical arguments towards science.
Interestingly, it seemed that this was due to giving a platform to specific climate change sceptics (e.g. Richard Littlejohn in The Daily Mail, Christopher Booker and Simon Shaffer in The Telegraph), rather than a universal editorial mistrust of the science of climate change across all rightwing newspapers. Nevertheless, this suggests that only the presence of one prolific journalist is needed to modify the perception of a newspaper’s stance on climate change.
Although only a small amount of articles were analysed, my findings tentatively indicate that once the surface of media rhetoric is scratched, newspaper ideology continues to have some influence on climate change communication. More research needs to be done in how climate change is represented and whether this is due to ideology or other reasons such as journalistic norms, misinformation and a lack of journalistic scientific training.
Equally, with climate change still a mostly partisan issue in some Western nations (e.g the US) but less so in others (e.g. Germany), we must look at whether this is replicated within and outside the West, especially as it seems that some developing nations, like Brazil, are taking climate change more seriously, and going beyond political ideology.
We must also take a look closer to home in the UK to see whether the change in the rhetoric of the normally more sceptical Conservative government is keeping its promise of being the greenest government ever.
Journalists need to accept more responsibility when reporting on climate change findings, and perhaps guidelines need to be drawn up. However, with the “Climategate” scandal still fresh in our minds, scientists and other special interest groups must also accept that they must be more transparent with their data, communicate more effectively with their audience and that they too are powerful stakeholders which can influence an audience.