Look back in anger - historic media reporting of climate change

Look back in anger – historic media reporting of climate change

With COP26 fast approaching and the exponential rise of UK gas prices, I thought I would look back into how the media was (or was not) reporting climate change over 13 years ago.

The  low level of reporting back then was horrific, but it does in some way show how far the UK broadsheet media at least, has come someway towards acknowledging the significance and impact of climate change on humanity, or their readers at least.

In the UK in 2008, The Guardian picked up on new research carried out by Max Boykoff and Maria Mansfield at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, reporting on the coverage of climate change in the tabloid press (.PDF). They analysed 974 articles published between 2000 and 2006 in the Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Mirror, and found that:

UK tabloid coverage significantly diverged from the scientific consensus that humans contribute to climate change. Moreover, there was no consistent increase in the percentage of accurate coverage throughout the period of analysis and across all tabloid newspapers. Findings from interviews indicate that inaccurate reporting may be linked to the lack of specialist journalists in the tabloid press. (Boykoff and Mansfield, 2008)

These are in line with findings in another paper, by Neil Gavin at the University of Liverpool, presented at the Political Studies Association conference in Bristol, September 2007. Gavin found a similar paucity of content in the tabloids, which was, again in line with Boykoff and Mansfield, that tabloid coverage has been consistently low over the period. It’s worth a closer look at the issue…

For example, between 2000 and 2006 the Sun and News of the World published only EIGHTEEN articles on climate change, of which only SIX addressed the subject directly. That is 18 in 2550 days… less than one story every 140 days. Both Boykoff and Mansfied, and Gavin, pick up on the ‘contrarian’ or ‘lampooning’ tone of the tabloids. For example:

” [a] NoW story with its headline in August 2003, ‘Global Warming is a Load of Hot Air’ (17/8/03) [mirroring the title of Boykoff and Mansfield, ‘Ye Olde Hot Air’]. This item lampooned a ‘misery guts’ German scientist (’…ze German boffin…’) who expressed concern about heat-wave temperatures across Europe.” (Gavin, 2007)

One aspect of good news is that both sets of authors identify coverage in the UK broadsheets is growing, and is generally consistent with the science, unlike the tabloids. Problem being, the tabloids reach many more millions.

However, as Andreadis and Smith identify, the UK quality press, at least, is streets ahead than the US coverage, particularly in quality. And now, following research from the Pew Centre’s Excellence in Journalism programme, also in volume.

As reported across the US bloggers, the research shows that at the NYTimes and the WSJ, Just 2% of Front Page Stories Focus on Either Science or the Environment. Much of the focus was on the Wall Street Journal, and its change in coverage since the takover by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp.

Matthew Nesbit at Framing Science commented at the time (2008):

Yet apparently at the Wall Street Journal and the NY Times, during the three month period analyzed, editors deemed that even coverage of lifestyles, entertainment, and sports were more headline deserving than either science or the environment. Given the absence of front page coverage, is it any wonder that climate change legislation is stalled in Congress or that climate change and other science issues are barely mentioned on the presidential campaign trail? Or that in polls, climate change ranks dead last among 22 issues as a political priority?

The EcoTechDaily also picked up on the story, with a strong headine line that the media had abandoned the environment. It feels like it sometimes. They highlight the differences between the NYT and the WSJ, but really, the difference is within the newspapers, between other areas of news and the environment:

These media are abdicating their responsibility to the issue of climate change and the environment. However, the EcoTechDaily, taking a leaf from Grist.org and others, turns to a positive note about the green revolution happening online where at least the next generation of leaders, if not the ones we have now (corporate, political and cultural), will be getting most of their news.

Sites like Grist.org, Green Options, the EcoTech, and others, are utilizing new media to correct for the biases and failures of the mainstream press.

References

Andreadis, E. & Smith, J., (2007). Beyond the Oozone Layer. British Journalism Review. 18, p.50-56.

Boykoff, M. & Mansfield, M., (2008). ‘Ye Olde Hot Aire’: Reporting on human contributions to climate change in the UK tabloid press. Environ. Res. Lett. 3 (2008) 024002 p.1-8.

Gavin, N., (2007). Global Warming and the British Press: The Emergence of an Issue and its Political Implications. Political Studies Association ‘Elections, Public Opinion and Parties’ conference, UWE, Bristol, September 2007.