How do the media portray climate change?
We see a change from a focus on the dramatic consequences of climate change to a larger focus on technological solutions. Will this make us equipped to engage in the battle for a climate friendly future?
Traditionally, the media have focused on the extreme consequences of climate change and the uncertainty surrounding climate research. Journalists have emphasized the dramatic aspects of climate change, and often used doomsday images.
However, recent research shows a change in how the media portray climate change. First, the focus on uncertainty has shifted towards an unquestioned, taken-for-granted frame of certainty. This is probably reflecting the fact that 97% of all climate change researchers agree that climate change is anthropogenic and that it is urgent that we make great efforts to reduce our emissions. The other change is that the media have gone from focusing on conflict and drama to technological solutions.
This is consistent with the findings of a new master thesis from the Centre for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo. In her thesis, Anja Marken studied how the media located on the oil-rich west coast of Norway discussed climate change, looking at the newspaper Bergens Tidene, news site Sysla and magazine Energi og Klima.
– My research shows that the west coast media coverage of climate change had an overwhelming focus on the green shift and technological solutions, says Marken.
This is in line with the general perception of the population as a whole. According to the “European Perception of Climate Change” study, 56% of the Norwegian respondents agreed that science and technology would eventually solve our problems with climate change.
Marken argues that the west coast media’s focus on climate change does not mobilize people to act. Readers may be left with the impression that developing new technology is the only solution to solving the climate crisis. Therefore, they might conclude that there is not much they can do themselves.
The strong focus on technological solutions can have a distancing effect on the readers, she says.
What is the role of journalists in the fight against climate change?
The journalists interviewed in the study had different opinions about the media’s role as advocates. Some of the journalists argued that they have to be objective; therefore, they cannot have an ‘agenda’. However, Marken argue that this means that they instead are more likely to convey the agenda and frames of certain interest groups:
With some exceptions, most journalists in Norway do not have enough knowledge about climate change to write in-depth articles about topics related to it. This also means that they do not have enough knowledge to reframe the debate, they only present their informants' perspectives, Marken says.
The journalists defined climate change in varying ways. Some saw it as a crisis, and argued that the media are responsible for keeping the debate alive. Others defined climate change as a shift in climate, and only used strong words such as crisis if their informants themselves used those words.
Marken found that the journalists from Bergens Tidende and Sysla were more concerned with journalistic norms such as being objective, while the journalists from Energi og Klima had an agenda they wanted to convey, and actively worked on reframing the debate. They did so for example by arguing that continued oil exploration is a financial risk, which opposes the common Norwegian story that oil and gas production is necessary. These journalists also focused on governments and the elite as the responsible actors – and not the oil and gas sector.
Is more information the answer?
The media does undoubtedly have a strong voice in shaping people's perception of climate change and the responsibility of its consequences. Recent studies by climate psychologists, such as Per Espen Stoknes, have shown that more information and facts do not automatically lead to behavioral changes.
– People tend to believe that the climate threat does not concern them, and that either way technological solutions will solve the problem, says Marken.
Climate communicators have responded to this with more information and facts, which does not automatically lead to behavioral changes.
– My conclusion is that if Norwegians are to be more engaged in the climate battle, the coverage of climate change must be more related to their daily lives and aspirations. By linking global climate change to local conditions, using metaphors to explain scientific concepts, in addition to focusing on solutions and results, the media can give people hope and inspiration to engage in the battle for a climate friendly future.
Anja Marken has just submitted her Master thesis "Reframing climate change communication in the Norwegian west coast media" at SUM, UiO. It will be available at the DUO Research Archive shortly.