Media coverage of climate change under the microscope
With growing concern over global warming, there is no doubt that media coverage of climate change has become a hot topic.
Citing several studies, writer Zafirah Zein explores here how well news oulets are bringing this story home.
The picture is cloudy.
Despite growing media attention by major news outlets, climate journalism remains highly localized, with domestic factors shaping how journalists across the world tell the story of climate change, Zein reports.
According to a recent study by researchers in the United States and Vietnam, media coverage of climate change differs from country to country and is strongly influenced by the politics and development levels of individual countries.
One of its key findings revealed that richer countries framed climate change as more of a political issue that affects policymaking, national security and government elections. Articles in these countries also focused more on scientific research and evidence of climate change.
Domestic politics and scientific evidence were two of the seven different ways climate change was framed in 37,000 articles that were published across 45 countries from 2011 to 2015. The other contexts in which the climate crisis was reported were: international relations, economic impact, social progress, natural impact and energy.
Using a tailored computer algorithm to scan articles published in four languages—English, French, Portuguese and Spanish—researchers looked at how factors such as emission levels, climate vulnerability, press freedom and Gross Domestic Product (GDP), shaped how the local press portrayed climate change.
A few of the Asian countries represented in the study were Bangladesh, Singapore, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and the Philippines, where English-language media was easier to access.
Press in wealthier countries reported more extensively on the scientific aspect of climate change because these countries had greater financial resources to support climate research and study the science, the study suggested.
“In the United States, one of the richest countries, we are still talking about whether climate change exists and what causes climate change. Many developed countries are still debating about how much resources should be allocated to tackling climate change, even though the conversation began decades ago,” said Hong Tien Vu, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas and one of researchers behind the study.
Zein’s article quoted a number of journalists from diverse countries who reflected on the way the topic is covered in their countries.
Karoline Kan, a writer and environmental journalist at chinadialogue, said the focus on covering international climate meetings often made climate change appear “like it is something happening in another country,” which downplays the need for national action on climate change.
In Bangladesh, one of the countries that is most vulnerable to climate change, Banani Mallick, a reporter for national newspaper The Daily Observer, often reports on the economic costs and impacts of climate change on health and livelihoods.
“Bangladesh is not responsible for most of the emissions, rather we are one of worst victims,” she said. “Our climate reporting can help in getting attention from the global bodies who are directly working to reduce carbon emissions and taking multiple steps to mitigate the impacts of climate change.”
According to an article by the Columbia Journalism Review, the perception of climate coverage as a subset of environmental news has recently begun to shift as more newsrooms realize that the topic cuts across other beats such as health, business, inequality, food and sports.
“Coverage by climate journalists has never spurred a comprehensive social response, nor has it reshaped journalism itself. We now better recognize the difficulties of communicating climate change, but it still gets scant attention and resources in newsrooms,” wrote Rosalind Donald, a journalist and communications PhD candidate at Columbia Journalism School.
A 2011 report by Jaimer Painter, a research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, found that print media in the United States and United Kingdom quoted or mentioned climate skeptics significantly more than news outlets in Brazil, China, India and France.
“If we don’t portray climate change accurately and sufficiently how will we establish an agenda to fight it?” asks Vu.