The Ebb and Flow of Climate Change in the News: Coverage and Narrative Content

How has the media's narrative of climate change developed over time and how does it affect the public and political agendas?
Image credit: Kevin Lim

In first grade, I distinctly remember the teacher gathering us around her to talk about resource conservation. Of course, she didn’t use that terminology. She kept things simple, asking how long we took showers and if we turned lights off when leaving a room. The conversation made a big impression, and I distinctly recall going home that night and insisting my father replace our shower nozzles with environmentally-friendly ones. In the months that followed, our class continued talking about the environment, the ozone, and pollution.

All of this happened in the fall of 1990. Two years earlier, an unusually hot summer resulted in environmental issues receiving an “enormous increase in attention.”1 Obviously such drastic shifts in weather are not common, even with climate change, and as a result the initial enthusiasm died down. Eventually the media shifted its focus to the debate about scientific consensus, and by 5th grade, our teachers rarely mentioned the environment except to halfheartedly talk about recycling.

This ebb and flow in coverage and the public’s subsequent interest has been noted by researchers and approached from a variety of angles. Today’s post examines these spikes and declines while also looking at what researchers consider noteworthy shifts in narrative content.

The first study that warrants attention is a 1999 paper by McComas and Shanahan, whose research focused primarily on how the narrative that developed surrounding climate change impacted public perception. Sampling articles from 1980-1995, McComas and Shanahan divided the rise and fall of coverage into three phases: waxing, maintenance, and waning. Their analysis of these phases showed distinct shifts in narrative device and thematic emphasis. The dangers of climate change, for instance, comprised the majority of stories in the waxing phase. McComas and Shanahan note that if we look at climate change coverage as a narrative, this angle of coverage had to end because it could only be maintained if the “apocalyptic outcome” actually occurred.2 Obviously the world was not scorched to soot, and the public’s expectation of short-term consequences were unmet. The story, then, was forced to re-shape itself.

When it re-emerged, the drama of scientific uncertainty and high economic cost took the reigns in the maintenance phase. The tension and infighting supplied an intriguing new narrative that easily built on the initial one. Of further appeal was the fact that the new narrative retained a sense of drama (the debate) and personal engagement (the economics) since people typically seek to avoid any economic burdens seen as unnecessary. McComas and Shanahan also considered this shift important because of its dominance in the maintenance phase. Since the maintenance phase is the longest part of the cycle, it helped McComas and Shanahan explain why these issues tend to dominate the story of climate change.

In the same vein, a lot of research has gone into analyzing why climate change ranks relatively low on most political agendas. Neil Gavin’s research found that, comparatively speaking, climate change receives much less press than other major issues. In his sampling of several British papers, articles about health, for instance, received more coverage in the month of November 2000 than the aggregate of climate change headlines for the following three years. Gavin contends this accounts, in part, for why so little has been done at a political level. Prominent issues in the media are the issues by which “government competence will be judged,”3 a fact not lost on politicians wanting to engender the popular support needed to maintain office.

Similarly, because climate change demands a transformation of the current status quo, any imposition put on the public (taxes, in particular) will garner more vitriolic reactions if they are perceived as being of low importance. This is especially true in times of economic downturn, when “taking the line of least resistance…or expenditure”4 is infinitely quicker and less politically costly. An issue’s lack of media coverage, then, can mean “political self-preservation virtually dictates a lack of ambition.” 5

When viewed in conjunction with one another, these studies have fairly obvious conclusions, conclusions that do not bode well for those seeking rapid and effective action on climate change. The key take away to all of this is that the climate change community must demonstrate to the public that climate change is 1) important enough to warrant immediate and decisive action despite the fact that climate change’s effects do not seem readily apparent and 2) the action required will not involve overwhelming burdens out of scale to the severity of the problem. Without this, the public will continue to see the issue as unrelated to their daily lives, and the actions required as comparatively exorbitant.

1McComas, K., & Shanahan, J. (1999). Telling stories about global climate change. Communication Research, 26: 30, 33

2 McComas, K., & Shanahan, J. (1999). Telling stories about global climate change. Communication Research, 26:30, 52

3 Neil T. Gavin (2009): Addressing climate change: a media perspective, Environmental Politics, 18:5, 768

4 Neil T. Gavin (2009): Addressing climate change: a media perspective, Environmental Politics, 18:5, 770

5 Neil T. Gavin (2009): Addressing climate change: a media perspective, Environmental Politics, 18:5, 768

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