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Framing Climate Change in the Media

A number of environmental journalists and activists have interpreted and disseminated apocalyptic predictions about climate change in recent months. As a result of global warming, capturing the public's attention with climate change messages is of utmost importance to the media.
To point out some, reporting articles may look something like this:

Apocalyptic predictions are sometimes made by scientists themselves; ‘Catastrophe, ‘Death’, etc. are words starting to become more common in many journalists’ vocabularies when talking about climate change. This can be known as alarmism.

Alarmism uses an urgent tone and imagery of doom along with inflated language. In a report for the Institute for Public Policy Research, Gill Ereaut and Nat Segnit suggested that newspapers, magazines, and government and environmental organisations frequently use alarmist language when discussing environmental issues.

There is a claim that alarmist language can create a greater sense of urgency when applied to climate change. However, research suggests that using sensational and alarming techniques evoke "denial, paralysis, or apathy" rather than inspire individuals to action and do not act as motivators for people to become agents of change.

Consequently, there seems to be a real-world impact to statements like these. Either people deny climate change or ignore it as it seems their actions will not amount do much. Even if it is to the detriment of their news value or salience with the public, journalists and activists alike must describe environmental problems accurately. Catastrophist framings of climate change alienate and polarise many people, which is self-defeating. By exaggerating climate change, people may lose hope in mitigating the issue and thus not take any action to reduce their carbon footprint.

This dynamic makes it more difficult for people to form an opinion on whether to take action against climate change or not. Some blogs have cast doubt on the broader impacts of climate change (for example, downplaying the vulnerability of polar bears). The average comment thread on a blog argues that climate science is illegitimate, politicised, unreliable, and corrupted by conspiracies.

Representation in media

Media discussion of climate change is long acknowledged by scientists as being important. The media's coverage of climate change affects public opinion about the issue, since it acts as a mediating agent for the scientific consensus that global temperature has increased over recent decades and that the trend is caused by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases.

Climate change is one of those "inconspicuous" issues that most people don't notice since it is an accumulative issue, growing over time, rather than an isolated event we can call climate change. Additionally, descriptions of the climate and its changes are primarily produced by science but are too complex to be understood by most people: as a growing number of fields participate in climate science, each with its own tools, models. Climate models increasingly incorporate variables and their interactions. Traditionally, media coverage of climate change has tended to focus on its extreme effects and the uncertainty surrounding climate research. Reporters often use doomsday images to emphasise the dramatic implications of climate change. It is easier to describe climate change as destructive as it's something the public has heard of before and understood.

It can entice for behavioural change as people are worried about their future. However, it can lead to other feelings of doom and fear - leading to eco-anxiety.

Let’s be clear: Climate change is one of the biggest problems we face. It comes with many risks—some certain, some uncertain—and we’re not moving anywhere near fast enough to reduce emissions. But there seems to have been a breakdown in communication of what our future entails. No climate scientists are resigned to a future of oblivion.

According to Shoemaker and Reese, controversy is one of the primary factors influencing story selection among news editors, along with human interest, prominence, timeliness, celebrity, and proximity. W.L. Bennet describes it as:

"the tendency to downplay the big social, economic, or political picture in favour of human trials, tragedies and triumphs".

The claims of scientists also get distorted by the media through a tendency to seek out extreme views, which can result in portrayal of risks well beyond the claims actually being made by scientists. Journalists tend to overemphasise the most extreme outcomes from a range of possibilities reported in scientific articles. According to a study published in PNAS in 2020, newspapers gave more coverage to climate change press releases that opposed action than to those that supported it.

Perhaps it is time to change this narrative, as Hannah Richie titled her article:

“stop telling kids they’ll die from climate change.”


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