Climate journalism is a moving target. Driven by its changing technological and economic contexts, challenged by the complex subject matter of climate change, and immersed in a polarized and politicized debate, climate journalism has shifted and diversified in recent decades. These transformations hint at the emergence of a more interpretive, sometimes advocacy-oriented journalism that explores new roles beyond that of the detached conduit of elite voices. At the same time, different patterns of doing climate journalism have evolved, because climate journalists are not a homogeneous group. Among the diversity of journalists covering the issue, a small group of expert science and environmental reporters stand out as opinion leaders and sources for other journalists covering climate change only occasionally. The former group’s expertise and specialization allow them to develop a more investigative and critical attitude toward both the deniers of anthropogenic climate change and toward climate science.
The contribution summarizes the topic of climate change communication in Switzerland. The development of the topic of “climate change” is described and located within the general area of environmental politics in Switzerland, based on the specifics of Switzerland as a small, federal state, and non-EU member with direct democratic political processes. Climate change communication then is analyzed based on the results of several content analyses, mostly of Swiss print media, which focus on intensity of coverage, topics, and media frames. In the last part, the perception of and attitudes towards environment and climate change are presented and compared to other countries, based on public opinion survey data.
Objectivity and advocacy have been contentious topics within environmental journalism since the specialism was formed in the 1960s. Objectivity is a broad term, but has been commonly interpreted to mean the reporting of news in an impartial and unbiased way by finding and verifying facts, reporting facts accurately, separating facts from values, and giving two sides of an issue equal attention to make news reports balanced. Advocacy journalism, by contrast, presents news from a distinct point of view, a perspective that often aligns with a specific political ideology. It does not separate facts from values and is less concerned with presenting reports that are conventionally balanced. Environmental reporters have found it difficult to categorize their work as either objective or advocacy journalism, because studies show that many of them are sympathetic to environmental values even as they strive to be rigorously professional in their reporting. Journalists have struggled historically to apply the notion of balance to the reporting of climate change science, because even though the overwhelming majority of the world’s experts agree that human-driven climate change is real and will have major future impacts, a minority of scientists dispute this consensus. Reporters aimed to be fair by giving both viewpoints equal attention, a practice scholars have labeled false balance. The reporting of climate change has changed over time, especially as the topic moved from the scientific domain to encompass also the political, social, legal, and economic realms. Objectivity and advocacy remain important guiding concepts for environmental journalism today, but they have been reconfigured in the digital era that has transformed climate change news. Objectivity in climate reporting can be viewed as going beyond the need to present both sides of an issue to the application in reports of a journalist’s trained judgment, where reporters use their training and knowledge to interpret evidence on a climate-related topic. Objectivity can also be viewed as a transparent method for finding, verifying, and communicating facts. Objectivity can also be seen as the synthesis and curation of multiple points of view. In a pluralistic media ecosystem, there are now multiple forms of advocacy journalism that present climate coverage from various points of view—various forms of climate coverage with a worldview. False balance had declined dramatically over time in mainstream reportorial sources, but it remains a pitfall for reporters to avoid in coverage of two climate change topics: the presentation of the many potential future impacts or risks and the coverage of different policy responses in a climate-challenged society.
John Wihbey and Bud Ward
The relationship between scientific experts and news media producers around issues of climate change has been a complicated and often contentious one, as the slow-moving and complex story has frequently challenged, and clashed with, journalistic norms of newsworthiness, speed, and narrative compression. Even as climate scientists have become more concerned by their evidence-based findings involving projected risks, doubts and confusion over communications addressing those risks have increased. Scientists increasingly have been called upon to speak more clearly and forcefully to the public through news media about evidence and risks—and to do so in the face of rapidly changing news media norms that only complicate those communications. Professional science and environment journalists—whose ranks have been thinned steadily by media industry financial pressures—have meanwhile come under more scrutiny in terms of their understanding; accuracy; and, at times, perceived bias. A number of important organizations have recognized the need to educate and empower a broad range of scientists and journalists to be more effective at communicating about the complexities of climate science and about the societal and economic impacts of a warming climate. For example, organizations such as Climate Communication have been launched to support scientists in their dealings with media, while the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself has continued to focus on the communication of climate science. The Earth Journalism Network, Society of Environmental Journalists, Poynter Institute, and the International Center for Journalists have worked to build media capacity globally to cover climate change stories. Efforts at Stanford University, the University of Oxford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the University of Rhode Island sponsor programming and fellowships that in part help bolster journalism in this area. Through face-to-face workshops and online efforts, The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has sought to link the media and science communities. Meanwhile, powerful, widely read sites and blogs such as “Dot Earth,” hosted by the New York Times, Climate Central, Real Climate, The Conversation, and Climate Progress have fostered professional dialogue, greater awareness of science, and called attention to reporting and communications issues. Journalists and scientists have had ongoing conversations as part of the regular publication and reporting processes, and professional conferences and events bring the two communities together. Issues that continue to animate these discussions include conveying the degree to which climate science can be said to be “settled” and how to address uncertainty. Through some of these capacity-building efforts, news media have become increasingly aware of audience dynamics including how citizens respond to pessimistic reports, or “doom and gloom,” versus solutions-oriented reports. Professional dialogue has also revolved around the ethical dimensions of conveying a story at the level of global importance. Still, with issues of climate change communication on display for more than two decades now, certain tensions and dynamics persist. Notably, journalists seek clarity from scientists, while climate change experts and advocates for and against taking climate action often continue to demand that journalists resist the temptation to oversimplify or hype the latest empirical findings, while at the same time urging that journalists do not underestimate potential climate risks.
Among the factors that influence news decisions relative to climate change, journalistic background, professional norms, and culture are particularly important. There is empirical evidence that conservative journalists and media outlets are less likely to support the scientific consensus on climate change and more likely to promote climate change contrarianism. Journalists with less expertise on climate change may produce less accurate coverage, investigative journalists may be more critical towards science, and journalists with a positive attitude towards the subject of climate change may make it more salient in the news. There is also indication that climate journalists abandon the norm of balance and increasingly employ strategies of novelty, dramatization, personalization, and localization. The climate journalists also tend to synchronize their coverage to the policies of their governments. Finally, journalists from the interpretive community around the IPCC or from science-friendly cultures are more likely to support the consensus on climate change, while journalists from collectivist cultures are more likely to endorse binding international agreements.
For the general public, the news media are an important source of information about climate change. They have significant potential to influence public understanding and perceptions of the issue. Television news, because of its visual immediacy and authoritative presentation, is likely to be particularly influential. Numerous studies have shown that television news can affect public opinion directly and indirectly through processes such as agenda setting and framing. Moreover, even in a fragmented media environment largely dominated by online communication, television remains a prominent medium through which citizens follow news about science issues. Given this, scholars over the last several decades have endeavored to map the content of television news reporting on climate change and its effects on public opinion and knowledge. Results from this research suggest that journalists’ adherence to professional norms such as balance, novelty, dramatization, and personalization, along with economic pressures and sociopolitical influences, have produced inaccuracies and distortions in television news coverage of climate change. For example, content analyses have found that U.S. network television news stories tend to over-emphasize dramatic impacts and imagery, conflicts between political groups and personalities, and the uncertainty surrounding climate science and policy. At the same time, those skeptical of climate change have been able to exploit journalists’ norms of balance and objectivity to amplify their voices in television coverage of climate change. In particular, the increasingly opinionated 24-hour cable news networks have become a megaphone for ideological viewpoints on climate change. In the United States, a coordinated climate denial movement has used Fox News to effectively spread its message discrediting climate science. Coverage on Fox News is overwhelmingly dismissive of climate change and disparaging toward climate science and scientists. Coverage on CNN and MSNBC is more accepting of climate change; however, while MSNBC tends to vilify the conservative opposition to climate science and policy, and occasionally exaggerates the impacts of climate change, CNN sends more mixed signals. Survey and experimental analyses indicate that these trends in television news coverage of climate change have important effects on public opinion and may, in particular, fuel confusion and apathy among the general U.S. public and foster opinion extremity among strong partisans.
Hartmut Wessler, Julia Lück, and Antal Wozniak
The annual United Nations Climate Change Conferences, officially called Conferences of the Parties (COPs), are the main drivers of media attention to climate change around the world. Even more so than the Rio and Rio+20 “Earth Summits” (1992 and 2012) and the meetings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the COPs offer multiple access points for the communicative engagement of all kinds of stakeholders. COPs convene up to 20,000 people in one place for two weeks, including national delegations, civil society and business representatives, scientific organizations, representatives from other international organizations, as well as journalists from around the world. While intergovernmental negotiation under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) constitutes the core of COP business, these multifunctional events also offer arenas for civil society mobilization, economic lobbying, as well as expert communication and knowledge transfer. The media image of the COPs emerges as a product of distinct networks of coproduction constituted by journalists, professional communicators from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and national delegations. Production structures at the COPs are relatively globalized with uniform access rules for journalists from all over the world, a few transnational news agencies dominating distribution of both basic information and news visuals, and dense localized interaction between public relations (PR) professionals and journalists. Photo opportunities created by globally coordinated environmental NGOs meet the selection of journalists much better than the visual strategies pursued by delegation spokespeople. This gives NGOs the upper hand in the visual framing contest, whereas in textual framing NGOs are sidelined and national politicians clearly dominate media coverage. The globalized production environment leads to relatively similar patterns of basic news framing in national media coverage of the COPs that reflect overarching ways of approaching the topic: through a focus on problems and victims; a perspective on civil society demands and solutions; an emphasis on conflict in negotiations; or a focus on the benefits of clean energy production. News narratives, on the other hand, give journalists from different countries more leeway in adapting COP news to national audiences’ presumed interests and preoccupations. Even after the adoption of a new global treaty at COP21 in Paris in 2015 that specifies emission reduction targets for all participating countries, the annual UN Climate Change Conferences are likely to remain in the media spotlight. Future research could look more systematically at the impact of global civil society and media in monitoring the national contributions to climate change mitigation introduced in the Paris Agreement and shoring up even more ambitious commitments needed to reach the goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius as compared to pre-industrial levels.